by Diana Chandler
Mickey Caison has seen it many times in his disaster relief career. Well-meaning folks collect a truckload of food and clothing, drive perhaps hundreds of miles to a disaster zone, but can find no place to deliver the goods.
Deciding “let’s put a trailer on the lot and fill it up with goods to take to Texas, is the most ineffective way of providing support,” Caison told Baptist Press from Houston, where he is coordinating the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief (SBDR) response to Hurricane Harvey’s destruction there.
“We’re actually seeing vehicles—vans, pick-ups, rental trucks, there have been 18 wheelers—that are riding around trying to find some place to give goods that they’ve collected in other places,” Caison said.
“Out of the goodness of their hearts, they were moved to action in meeting needs.” But they failed to consider such details as actual needs, warehousing, distribution and whether the same goods could be purchased locally, he said.
More effective responses include donating cash through trusted channels and providing supplies expressly requested by churches and other organizations, Caison told BP.
Buying gift cards and bank cards that allow survivors to purchase their own choice of goods is also an option, as it gives the recipient dignity while stimulating the local economy.
“It’s so much better to be done that way,” he said, “and more effective in meeting the [fluctuating] needs of clients.”
Jeff Palmer, CEO of Baptist Global Response (BGR), also recommends cash donations.
It’s much more effective to buy goods near areas where a particular disaster occurred, Palmer noted, as it drastically reduces shipping costs and stimulates the local economy.
Ill-planned, impromptu responses are as common after disasters overseas as stateside, according to the Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI) of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Washington.
Donating cash to organizations coordinating water purification systems, for instance, is 1,166 times less expensive than shipping water to a disaster zone, and generates no plastic trash, according to CIDI.
It costs $350,000 to purchase 100,000 bottles of water in Miami and ship to the Dominican Republic to hydrate 40,000 people for a single day. Conversely, investing in local water purification projects can hydrate the same number of people for just $300 a day, CIDI said.
“Generally after a disaster, people with loving intentions donate things that cannot be used in a disaster response, and in fact may actually be harmful, and they have no idea that they’re doing it,” former CIDI Director Juanita Rilling said on the September 3 edition of CBS Sunday Morning. “The thinking is these people have lost everything, so they must need everything.”
People send anything, Rilling said. After the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, donated clothing rotted in piles on the beach before disaster workers were forced to burn them, the ashes floating out to sea.
“This is heartbreaking,” Rilling said. “It’s heartbreaking for the donor, it’s heartbreaking for the relief organization, and it’s heartbreaking for survivors. This is why cash donations are so much more effective.”
People have sent ball gowns, animal costumes, high-heeled shoes, coats to warm climates, and used tea bags, Rilling said.
When unrequested “stuff” arrives, Caison has a saying for it.
“Stuff stands for strategic things useless to frantic folks,” said Caison, who retired in August as executive director of the North American Mission Board’s disaster relief and is working in Houston as a consultant.
“In Hurricane Hugo in 1989, people would bring clothes and dump them into our parking lot at the church, and I literally hauled two truckloads of clothes to the landfill because they were on the parking lot, they got wet, and nobody wanted them because they’d become mildewed and molded,” Caison said.
SBDR has efficiently sponsored such donation projects as food buckets for Haiti, shipping to the island 150 containers filled with specifically requested items, distinguished even by specified stock keeping unit (SKU) numbers.
“If that’s not being asked for, then donations to your favorite response organization can be given. All of us have a convenient way; churches can take up offerings,” he said.
“In reality, it’s going to take years for this community to recover. That means, three, four, five years from now, people are going to be volunteering, and we’re buying lumber to help people get back into their homes.
“It’s not the first two weeks and everything’s back to normal,” Caison said. “Thousands of these families are going to be struggling for years to get back into their homes, and if we don’t help them, they’re not going to be able to get back into their homes. Those donations that come in now help us do that.”
DIANA CHANDLER is general assignment writer/editor for Baptist Press, from which this article is adapted.