The 2011 tornado that ripped through Joplin, Mo. took 161 lives and leveled homes and businesses across its 13-mile (21-kilometer) path of devastation [source: City of Joplin]. Average citizens across America responded with an outpouring of charity, shipping boxes of clothing, food, and odds and ends to the grieving survivors. But as the donations poured in, a new crisis was created -- what to do with all of this stuff? As one Joplin relief worker put it, "We have been overwhelmed by disorganized generosity" [source: Holguín-Veras].
Imagine a large warehouse full of boxes of every shape, size and weight. Some of have been shrink-wrapped, labeled and loaded on pallets for easy transportation and storage, but others are entirely unlabeled and sealed with 47 strips of Scotch tape. Think of the volunteer man power and hours required to open and empty each of these boxes, identify the contents, sort the usable from the unusable, repack the good stuff, transport it to the right location and dispose of the junk.
FEMA strongly encourages people to refrain from shipping mixed boxes of relief supplies to disaster areas. The effort required to sort unsolicited donations is a strain on volunteer resources and a waste of funds (yours, the government's, and relief organizations'). If you coordinate with a relief agency to donate a specific item, make sure that your boxes are well-packed and sealed, and that the contents of the boxes are clearly labeled on the outside, saving the need to open them up.