Help or Hindrance? Tips for Assisting with Disaster Relief

When a natural disaster strikes, and you’re not directly affected, it is common to feel helpless. Sure, you can donate some money to the American Red Cross or another charity, or perhaps donate some supplies, but, beyond that, it’s hard to feel as if you’ve made a difference.

I’ve been lucky to have never been directly affected by a natural disaster. Every time I hear about one, I count my blessings and then I make a donation but that has been the extent of my contribution… until now.

As I prepare to embark on my first disaster relief journey to assist with flood devastation in Louisiana, I have found myself with questions—a lot of questions (as I imagine most first-time on-the-ground aid volunteers do):

What should I bring?

What shouldn’t I bring? 

Will I actually be helpful?

How can I be most helpful?

How can I keep myself from being an emotional wreck?

There is a lot to consider when it comes to volunteering in disaster relief. In an attempt to feel better prepared, I consulted with a friend who has done this before.

Kara Trebil, who works in the Office of Community Engagement at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, provided on-the-ground disaster relief after Hurricane Katrina as well as during the flooding of her own community in 2008. Being new to all of this, I asked her for some tips.

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Between 2000 and 2012, natural disasters caused $1.7 trillion in damage and affected 2.9 billion people.

1) The importance of being self-sufficient

It’s not uncommon for volunteer groups to go into an area thinking they are doing good, when in all reality they end up using resources needed by the community (e.g. food and safe drinking water, time and energy of folks at community organizations, beds for skilled volunteers, etc.). Be aware of the space you’re taking up.

2) Listen to the locals

When you’re doing disaster relief, it might sometimes feel like you’re not doing things the most efficient way. Or the most helpful way. Or the most effective way. But, you’re probably being asked to do it that way for a reason. Keep in mind that the folks on the ground, who have been there since day one and live in the community, know more about what their community needs than outsiders coming in for a short time.

3) Keep yourself in check

It’s not uncommon to feel totally overwhelmed, and oftentimes helpless, in circumstances like this. Lean on your peers for support, and offer yours up to those who live and work in the community, who will be dealing with the impact of the floods for the next months and years.

4) Pack smart

In terms of packing, other than bringing the obvious (sturdy/close-toed shoes, sunscreen, water, etc.), try to pack light. While we all can’t up and leave to help with disaster relief, those of us who can should do our best to be as prepared as possible.

Learn how you can best help with on-the-ground relief efforts during a natural disaster.

Maribel Lopez

An Iowa native, Maribel ventured to the north in 2010 upon accepting her first “real” job after college in TPT’s National Productions Department. She assisted with interesting PBS programs like “Slavery by Another Name” and “Constitution USA with Peter Sagal.” As Rewire’s Project Specialist, she’s paving the way to get Rewire’s content out into the world. A lifelong lover of public television, Maribel fits right in with her geeky colleagues. When she’s not “working” she likes to dance around in shoes with nails on the bottom of them and enjoys stopping to pet all the dogs she meets while walking her own dog, Carlos.