So You Want to Go Help after a Major Disaster…
The whole world seems like it’s on fire right now. If you’re in the Pacific Northwest, that’s not just a simile, some of the worst wildfires in decades are burning from Shasta up to British Columbia. For those in Mexico, the largest earthquake in over a century just leveled Chiapas and Oaxaca. Peruvians are recovering from flooding that affected millions earlier this year. And in the Caribbean and along the Gulf Coast, communities are struggling with a spate of Hurricanes and flooding that may be the costliest in US history.
But you’re not the type to just sit back and watch the world burn. You want to help. You’re going to do something about these situations, and lend a helping hand. Maybe you’ll go volunteer after one of these disasters. Maybe you’ll just send supplies. Surely they need every bit of help they can get…
Well, yes and no. The important thing to realize is that disasters have a general timeline that’s pretty straight-forward, and while each is unique in it’s own ways there are phases that we can generalize about that will help you best know how to respond.
The following is an introduction to the phases of disaster and what to expect if you decide to go and volunteer in person or send supplies. For reference, I worked for 3 months after the Asian Tsunami in 2005, for a year after Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast of the United States from 2005–2006, and for 5 months after the Pisco earthquake in 2007–2008. I coordinated between dozens of relief groups, was briefly the safety director for all of Mississippi’s faith based organizations, helped coauthor the largest mold remediation field study in history, and assisted with many of the procedures and protocols that became the official National Civilian Conservation Corps disaster relief training program. I’m speaking from some experience, and I’m about to get back in the saddle given the current swarm of disasters. So maybe I’ll see you down there!
Without further ado, here’s what you can expect during and after a disaster:
Phase 0 — During the disaster.
If a major disaster is currently happening in your area, you are in trouble. We’re not talking a localized one that damages a neighborhood or two. We’re talking catastrophic, statewide or regional disasters on the scale of either Harvey or Irma, or a massive earthquake or tsunami. The kind local resources are incapable of sufficiently responding to.
Most likely, you’ve evacuated with your loved ones and what valuables you could rescue, and you’re waiting it out until the storm passes. That is if you had warning like in the case of a storm or tsunami. If the disaster is sudden and without warning, like an earthquake, flash flood, or wildfire, you may not have been given a heads up. Seek shelter, stay safe, and evacuate safely if possible! Make sure you have enough supplies (especially water) in case utilities go out and it takes a few days to restore basic services. Don’t go to high ground with no exit (like an attic with no window or door egress). Rescuers don’t want to find you drowned because you didn’t plan ahead, think of your friends and family!
There’s not really much of a role for volunteers in areas currently being affected by a disaster, other than opening up homes to refugees and battening down the hatches in surrounding areas. Preparedness is key, don’t wait until a disaster is happening to come up with an evacuation plan and securing emergency supplies!
Phase 1 — Rescue
A major disaster just happened and now everything is destroyed. Buildings are leveled, trees and signs are downed, water and rubble may be everywhere. People are trapped in that rubble. They need rescue. Roads are blocked, either by detritus, or by national guardsmen or reservists. A state of emergency is declared.
In come the professionals. This is NOT the time for unskilled volunteers. Disaster rescue is dangerous, timely work, requiring specific training and equipment. First responders, military personnel, police, firemen, national guardsmen, coast guard, and specialty groups like the Cajun Navy will coordinate with FEMA and other disaster management agencies to search, rescue, and evacuate those unlucky enough to have been at ground zero when the shit hit the fan.
Don’t go and get in their way. It may take hours, it may take days for them to finish their work. If you have specific training and certification (such as CERT or NERT), contact a rescue operation to see if they can incorporate you into their efforts. Frequently, they need a pre-existing relationship with you, though some disasters (including current ones like Harvey and Irma) are so calamitous that they exceed the capacity of the professionals and end up relying on rescue volunteers in significant quantities.
