Disaster Relief Essentials for First-Timers

What you need to know before you or your small organization pack up and head out to help.

As founders of an organization working in Nepal, we now have experience with both an earthquake and flooding. We have brought relief to some of the most vulnerable people on earth in a place where infrastructure is weak on the best of days. However, many of the lessons learned can apply to any group of individuals or small organizations in any location that feel the call to help those in need.

Disaster situations are often chaotic and conditions change rapidly, but these guidelines can help you navigate some of the unexpected challenges that come about when doing this work and bring the most benefit to the people you are trying to serve.

Flood scene in Nepal.

Choosing where to help

If the disaster is not in your immediate local area, local contacts are a must. They will be the ones to keep you updated and what is most needed, where, and for how many people.

If you are coming from a distance to help, look for places that have not been featured on the media. The media tends to congregate in one spot and that location will likely receive an overflow of donations and volunteers, while other places out of the spotlight do not receive any help.

It is a good idea to keep the local authorities apprised of what you are doing. In Nepal, it is a requirement, but in other locations it is also recommended. There may be dangerous areas that they will want you to avoid so that you don’t also become a strain on resources. They will also be aware of the most urgent needs and can direct you to those locations.

What to bring

This is where the local contacts come into play. During the earthquake relief phase, our team saw scattershot operations. Some areas had an abundance of tarps and no food, while others didn’t need food but had no essential medicines.

For our flood relief, we consulted local authorities and put together a survival box that has everything a family needs for immediate survival from blankets to cooking utensils.

Purchasing supplies as close to the delivery point as possible (if available), will dramatically reduce the major cost of transportation. In the case of in-kind good donations, you may have to consider how much the cost of transporting these goods will be compared the value and utility of the goods.

This brings up the subject of clothing donation. Only accept clothing donations if you have a great deal of space and volunteers to deal with the influx. Many people use this as a chance to clean out their closets without considering whether their donation has use for people in an emergency situation. Without a large group of volunteers, you could find yourself fishing through bags of bridesmaid dresses and high heels looking for something that people sleeping in a shelter might actually need.

Clothing sorted, packed and labelled for distribution in the Sangsangai office Kathmandu.

If you do have the capacity, the clothing needs to be packed according to sizes and whether it is for men, women or kids. Once you arrive in the affected area, there will be little space for digging through piles to find clothing that matches what each person needs.

Who should be involved

Building a coalition of organizations and individuals is high on the list of first steps. One organization may have experienced local staff, another may have a large amount of volunteers, another may have funds earmarked for this disaster. By working together, many of the hurdles can be cleared by leaning on each groups strong point. Joint fundraising will also generate momentum much faster than many individuals collecting funds on their own.

Clear planning and communication can help to build trust quickly and even under emergency circumstances. Taking the time to create a short signed agreement outlining each group’s responsibilities can help save much time and confusion during the operation.

Despite the fact the many people want to immediately travel to the affected areas and help the victims in person, the amount of people who actually go should be as few as possible to complete the intended mission, especially on the first trip.

Delivering relief supplies after the Nepal earthquake in 2015.

Sending many people into an emergency creates the situation where the care of those volunteers may take away resources from the victims. Also, the people who go should have prior experience living in difficult and sparse conditions. The middle of a disaster is not the time to figure out that you really cannot bear to sleep on a mat in a school hallway and eat uncooked instant noodles for dinner.

Emotional preparation

One of the benefits you offer to the survivors if you are travelling from outside the disaster area, is your emotional support as you lend an ear. Be aware that you may become overwhelmed by the stories and the raw emotions you will encounter. Unless you are trained mental health professional, don’t attempt to offer counseling, but be a person that can listen carefully and respond to requests for needs that they have. If they know that someone has heard what they need and is attempting to locate it, that will be great consolation to them at the moment.

You need to spend some time considering how you will prepare for the emotions you will feel when you encounter the people affected by the disaster, see the scope of the problems. Line up a few people outside of the disaster area who can offer emotional support by text or phone. The last thing you want to do is add to the emotional distress of the victims by discussing your own feelings about the situation with them. Step away for some time if you need to in order to process your own emotions, even though there may be an overwhelming sense of urgency to work non-stop.

After the immediate emergency

If you intend to be involved for the long term, the time to start planning for more permanent reconstruction is as soon as possible. It is a very lengthy process and often the disaster is forgotten long before there has been any start to the permanent recovery stage. However, early on, there is usually money being pledged, and attention from the media, which can be used to build momentum by those who have a loose plan early on.

A community meeting to discuss rebuilding after the earthquake in Rainaskot.

In our case, we began having meetings about rebuilding our first village of Rainaskot less than three weeks after the earthquake. It took another two years to rebuild, but we were able to get ahead of many bureaucratic challenges and capture attention early to get the project off the ground. If we had waited a few months to start planning permanent rebuilding, generating this momentum would have been nearly insurmountable for a small organization like ours.

There is another important benefit for early planning. It allows the traumatized residents to begin focusing on a time in the future when they will not be living in a shelter. After having their lives upended it is important for them to be able to think of a next step and understand that the current circumstance is temporary. This will be the hardest and most grueling part of the recovery, so if you do have this conversation be sure you are ready to stand by the pledge until recovery is complete. Otherwise, you are creating a second trauma by raising hopes only to leave them without options for recovery.

What to leave behind

Whatever you do, remember to leave your ego out of this process. Yes, people will praise you, call you a hero, express their undying gratitude, but your mission will go awry and give little benefit if you are not able to keep your ego at bay. The ego can cause conflicts with your coalition partners and a distraction from the focus on the needs of the victims. Even people embarking on the mission with the best of intentions will find the ego sneaking up and causing problems, so be on guard for this.

You are an incredible human being for answering the call of service. Thank you for stepping up and good luck with your mission!