Seven Lessons Learned in Hurricane Harvey Donation Management

Photo by Tom Muir

Imagine a category 4 hurricane roars through your town with the furious force of wind and rain, causing floods, ripping roofs and walls off of buildings, blowing down power cables, and eliminating basic resources. No electricity, overwhelmed fire department and police, gas shortages, no functioning hospitals.

This is exactly what happened in Rockport, Texas last week (Aug 2017), but then something wonderful followed…

Disasters can, and often do, bring out the best in people. The amount of generosity we witnessed in Rockport was emotionally overwhelming, and systematically overwhelming. We literally didn’t know how to get all that stuff sorted and distributed to families fast enough.

We had to invent a solution, and you will too, if you become a disaster survivor or if you choose to donate your time, or contribute in any way to a disaster recovery.

For Disaster Survivors

You are a survivor! Not a victim. You, and only you, know what you need, have the strength and the courage to recover. The storm is gone and every step now is a step forward in recovery.

At the end of the day, the first people who respond to a disaster and the last people to help in recovery are your neighbors.

It is your community that will define the recovery, and the responsibility of outside responders, volunteers, and donors is to follow your lead, and they want to!

There will be an overwhelming amount of generosity in the form of food donations, other goods, services, people who just show from hundreds of miles away “to help” because they’ve been watching your community on the news.

Piles of clothing and other donations will amass in parking lots or fields, water bottles will sprout from the ground, and vehicles will line up to donate truckloads of goods, and as amazing as this is, the clothes will mold, the donations will be rained on, and the trucks will move on, so it is hugely important to manage the incoming generosity as best as you can.

  1. Get in touch with the local Emergency Operation Center (EOC). Try your best to hook up with the official response effort, but don’t worry too much if you can’t find them. You may be distributing donations before they show up.
  2. Communicate with donors. Use social media, the news. Use everything you can, and tell donors, specifically, what you need. This may change over time. Water first, things like cleaning supplies later.
  3. Get the word out to people who need donations in your community. If you are managing the distribution of donations, people need to know when, where, and how to get stuff. Also, they might want to volunteer and help you.
  4. Make your operation efficient. Are you storing and distributing from a warehouse? Great! Keep things organized and smooth. Are you setting up a donation street or port, with people giving things away right from their trucks or boats? Also, great! Make sure to keep things running smoothly and minimizing wait times for donors and those receiving donations.
  5. Define your policies. It might help you to have very strict hours, or strict quantities in order to be fair to those receiving donations. It may help you prevent fights and arguments. You’re going to want to be consistent with your policies, and not change them too much. Make it easy for people, and make it easy on yourself.
  6. Track volunteer hours. You’ll want to know how much work went into your efforts, and in certain countries, those hours can even bring money into your community.
  7. Remember why you’re doing this. It’s not simply about getting stuff to people, it’s about coming together as a community. Make sure your volunteers take breaks, smile at those receiving donations. This is ten times more important than if then shortening someone’s wait time by ten minutes. You will witness tears of gratitude and joy. That’s what it’s about!

Share your stories : ) Make a social media page, make videos and share them, host dinners and listen to your neighbors stories. These stories are what gives meaning to your recovery and your community post disaster. Your stories will inspire others to be strong in their recoveries.

For Volunteers & Donors

If you have family or friends who’ve just gone through a disaster, or if you you just feel that you have to help, here’s what we learned on how to be the most helpful.

  1. Help the way the community needs help, not how you assume they need help! Get in touch directly with people on the ground before doing anything. Survivors can tell you better than anyone what they need.
  2. Support and empower them. As much as possible, help the community get its own capabilities up and running. Don’t become a dependency. You will leave, and the community will need to be able to stand on its own two feet. Transfer your knowledge before you go.
  3. Don’t be a drain. Bring your own resources. Don’t drink their limited supply of clean water, and be careful not to get injured. Their clinics and hospitals are already strained.
  4. Be ready to do anything: Clean mold, carry boxes, play games with children, hand out food, unload trucks, direct traffic, lend a shoulder to people. It’s a disaster. Hands and hearts are in short supply.
  5. Don’t bring children or pets. Yes, a recovery effort is inspiring, but it’s not a place that is safe for children or pets, and it’s a tax on already limited resources.
  6. Be a link to others. If you can solicit a specific kind of help that the community can’t, lend that connection.
  7. Remember why you’re doing this. You’re not there just to help clean a mess. You’re showing people in a dark and desperate time that we care about one another. That we’re here for one another. So, make eye contact, give hugs, share meals, and listen to people.

You won’t be able to solve every problem, but by being there, and helping people, you’re giving them hope, in a time when they need it most.

A disaster is not the end, it’s a new beginning. Of what… You get to decide.

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I worked as part of the Field Innovation Team on this deployment. you can learn more about them here: http://fieldinnovationteam.org