If you show up in the rescue phase after a major disaster unannounced, expect to be turned away. It’s not personal, they just don’t have the time or resources to accommodate you. The rescue phase, by its very nature, only lasts a few days. People can only survive without food and water for so long. Be patient, find some other avenue to volunteer in until one of the coming stages, or work in an area not as heavily impacted until the First Responders give an “All Clear”.
Phase 2 — Relief
After (and oftentimes while) Community Emergency Response Teams complete the search and rescue operations, the Relief phase begins. Relief is providing immediate necessities to displaced residents: Food, water, shelter, clothing, toiletries, etc.
This can be a huge undertaking. Sometimes hundreds of thousands or even millions of people are impacted by a single disaster. There are some massive organizations that deploy to specifically address housing and feeding all of the disaster refugees: The Red Cross, FEMA, Salvation Army, myriad faith based organizations, and more.
Generally, these organizations have broad fundraising networks and narrow operational focus. That means they have lots of resources to disburse, but focus on just a few things that they do very well. They generally have established volunteer training programs and background checking procedures that preclude them from taking on unannounced volunteers. If you want to work with the Red Cross or one of the large relief groups after a disaster, contact them BEFORE a disaster occurs and participate in readiness and preparedness training.
If you show up as an untrained volunteer and expect them to take you on, you will be disappointed. For a variety of reasons, these multinational NGOs just can’t. But fear not! They are not the only relief organizations. There are a whole panoply of needs after a major disaster that mean it is impossible for the Red Cross to address all of them, even in the relief stage where they focus.
One of the biggest issues in the relief phase is that there are TOO MANY resources flooding in. Truckloads of unsolicited clothing, toiletries, and food barrel down on impacted areas, oftentimes without a specific destination or plan other than “to help”. Many are waved off from the major relief centers, so they end up linking up with whoever will unload their goods, oftentimes in ad hoc distribution nodes established by smaller groups or enterprising local residents.
For consumables like food, water, fuel, and toiletries, this is a good problem to have. If you can help clear out a destroyed church hall, drive a forklift, work a pallet jack, and stack goods, you can probably be of great short term utility in the relief phase. It’s not the most lasting impact (you’re just stacking food and diapers in a temporary warehouse), but it’s something, and it’s helpful. Clothes are another thing altogether.
For some reason, many people don’t actually consider WHY they’re sending clothing when they do after a disaster. “Those poor Caribbean people need my wool overcoat in the middle of summer!” they must think. Bags and bags and bags of donated clothing swamp impacted areas after a disaster, oftentimes inappropriate seasonally or culturally. Most distribution points reject them, because after a bag is opened once, searched through, then again, all the folding (if it was folded/clean) is undone, and now it’s a whole lot of work to make accessible. If they’re not stored indoors, it only takes a single rain, and then you have a truckload of bags of rotting clothes that can take volunteers days to load into dumpsters.
If you do decide to help with clothes (bless your heart), bring racks. Bring hangers. Bring tables. Find or build an indoor space in the affected area where you can set it all up. People DO need clothes after a major disaster, but few volunteer groups are actually equipped to handle the folding, sorting, and organizing of all the donations. Just don’t get too upset with the donors when you see what they sent.
There’s one other thing that you can help with in the few days and weeks (but really few days) after a disaster, when relief is ongoing and rescue has wrapped up. If you can get into the affected area, and there was water introduced in a flood or a storm, drying things out right away makes a HUGE difference. It’s not easy, because oftentimes rescuers won’t even LET you get in, but the difference between getting all your soaked possessions out in the sun drying in the first few days, and letting them stew and mold and mildew for weeks is huge. It’s usually only possible in smaller disasters, where the damage is localized and the victims can get back in within the first few days, but trust me, if you can dry the stuff and houses out quickly, it makes the next stage much easier.
Phase 3 — Recovery
So rescue is complete, displaced victims are fed, clothed, and housed, now what? Rebuild?
Not so fast! Everything is FUBAR. All the trees are knocked over, the houses are piles of half-rubble, roads are blocked or destroyed, utilities and services are knocked out. You’re not going to be rebuilding anything until you finish what mother nature started.
