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Volunteering To Help After Major Disasters
(earthquake, hurricane, tornado, tropical storm, flood, tsunami, oil spill, zombies, etc.)

Whenever a disaster strikes, thousands of people start contacting various organizations and posting to online groups in an effort to try to volunteer onsite at the disaster site. Some even jump in their cars and drive to the area.

But what most of these people don't realize is that spontaneous volunteers without specific training and no affiliation can actually cause more problems than they alleviate in a disaster situation, particularly regarding disaster locations far from their home. Consider this:

  • In many post-disaster situations, there is NO food, shelter, services or gas to spare for volunteers. Many volunteers going into the Philippines, Pakistan, Haiti, Japan, even the Gulf Coast states in the USA after Katrina or states affected by Sandy, had to be absolutely self-sustaining for many, many days, even many  weeks. No shelter or safety measures could be provided to these volunteers by the government. Those volunteers who weren't self-sustaining created big problems.

  • Just because you have some equipment does not mean you are ready to volunteer: inexperienced people have been killed using chain saws after hurricanes and other disasters, by falling limbs and live electrical wires, during their DIY clean up efforts. Responding to these people when they get themselves into a jam takes away from the needs of local people.

  • In disaster situations, you are going to be encountering disaster victims. They are going to be stressed, maybe desperate, and maybe angry. As a trained volunteer or paid staff member working with a credible organization, you are going to know how to comfort these people and direct them to where they can get assistance, and how to convince them that you have to save this person over here instead of their relative over there. If you are untrained and unaffiliated, you may become a target of their anger, because you cannot provide them with appropriate assistance, or because you provide them with incorrect information.

  • In disaster situations, volunteers must be mentally and physically prepared to work 16 hour days (or more) in highly-stressful situations where their own basic needs (like going to the bathroom) must be kept to a minimum. They may have to live in austere conditions, sleeping in a tent (that they must bring themselves) or a gymnasium with dozens, even hundreds, of other people, and using a very rustic latrine. And what happens if you get to the situation and discover you cannot handle what's happening around you, such as a riot, or a medical situation, or an armed group that shows up to rob you, or an illness of your own? Volunteers who show up, unaffiliated, untrained and not self-sufficient get in the way rather than helping, and take precious resources from those who have been devastated in a disaster situation.

  • Also, in traveling to other countries, volunteers need visas and documents that affirm their expertise. You can't simply show up at the border and announce that you are a doctor, for instance. The government does not have time to determine if you are who you say you are.

  • Spontaneous volunteers also may not familiar with the concepts of situation assessments, incident management or chain of command. These three skills are essential in disaster situations, to ensure that resources get where they are needed as quickly as possible, rescues and relief efforts go to the most needed, efforts aren't duplicated in one area while another area has absolutely nothing, etc. They must understand cultural and legal boundaries, and accept supervision. Gaining these skills comes from previous training with a credible organization specifically regarding disaster response.

  • What will you do when you are accused of stealing from someone? Of harming someone? Of making a situation worse? What do you know about local customs and cultural taboos that, if you violate them, could taint all outside volunteer efforts? Aid workers have been arrested, even killed, because of cultural missteps. Who will navigate local bureaucracies to save YOU in such situations?

  • There's also a problem with people showing up at disaster sites under the guise of wanting to volunteer, but who are actually there to take advantage of unattended houses and shops, or even to exploit disaster victims, taking what few resources they may have and even harming them physically. To ensure the safety of victims, disaster organizations need volunteers who have already been screened and trained -- two things that can't be done during the disaster itself but, rather, need to have been done months earlier.

Even wildlife rehabilitation and clean up requires people with proper training and experience -- not just people with good hearts. People have harmed wildlife instead of helping them in their DIY efforts to respond to disasters.

Disasters are incredibly complicated situations that require people with a very high degree of qualifications and long-term commitment, not just good will, a sense of urgency and short-term availability.

Also, more and more agencies are hiring local people, even immediately after a disaster, to clean rubble, remove dead bodies, build temporary housing, rebuild homes and essential buildings, and prepare and distribute food. Hiring local people to do these activities, rather than bringing people in from the outside, helps stabilize local people's lives much more quickly!

The priority in post-disaster situations is helping the people affected by the disaster, NOT giving spontaneous, unaffiliated volunteers an outlet for their desire to help.

Heard about DYI volunteer efforts in Haiti?? My blog talks about when DIY efforts work and how, usually, it's still a bad idea. When does it work? When the DIY volunteers have been to the country before, have established relationships with local agencies or local community leaders, have coordinated efforts in the country previously, and have many, many years of experience in post-conflict or post-disaster situations.

