NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — After Disaster, Forget The Rummage … Cash Counts

First, the hurricane. Then comes the second disaster — the blizzard of well-meant rummage.

I know you have only the best intentions. Me, too. We want to help the Texans who lost everything they own to Hurricane Harvey. But please, please put down those garbage bags of used clothes, stuffed animals and odds and ends from your pantry. They are literally more trouble than they’re worth.

The images of grief, loss and suffering wring hearts at a time like this, and the urge to help somehow can be almost overwhelming. That generosity is guaranteed to make we ourselves feel better … but the wrong kinds of spontaneous giving — and there are lots of them — only make the crisis worse.

If you want to really make a difference, donate cash.

That’s the best advice from seasoned disaster professionals in our own back yard. They’re watching their colleagues with boots on the ground in Texas and Louisiana. They’ve been there themselves in years gone by. They know how the relief and recovery process must proceed. And from their own experience, this is the most sincere advice they can give us: Leave your stuff in your own closet. Down at Ground Zero, it’ll only get in the way.

When the sky is blue and the forecast sunny, the rest of us barely spare a notion for the battle-tested disaster relief experts on standby to head to the heart of the storm. Only after a heart-breaking onslaught like Harvey’s (or Irma’s imminent arrival) does that reality come into focus: There are people — smart, brave, hard-working people — whose whole livelihood is based on knowing what to do in the worst of times. Like these.

The disaster that dominates tonight’s news isn’t their first rodeo. That’s how they know that piles and piles of miscellaneous sweaters, shirts, jeans, shoes, pillows, jackets, teddy bears, T-shirts, underwear, swimsuits, ties, board games, pajamas, Christmas decorations and whatever else is lying around in the basement or stashed in bottom drawers will ultimately help no one at all … not even those we see on TV who’ve lost everything they hold precious to those polluted, reptile-infested floodwaters.

Instead, the onslaught of donated stuff just gets in the way. It becomes a disaster in its own right. It sops up costly storage space and precious volunteers’ time that could be far better invested in more urgent pursuits. Or it’s pretty much ignored until it becomes a hazard.

On Sunday, CBS News chronicled bales of pointless donations blocking emergency access on Honduras airstrips after a hurricane. Other piles still rotted on an Indonesian beach years after a tsunami until they were finally doused with gasoline and burned. The former director of the Center for International Disaster Information in Washington told a reporter, “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.”

Of course they mean well, as they gather clothes with some measure of useful life remaining, along with this and that around the house that they think that they can spare. But once those semis full of stuffed trash bags and bulging tote bins have arrived, they present a tremendous challenge to relief workers. They need to be warehoused, sorted, cleaned, organized and distributed, and — amidst far more urgent demands like shelter, meals, assessing losses and practical matters of survival — that seldom happens. Even when it does, it’s a burden that gums up the system … especially when a rather embarrassing share of those donations turn out to be dirty, useless, worn out or requiring repairs that’ll never be made.

One of the best things about Americans is our open hearts in times of trouble. We want to help. We want to feel that thrill of doing good. Sadly, filling a box with our cast-off belongings seems to satisfy that sincere urge far better than the colder, more corporate kind of contribution — sending a check or, likelier today, logging onto a website to click a few keys, kicking into a relief fund.

Yet that helps most. Random cans of tuna and beans from a thousand food drives are less immediately useful than money to order groceries in commercial quantities to prepare meals for crowds of displaced families … who, after all, have no kitchens to cook those individual boxes of Kraft Mac ’n’ Cheese for themselves.

Too, the corps of trained professionals who arrive with relief organizations need to be equipped, housed, fed and paid. Recovery isn’t measured in weeks or months. It takes years. Long past the point when the immediate crisis has been forgotten by the national news, recovery workers will still be helping victims navigate through public programs and insurance snags, finding the tools and resources to finally rebuild a semblance of normal life.

We’ve experienced that right here. After the Red River Valley floods of 1997 and 2009 and the Minot disaster of 2011, good-hearted people all over the country streamed a deluge of well-intended miscellany in our direction. Managing all that stuff was, frankly, a nightmare. Relief organizations seldom bring this up out of respect for those kind, generous donors’ feelings … but tons ended up in the hands of salvage companies, at best, or piled up in local landfills.

If you want to help, give money. It’s as simple as that. Reputable public charities and faith-based organizations are already on the ground, and they understand how to apply every dollar where it matters most at this very moment.

And if you don’t have ready cash? Here’s an idea. Instead of piling up your odds and ends to fill a semi headed to Texas or Louisiana, lay them out in your own garage and sell them to eager bargain-hunters here at home. (And, afterwards, dispose of the left-overs yourself.)

Then go ahead and write that personal check. The disaster-relief troops at Ground Zero won’t have to ship it, store it, sort it, size it, clean it, organize it and somehow transport it wherever it might eventually do some good. You’ll feel terrific, knowing the minute it’s deposited, your gift will start to make good things happen.

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