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Disaster relief volunteering

When disaster strikes: Considerations for helping relief efforts

When natural or human-caused disasters strike, people look for ways to contribute to the relief of the survivors.

As we struggle to find ways to help our fellow human beings in places that are often far from our homes, we must weigh our options, and our feelings, carefully.

Before heading to a disaster area, consider the complexities of the situation. This article gives you a few issues to think about as you look to get involved in the disaster response.

Donations first

Often, the fastest way to assist disaster victims is to donate money to a charity that is responding to the disaster.

Many charities like the Red Cross/Red Crescent or Oxfam specialize in providing relief in acute disaster areas, yet they face significant financial barriers to getting their staff, equipment, and supplies to the affected regions.

Your donation helps put experienced disaster responders on the ground, and gives them the tools they need to help victims recover.

Organizations typically prefer cash donations to material items for several reasons. Cash donations allow organizations to:

  • purchase food, water, medicine, and equipment from secure and familiar supply chains
  • buy materials locally — which can help rebuild the local economy
  • conserve resources — money is always necessary and cheap to send, but the cost to ship material supplies (that may not be useful) can be expensive.

Others ways of helping out close to home

If you aren't in a financial position to donate, you can still help the relief effort in a variety of ways, often right in your own community.

For instance, you can contribute to the disaster response effort by:

  • collecting cash or necessary material donations
  • volunteering at the local office of a charity that has sent staff to the affected area
  • organizing other initiatives in your community that raise awareness about, and funding for, the relief effort.

Running a food drive, organizing a benefit, collecting clothes and supplies, or lobbying community leaders to support the relief effort can all generate tangible results for disaster victims.

Check out our section on DIY volunteering for tips on how to create your own volunteer project.

Risks of volunteering in the disaster zone

For some people, donating money or volunteering locally feels too passive, or may not be financially possible.

Seeing images of disaster may compel you to head to the affected area and assist victims directly.

However, don't underestimate the complexity of working in a disaster area — which may slow or damage relief efforts in the process.

While opportunities exist to take an active role in disaster response, you should consider several crucial issues:

Cost-benefit analysis

Bear in mind that volunteering to respond at the crisis scene isn't going to be free.

Consider the costs of traveling safely to the disaster zone and finding your own lodging, medical attention, water, and food. Despite your best intentions, you may end up being one more person for relief organizations to take care of — and wasting money that could be spent rebuilding.

Going it alone vs. going with support

Experienced professionals with specialized knowledge and skills can undoubtedly improve relief efforts, often by plugging short-term holes in the existing efforts.

But quite soon after a disaster, individual responses can also lead to the unnecessary duplication of efforts and can run into significant viability problems.

Relief agencies (like these listed by HelpInDisaster.org) are effective in part because they have significant support infrastructure behind their field programs to ensure that their efforts can be sustained for the longest possible period.

If you have local knowledge or special skills, a relief agency may have a way to incorporate you into their relief effort. Your best bet is contacting them directly and asking.

Although you may confront some initial bureaucracy by joining a larger effort, you will likely be able to sustain your efforts much longer working with a dedicated team supporting you.

Are you logistically and physically prepared for this?

Despite your best intentions, your presence may compound, rather than alleviate, the problems in the disaster area. Why?

Disaster areas are usually characterized by a severe breakdown in the supply of food, water, medicine, and shelter.

Likewise, you may need special clothing, transport, and other equipment just to get into the affected region, let alone stay there.

Disease can spread quickly in disaster areas, and you are likely to need immunizations or emergency medication for such illnesses as malaria, cholera, dengue, yellow fever, gastro-enteritis, and dysentery, among others.

Disaster areas can also be the scene of crimes of desperation or the products of violent conflict, so you must also consider your personal security.

Finally, depending on the tasks at hand, disaster responders can put in long shifts with little rest, so your physical fortitude and your health status are also important considerations.

If you are not prepared on all these fronts and opt to head to a disaster area anyway, you may quickly end up in distress yourself, unwittingly detracting from the efficacy of the relief efforts.

Are you emotionally prepared for this?

There's more to disaster relief work than logistical and physical challenges.

Disaster survivors who have lost their homes, possessions, and loved ones, or who have witnessed acts of violence and degradation, are likely to suffer feelings of anguish, anger, remorse, and pain, and may experience symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

In other words, disaster victims have physical as well as emotional needs, and relief workers must attempt to address both.

If you aren't emotionally prepared for the overwhelming stress of working in a disaster area and assisting disaster victims, you may experience many of these emotional conditions yourself. Idealist.org created a resource for aid workers that helps them prepare for the special stress that they typically experience in the field, available at Psychosocial.org.

If you do head to the field, keep tabs on the emotional well-being of yourself and your fellow relief workers: the ability to remain emotionally stable in trying circumstances is crucial to the success of the relief effort.

Are you "legally" prepared for this?

Though it may be the furthest thing from your mind in the aftermath of a disaster, you need to consider the legal regime of the country where the disaster has occurred.

  • For example, if you're traveling abroad to assist with a disaster in another country, do you need a passport, or a visa, to enter? Will authorities allow you into the affected region?
  • Will you need documentation to prove your qualifications as a relief worker?

It's important to realize that the chaotic images you see of the disaster area may be quite localized, and that the laws governing that region may otherwise be in effect, even if these seem to be an impediment to the urgent response. Simply put, without the right papers and permissions, you may never even get close to the disaster area.

By all means, volunteer. But consider the timing!

Despite your initial desire to help, you may be far more effective as a long-haul volunteer rather than a first responder.

That is, long after the disaster's immediate aftermath, as the victims struggle to rebuild their communities, they will still need assistance. And that may be the best time for you to head to the region, especially because many of the more immediate challenges no longer inhibit your ability to help out.

If you're going abroad, the extra time may also allow you to improve your knowledge of the local language and customs, which both increase your ability to assist the victims. Wherever you go, volunteering your skills as a teacher, a builder, a doctor, or any number of other professions can offer affected communities a resource that they may never have had before, or one that was tragically lost as a result of the disaster.

It's worth recalling that victims don't stop being victims just because they're no longer in the news.

Final thoughts

The impulse to help when other people are suffering is commendable, showing the best qualities of humanity.

But there should be no illusion about disaster volunteering, either: it is dangerous, stressful work often in extreme environments. Many people simply aren't prepared to handle working with disaster victims and coping with the many challenges of even a short time spent in a disaster area.

The point of highlighting these concerns is not to discourage you from getting involved in a disaster relief effort, but rather to try to ensure that you get involved in the way most suited to your abilities.

In the rush of emotion that comes with news of a disaster, do yourself—and the victims—a service by carefully considering whether you will be a help or a hindrance if and when you get to the disaster area.

Also consider whether contributing—financially or as a volunteer in your community—to disaster relief, or volunteering in disaster areas some time after the initial catastrophe, might not serve the relief effort more efficiently. Think carefully about how you can best assist the victims, and then act.