Like almost everything else on this blog, you'll find that many (but not all) of these suggestions require advanced planning and preparation. Without advanced training (possibly certification) and adequate supplies, none of us are in a good position to do meaningful hands-on work after a disaster. Don't get me wrong, every little bit helps. People affected by and responding to disasters appreciate every thought, prayer, gift and moment that you can give. But there's nothing like having the right resource and a qualified volunteer when and where they are needed most. Whether you're thinking of your own local emergencies or those receiving international recognition, a bit of preparation can do others much good and leave you feeling satisfied in providing comfort to those in need.
Here's my list of 10 things you can do to help after (or maybe before) a disaster.
Give Money - Assisting disaster victims and promoting recovery in devastated areas costs a lot of money. Cash gifts are immediately available for workers to buy exactly what they need where it's needed. Cash doesn't require transportation, and it can be transferred electronically and put to use instantly. Cash also allows responders to immediately support the locally devastated economy (hiring local workers, buying local products, using local services). Although giving cash sounds like an as needed opportunity, I would also encourage you to create a planned giving budget. At my house we use the Dave Ramsey financial system; each month we plan exactly how much we will give to charities and those in need. Helping people every month allows us to become part of a greater community.
Give supplies. - When specific needs are known and transportation is not a hindrance, collecting and providing requested items can be a relevant opportunity to help. Food, water, and requested items delivered locally can make a huge difference. In Japan after the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster many people did not have clothing or bedding to use in shelters. They were cold! Locally, many coats and blankets were donated immediately to provide relief. (However, the expense needed to purchase and ship coats and blankets from the US to Japan would generally be better offered as a cash gift, so that responders can consolidate orders and ship items directly.)
Volunteer - Here is the first opportunity that we have to provide direct hands-on help to those affected by disasters. There are many organizations that provide a chance to train and respond to those in need. Most importantly, only respond if you are part of a team, specifically requested, highly qualified, and very capable. Disaster zones are ever changing and dangerous areas. Sadly, many extra volunteers are unnecessarily injured while helping and become part of the crisis.
Give services. - If you have a unique and applicable skill, or career, here's your chance to meet needs with a little advanced planning. Attorneys, contractors, counselors, medical professionals, pilots, business owners and many others can use their abilities to help in the recovery process. An important key to success is to establish relationships before disaster strikes. Establishing affiliations with national professional and disaster response organizations will allow you go to work as soon as you are needed. If this interests you, try contacting organizations you may already belong to or contacts a national relief organization like: Red Cross, SBC Disaster Response, Salvation Army, or NVOADs.
Help later. Much later. - Encouraged by media coverage, victims are in our thoughts immediately after disaster. However as pages turn on the calendar, we are all distracted by our daily lives and more recent disasters. Yet the recovery period after even small disasters is at least a year or more before communities are functioning independent of outside assistance. Assisting disaster victims weeks or months after a disaster strikes can meet real needs in affected communities. Contact local relief organizations or government agencies to see what you can do to help.
Stay away! - Unless you are trained and requested, individuals and groups should steer clear of disaster impacted areas until their presence and assistance is officially requested. Emergencies are full of confusion and chaos. To keep everyone safe, disaster response must be orderly and coordinated. People offering assistance must report to an Incident Command Center or Volunteer Recruitment Center before going out to help. You may also be using up sparse resources (like food, water, and shelter) that are needed for responders and victims.
Prepare to NOT be a victim. - When resources are scarce and shelters are full, each person who does not require assistance is helping someone that has unmet needs. Preparing your home with food, water, alternative power and cooking solutions, and supplies may allow you to safely stay where you are and even share with others. Plan to check on your neighbors (going door to door if the power and phones are out). Neighbors with young children, elderly persons, medical needs, and disaster workers in the family (police, fire, medical) may need extra help during this time.
Take food and snacks to the police station and fire house. - Our first responders work tirelessly! (Although I think they actually get quite tired.) And during an emergency food and water are often prioritized after saving lives and reporting in. Packaged (perhaps shelf stable) food can be a blessing you'll never know. Individually packaged products like beef jerky, cookies, juice boxes, and pudding cups are items they could take with them on the way out the door. A bowl of whole fruit (apples, oranges, bananas) would be welcome. If you want to take fresh food (hot food or things that must be kept cool), it's advisable to call ahead if you can.
Teach others. - Community education concerning disasters helps everyone stay on the same page. Children and adults need to learn (or be reminded) what to do before, during and after emergencies. Most American households don't have any emergency provisions set aside. Many communities have CERT programs that teach everyday citizens how to save local victims immediately after disaster strikes. Host a speaker in your community, church, workplace, or organization.
Host a barbecue (or other fun party) this summer. - Invite your immediate neighbors (even if you live in an apartment) over to get to know them. You don't even have to tell them why you are doing this, but you might look like a hero if you talk about it. Use everyday conversation to discover details that you'll need to know in an emergency. Find out their names, how many people live there, any special needs they might have (infants, medical needs, elderly, etc.), if they have pets, where they work, special skills (medical) or their cell number and emergency contact. Get to know them, so that in a emergency you'll know their needs and they'll know yours. Map Your Neighborhood is a qualified program you can use to establish this plan with your neighbors. (I don't like the name. It's not about mapping, it's about connecting. Take a look at it.) If you get very specific, I'd advise telling them why you want to know. Otherwise you might be pegged as a creepy neighbor.