That’s right, a half-knocked over building or tree needs to either be straightened up, or fully knocked down. It’s time to break out the crowbars, sledgehammers, and chainsaws, and get to work.
As I said in the last section, if water has been introduced, the sooner recovery can begin, the better. Even clean water becomes “black water” within 72 hours of exposure to a porous surface (carpet, drywall, etc). Mold, mildew, and other forms of rot quickly overtake everything, and chemical contaminants can also complicate things. There’s a huge need to get in there and get gutting, and there are dozens of volunteer groups who’ll happily send you in with little to no training.
If you can, get training. It doesn’t take much to swing a sledgehammer or push a wheelbarrow, but things like proper chainsaw operation, or safe practices for working in a moldy, chemical (think asbestos, lead, mercury, benzene, etc) filled environment are really useful. You’ll need safety gear, and tools. Many organizations will provide them, and if you can, try to get them to link up with professionals to train you on how to use them.
There are numerous organizations that do top notch recovery work. All Hands (hands.org) has been in operation since the Tsunami in Asia, and provide food, housing, and training for volunteers once you go through their application process. CAN-Do.org also do great work after disasters. Burners Without Borders have multiple relief and recovery camps operating along the Gulf Coast to help with Harvey and Irma relief, and excel as heavy equipment operators and detailed demolitions and rebuilding experts. There is also a relief group or two for every possible religious denomination or persuasion, and many of them do phenomenal work.
So what’s to keep all these organizations from stepping on each others’ toes and duplicating efforts? Well, if there isn’t a coordination center, nothing! That’s exactly what happens. Victims of a disaster, if given the opportunity, will apply for help from all of them, and it’s not uncommon for a work crew to show up at a job site and find it already completed by another organization. This is where local and regional coordination centers come in!
One of the most useful things in the aftermath of a disaster is a local coordination center. A place where volunteer groups can go to plug in with local leadership, coordinate efforts, ensure that all the needs are being addressed, and resources are being shared and not squandered or hoarded. They oftentimes are created organically, and some governments and organizations are prepared and come in with plans and locations already worked out. That is not always the case though. Frequently, after a major disaster, the existing infrastructure and emergency planning is insufficient for the scale of the damage, and additional coordination centers are necessary. If you can help build one, or volunteer in one, you’ll be helping long after you leave the area.
But I just want to smash and chop stuff! Ok, then connect with an organization that is tied in with a local or regional coordination center, and get to work! There is probably plenty of chainsawing, tree hauling, crowbar swinging, and sledge smashing to be done before people can rebuild.
Just pace yourself, you can easily exceed your physical and mental capacity in under a week. You’re no good to the recovery efforts if you have a mental breakdown. Don’t laugh, it happens ALL THE TIME. We used to give people 4 days before they’d crack after Katrina. If you show up thinking you’re going to fix everything in a few days, the harsh realities will quickly overwhelm you. Burnout and PTSD plague recovery workers, and the best way to avoid them is to take care of yourself. Take breaks, spend weekends unwinding if you can, and remember to be kind to yourself and others. It’s not easy saving the world. Don’t be afraid to actually have some fun, taking it all too seriously is a surefire way to burnout and have to leave.
One of the last things worth mentioning about the Recovery Phase is that as the large and professional rescue and relief organizations pull out when their services are needed elsewhere, it creates a vacuum. Locals can feel abandoned, and the scope of work needed to rebuild can get overwhelming. It may have been months since the disaster, and the work seems to just be getting started right as the most well funded organizations pull out and the authorities run out of cash. It’s an optimal time to make a contribution, either with money or time, so don’t feel like you need to rush to help right as a disaster is occurring.
Phase 4 — Rebuilding and Renewal
The recovery phase can take months and years to wrap up after a sufficiently catastrophic disaster. It’s really just a clearing of the slate though, in preparation for the final and most important stage: rebuilding.