People outside of disaster zones also want to start gathering supplies from family, neighbors and co-workers, envisioning themselves packing up the boxes of supplies and some organization somewhere paying to ship those boxes to post-disaster zones. But it is so much cheaper and more efficient for response agencies to buy and ship these items from areas that are MUCH closer to an affected area that most (all?) agencies refuse these items. It's also better for relief agencies to buy clothing, shoes, medicine, toiletries, etc. new, or to accept donations in bulk directly from manufacturers and retailers, rather than going through donations made by countless numbers of individuals, which are filled with inappropriate items (expired food and medicine, clothes that aren't clean or aren't culturally-appropriate, broken items, etc.).

If you have been moved by a disaster to help in some way immediately, please consider donating financially to the American Red Cross (you can identify the local chapter in or nearest a disaster area if you want to give directly - this is very easy to do online): money is usually desperately needed to purchase and transport food, up-to-date medicine, and create shelter, as well as to employ local people so that they can recover as quickly as possible. Animals are often the forgotten victims in disasters - dogs, cats, other pets, horses and other livestock are often left behind after a disaster, or become lost, or aren't allowed in a human shelter, and many face starvation or death from injuries - so also look online for local humane societies, local ASPCAs, and other animal shelters and animal welfare agencies, as they are immediately desperate for help after disaster situations. In addition to giving funds yourself, you can help by making sure friends and associates know how to give (you might be surprised how many people don't know where or how to). A simple link on your own site or blog, a link at the end of your emails, an update on your status on FaceBook or MySpace or whatever, telling people how to donate financially, can be a huge help.

Also, please do NOT start gathering food, clothing, medicine, toys, furniture or whatever for those affected in a disaster zone. DO NOT DO THIS. Unless you have called an organization in an affected area (a homeless shelter, an animal shelter, a hotel, whatever) and spoken to someone who told you EXACTLY what they need, by what date, and you have arranged transportation to get it there (do NOT expect the organization to come pick it up!), do NOT gather items to send to a disaster area. Here's more about Donating Things Instead of Cash or Time (In-Kind Contributions).

Also see How to Make a Difference Internationally/Globally/in Another Country Without Going Abroad

And see this page with advice on Creating or Holding a Successful Fund Raising Event.

If you want to help with a disaster beyond financial donations, start thinking NOW about ways to get the training and affiliations over the next 24 months that you will need. Yes, 24 months. If you are serious about this, then you have to make the serious commitment. There are many ways you can put yourself into a position to get to go onsite in the future to help:

  • If you want to be able to pack up and help onsite with the next disaster, you need training NOW with a credible organization in disaster relief. Even if you are an expert in, say, creating wireless communications networks in remote areas, or you are a professional nurse, or you did some search and rescue while in the military, you need training in working specifically in disaster situations in order to be considered for future mobilizations. Where to get training?
    • The American Red Cross is a fantastic place to start. They mobilize volunteers to help with families who have lost their homes to fire, to help at their warming centers during freezing weather, and to help with a variety of natural disasters. They also host a great deal of training related to responding to emergencies. Get training and experience with the Red Cross, work your way into leadership roles, and, in a few years, you are going to be in a much better position to offer your services to a disaster zone outside of your home area.

    • Your nearest community college. They may provide at least CPR and basic first aid training - as well as advanced courses, often at a variety of times to fit various work schedules.

    • Consider joining a local volunteer firefighting unit, or volunteer auxiliary supporting the police -- if you are accepted, you will receive training and experience that can help in disaster relief close to home. Again, work your way into leadership roles. Take every training that is offered, and keep that training up to date!

    • The USA Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) partners with the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) to recruit, place and support members of AmeriCorps NCCC members, called FEMA Corps members, to serve in projects related to disaster preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery activities, providing support in areas ranging from working directly with disaster survivors to supporting disaster recovering centers to sharing valuable disaster preparedness and mitigation information with the public. AmeriCorps NCCC is a full-time residential service program for individuals ages 18-24.

    • Contact the member organizations of National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD), which coordinates planning efforts by many voluntary organizations responding to disaster, and see what training you need to be involved in the future. NVOAD is not itself a service delivery organization; its member organizations independently provide relief and recovery services.

    • Contact the United Way or your nearest Volunteer Center for more information on how to receive training for disaster relief and crisis response.

    • Contact your local animal shelters and volunteer with them as well. If they don't have a post-disaster response plan, could you help them develop such?

