It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Here’s what to expect, and what you can do, to help recover after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, from someone who spent nine months in gulf coast after Hurricane Katrina.

WHAT TO EXPECT:

  • it will get much, much worse. It will take WEEKS to establish all the needed supply lines and distribution depots. The federal government is not built to deliver the scope of aid that will be needed. Private aid is CRITICAL.
  • this is going to be a long effort, which will first be about immediate relief (food, water, shelter) but then transition to the longer recovery efforts. Volunteers will be vital to help those communities recover, through the hard work of clearing out debris and damage from homes, as well as taking care of the needs of the community ( like child care and places for education and entertainment ) through the long months ahead.
  • distinguish your help between relief and recovery. Relief is a blanket and hot coffee, it’s handing out food and diapers and tarps. Recovery is gutting homes to the studs and rebuilding them. Both are important. Completely different scale and timeline.
  • if you are sending relief supplies in a truck, think about how much work will be needed to sort it. Making individual kits of supplies may seem like it makes sense, but full boxes of like items are far easier to sort and manage on the other end. The things you send will likely end up in ad hoc, improvisational relief centers, so the less effort required to get it from your truck to someone’s hands, the better.

  • Clothing donations will feel good but overwhelm volunteers. If you are going to send them, make sure they are CLEAN and locationaly appropriate- no down coats for Florida, etc. After a few weeks post Katrina we were literally bulldozing unneeded donations. Sort them by size.

  • The exception to this is diapers. They are in short supply, expensive, and if you have had kids you know you can’t go a single day without. We couldn’t ever keep them in stock.
  • Recovery will take a *long* time, and there won’t be anywhere near enough volunteers. The highest impact aid will be that which enables volunteers to stay in the field. The most fungible tool is cash. It doesn’t have to be massive -organizing dinner parties and raising ~$100 dollars has really impact and value. People on the ground can decided best what is most valuable. Generators and modular structures ( carports) also hugely helpful.

  • small direct action groups with a proven track record of success and very clear accountability for donations that you can feel good supporting:

1- Team Rubicon. “Disasters are our business. Veterans are our passion.” Unites the skills and experiences of military veterans with first responders to rapidly deploy emergency response teams. Think big men ( and women) with chainsaws. https://teamrubiconusa.org/donate/

2- Can-Do.org CAN-DO (Compassion into Action Network — Direct Outcome Organization) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that donors can count on to get the job done. From natural disasters to humanitarian crises, we provide critical aid to communities who need it most in a timely and transparent manner. We are not tied down by politics or bureaucracy, and do not delay delivery of lifesaving resources by getting caught up in the red tape. We are dedicated to providing lasting, self-sustainable solutions for people facing some of the world’s most critical problems. We go anywhere in the world and do whatever it takes to get the job done.https://can-do.org/donate/

3- Burners Without Borders. Diverse, local chapter based group, comprised largely of volunteers that attend the annual Burning Man event, which requires surviving in a harsh environment. They are especially good with heavy machinery and recovery work.

  • if you are helping clear out the wreckage of someone’s home, remember you’re elbow deep in the most private space/things in their lives. be respectful, and recover any mementos you safely can ( photos, china, etc ) with humility. and understand if they’re not able to express gratitude-this isn’t about you.
 
  • related: anyone in the impacted areas that is on medication of any kind now limited to what they have on hand or on their body. With pharmacies closed and prescriptions lost, it could be weeks before they can get the medication they need. Expect dehydration, hunger, lack of sleep, and anxiety to combine with withdrawal to create very unstable people. Empathy and awareness crucial. People literally won’t be in control of their faculties and may not be able to provide self care or control their behavior.
  • mental impact on victims and volunteers will be significant. We are not culturally attuned to this level of damage. Patience and empathy key. They have lost agency and will need space/time to tell/process their story.
  • predators of all stripes flock to situations like this. They thrive on the chaos. Vigilance is critical. If you see something that doesn’t feel right, ACT.
  • recovery is dirty work and can be dangerous. Wear gloves and heavy shoes-infection and nails etc will be everywhere.
  • small groups of volunteers ( church groups, Can-DO, Burners Without Borders, etc) can have real impact provided they maintain focus, set/maintain priorities, and are responsive to local needs not their own agenda-don’t build a playground if what really need is a classroom. The Red Cross is massive and gets attention, but exclusively does relief- the recovery is up to people like you.
  • local authorities will want to exert control and try to establish order. these people are going to be overwhelmed. be patient with them, but don’t let their need to feel in control impede your work — find something useful to do while they try to figure out how to handle the crushing decisions they are trying to make while their entire world is falling apart.
  • community leaders ( pastors ) know what their people need, seek their advice. be sure to give your aid without regard to race, gender, background, etc — now is not the time for your bias, if there ever is.
  • wealthy / famous people will want to help. They have enormous convening authority and can bring huge resources to bear, but they are NOT the story. Keep focus on the work. As an example of doing it right: following Katrina Ryan Gosling and his girlfriend Rachel McAdams showed up in Biloxi, MS and volunteered with BWB clearing debris and working with kids — it was weeks before anyone realized they were anything other than two very hard working and generous young people trying to help.
  • this is a long game. Katrina debris removal was still active seven months after the storm. This is order of magnitude worse- expect 2+year recovery. Think about it — every single impacted building will have to have all the furnishings ripped out and hauled away, and the sheet rock removed below the water line, then be completely dried out, then completely rebuilt and refurbished/repainted. Imagine needing to do that to your whole street. Now imagine needing to do it for your whole city. Now imagine doing all of that with volunteers, and finding the materials to do it, and the supplies to sustain the volunteers. Now imagine that being a statewide project. THAT is the scope of the problem we face.
  • the work will first be about immediate relief (food, water, shelter) but then transition to the longer recovery efforts. Volunteers will be critical to help those communities recover, through the hard work of clearing out debris and damage from homes, as well as taking care of the needs of the community ( like child care and places for education and entertainment ) through the long months ahead.
  • to reiterate- there is NO state/local/federal entity which is designed or tasked to manage and deliver recovery on a personal level. None. They will be looking to private groups to funnel aid to. The only other option they have is massive contracts which cost enormous amounts ( but can scale ). Both are needed. So if you are part of a group considering going, you should. Expect 2–4 weeks before coordinating bodies set up to manage volunteers. Don’t wait to be told what to do-pick a place to start, and start.
  • anyone can help, regardless of background. BWB had one volunteer who mostly worked to create and maintain WIFI networks, and help victims recover digital data. Others only worked with kids. Someone needs to cook food. Some sorted supplies. It all needs to be done.
  • if you are going, take everything you need to survive. All of it: food, water, shelter, sanitation, power, everything. Absent that you are a burden or local resources. Imagine you’re going camping in the back country wilderness, because in a way you are, and pack accordingly.

Final thought is this — if you have an instinct to help, follow it. If your church group or Boy Scout Troop wants to go, go. If you want to pass the hat at your office, do it. All of it will be needed, and much more. Do it.