Rebuilding means pouring concrete, laying foundations, replacing roofs, putting in floors and drywall and plumbing and electrical, etc. It’s a massive undertaking- for each structure. And oftentimes, it has to be completed hundreds or even thousands of times after a major disaster.
So who’s paying for all this? The locals? Their insurance? FEMA? Good question! It’s different in every situation, every country, every organization. Sometimes it can take months or years for that question to get answered. It’s often complicated by things like revised flood plain maps, redevelopment plans and strategies, local politics, climate change, etc. Sometimes you can do weeks and months of work only to find out that the ownership or title to a project wasn’t as secure as you’d thought, and now it all needs to be torn down.
I’m not trying to dissuade anyone from helping rebuild, but just remember that there are many considerations that go into when, where, how, and what to rebuild. The why is obvious, people need their homes back. But those other questions will impact your rebuilding choices. This is a great time to bring sustainable building technologies into the area, or at the very least locally appropriate best practices.
One thing that is also part of this phase is renewal. Individual homes aren’t the only things destroyed in a major disaster, community spaces are as well. Parks, schools, clinics, public squares, churches, and more are all in need of recovery, rebuilding, and revitalization. One of the most cathartic moments after a disaster can be the whole community coming together to clean up their public spaces and celebrating together.
So while you’re waiting for the locals to sort out financing and title and flood plains and appropriate building technologies, there are plenty of renewal projects that need your attention. The most important thing is to connect with those locals though. Ask questions! Listen! Don’t think you have the answers, the solutions to their problems have to come from them, or they’ll just fall apart when you leave. Make sure any group you work with has local governmental and organizational contacts to ensure that the projects you are doing will last when you’re gone. Don’t volunteer ideas until you’ve listened to the ones the locals have. If a door opens for you because you’re an aid worker, make sure you hustle 3 locals through it that otherwise wouldn’t be able to get into that meeting.
I can’t stress that last point enough. It can feel good to come in with some awesome building or energy technology, and do a bunch of work and build a bunch of stuff, but if you don’t have local buy-in, it’s all wasted effort. You absolutely have to make sure that what you’re doing is what the locals want, and what they need. The only way you’ll know that is if you shut up and listen. Let them tell you what they’re going through. Give them emotional and mental support while you give them your ideas and your labor. The cultural exchange, and the support you give them, will be remembered long after the projects you worked on are forgotten.
Tree plantings, street cleanups, bike giveaways, mural paintings, park restorations, parades, school rebuilds, all of these projects may not seem like the priorities that you went down to help with in the first place, but at a certain point they’re every bit as necessary. Help with them. Have fun! Rebuilding can take months and years to complete. Disaster work is tough, enjoy those times when you can blow off some steam and connect and celebrate with the locals.
So I hope this guide to the 4/5 phases of disasters has been helpful. Know that all of this is just my opinion and perspective from doing the work for several years. There are many who’ve kept with it for decades. If you’re lucky, you can link up with some of these old guard badasses, and learn even more from them than you could from some article. Each disaster is different too. In the case of smaller, more localized catastrophes, they can be cleaned up and rebuilding completed in a few days and weeks.
Major catastrophic disasters are a whole different animal. They tap resources and stretch logistics to the breaking point, and it’s after those that you can be of most assistance. Your help might not be needed right away either, the later stages of recovery and rebuilding can take weeks and months to begin, and can last for years. If you can’t go now, but still want to help, go later — especially if you have skills and training in the construction trades!
Also, the real final phase of disaster response is mitigation and preparation. There are countless things you can do in peaceful times to prepare yourself for when catastrophe strikes. Training, supplies, community organization, best building practices, and more can make the heartache and destruction after a disaster so much more manageable.
But for the ongoing disaster response efforts happening now, every relief, recovery and rebuilding group could use your financial support. I’d like to personally recommend Hands.org, Burnerswithoutborders.org, and Can-do.org. Feel free to suggest more in the comments.
Thanks for reading, and good luck! We’re all counting on you.