  • If you are already a volunteer in any way, for any organization, explore ways that the organization could include disaster response training for volunteers. For instance: if you volunteer at a museum, you could ask for training on how to handle art work in moving it to another location in a crisis situation. If you volunteer at a senior citizens home, ask for training in how to evacuate older people in case of an extreme emergency (the elderly always represent a disproportionate number of people killed in disasters). If you volunteer at an animal shelter, you could ask for training on how to accept pets that aren't allowed in shelters during a disaster, how to move animals in a crisis situation, how to engage in efforts to reconnect lost pets with owners after a disaster, and so forth. Once fully trained, the organization could publicize volunteer availability in case of emergency -- however, be aware that, in such situations, volunteers will probably have to be entirely self-funded -- no organization, probably, will pay for your transportation to and from the disaster site, nor your accommodations and food while there. Also, the organization with whom you volunteer may not have the funds to pay for such training -- the volunteers themselves have to fund raise or pay for the training themselves.

  • Volunteer with an organization that helps people locally in crisis situations -- a domestic violence shelter, a suicide hotline, a crisis center, etc. Go through all of the training available for dealing with people who are facing some kind of crisis. The training and experience you get will be of use in crisis situations following disasters.

  • Consider working with disaster response organizations and government agencies in your area to develop a campaign to help educate community members regarding how to prepare to live for seven days without electricity or running water, and how to create an escape, rendezvous and post-evacuation communications plan for the entire household. Such a campaign would need ongoing workshops, public service announcements on the radio and TV, perhaps even a cell phone text messaging campaign, and certainly lots and lots of volunteers.

  • There are some online volunteering activities volunteers can do related to disaster response and relief efforts, but note that your likelihood of being of value to these online efforts greatly increases if you have engaged in any of the aforementioned traditional disaster response activities. These online opportunities include:

      Humanity Road volunteers use Internet and mobile communications technology to collect, verify and route information online during sudden onset disaster. Using the Internet, they provide public safety information as well as directing the public to governmental and aid agencies that are providing assistance for the disaster.

      Crisis Commons / CrisisCamp mobilizes technology volunteers to work together to create crisis response and learning events with volunteers, who collaborate to aggregate crisis data, develop prototype tools and train people on how to use technology tools to aid in crisis response. To be involved as an online volunteer, you need to be an experienced, credible IT expert and you need to establish a relationship with this organization BEFORE a crisis. If you cannot figure out how to contribute as an online volunteer after visiting the web site, you probably don't have the level tech skills needed for this organization's initiatives. To see what kinds of online volunteering opportunities offered through Crisis Commons, join their GoogleGroup.

      In the USA, register with your local chapter of the Civilian Volunteer Medical Reserve Corps (DCVMRC or MRC). MRC units are community-based and function as a way to locally organize and utilize volunteers who want to donate their time and expertise to prepare for and respond to emergencies and promote healthy living throughout the year. MRC volunteers supplement existing emergency and public health resources. As a member of an MRC unit, you will be ready and able to bolster local emergency planning and response capabilities. Many MRC volunteers also assist with activities to improve public health in their community – increasing health literacy, supporting prevention efforts and eliminating health disparities. Here's more about volunteering with the Civilian Volunteer Medical Reserve Corps. The more trianing you get, on your own, the more likely you will be accepted as a part of the MRC. Note that each state is different on how it registers these volunteers. For instance, in Oregon, you express interest by registering on the State of Oregon Responder Management System.

In engaging in disaster training, the skills you will learn may end up helping you in your home community as well -- what community hasn't, at some time, experienced a flood, hurricane, tornado, earthquake or fire that caused wide-spread damage? Sooner or later, a disaster strikes every community, and having local people trained in disaster response will help greatly with immediate recovery efforts.

In addition to all that training, you have to also get affiliations. Agencies that respond to disasters have to know you long before a disaster!

If you are in the USA, then once you have training you think could be of value in a disaster situation, register at HelpinDisaster.org, an initiative of the Points of Light Foundation to register disaster volunteers.

Also see this page of advice on getting a job with international humanitarian organizations, all of which is applicable to someone wanting to go abroad to volunteer in post-disaster situations.

There are a few online volunteering / virtual volunteering activities you can do to help in a post-disaster situation, but note that these ALSO require expertise, such as software development.

Places to look for credible organizations receiving donations for disasters:

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    © 2010-2014 by Jayne Cravens, all rights reserved. No part of this material can be reproduced in print or in electronic form without express written permission by Jayne Cravens.

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     The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook,  available for purchase as a paperback and an ebook from Energize, Inc.
    or as a paperback from Amazon or as a Kindle book from Amazon.
    This book is for both organizations new to virtual volunteering, as well as for organizations already involving online volunteers who want to improve or expand their programs.
    The last chapter of the book is especially for online volunteers themselves.

    Another book recommendation:

    Lonely Planet Volunteer: A Traveller's Guide to Making a Difference Around