As if the various formal networks of government, religious, nonprofit, and private sector organizations, plus the thousands of informal networks of families, friends, and new instant friends, did not have enough to do in meeting the needs of people impacted by the tornado that came through Moore, Oklahoma recently, they also have to worry about the second disaster.
The second disaster occurs when people—good people—want to have some part in responding to the disaster and identifying with the people in Moore, and they gather up old clothes, tools and equipment, food products, and other items and send them to Moore. They do this, of course, without an idea if anyone needs these items, or exactly how they will get to the right people. Often somebody knows somebody who knows somebody who can get their contributions into Moore for distribution to who knows who by who knows what method.
People who actually coordinate various aspects of disaster response put out the word within days following a disaster that no clothes are needed. Actually no clothes were ever needed that could not be obtained through some formal channel at the right time and in the right places. The coordinators of disaster response know these contributors are good people who want to identify emotionally—perhaps even spiritually—with the victims of the disaster. At the same time they probably would like to say something like, “Only idiots send clothes and other junk to a disaster!” Well, they may actually say this under their breath.
The first time I personally encountered the second disaster phenomena was in 1989 when Hurricane Hugo plowed through South Carolina like a new Civil War era Sherman attack except this time from the sea. Clothes and other junk started arriving from out-of-state by the tractor-trailer load. The disaster responders finally obtained an agreement with the SC state police to stop every tractor-trailer entering the state on interstate highways and ask them what they were carrying. If they were carrying clothes for the disaster, they were turned around at the state line. Still multiple warehouses in the impacted areas were filled with clothes that ultimately had to be distributed to ongoing helping agencies, destroyed or buried.
Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 an 18-wheeler showed up at a Baptist feeding site in Mississippi, the pastor of a church jumped out and said, “Here it is. Where do you want it?” He had brought a full load of clothes plus odds and ends. The disaster team leaders tried to gently indicate they were not needed nor wanted, and could they please take them back to where they came from. The truck driver screamed, jumped up and down, pulled out his gun and fortunately shot it in the air while saying, “Preacher, I told you this was a bad idea!”
No one truly wants to discourage people who want to lend a helping hand to people in need. You just want to tell them to express their compassion and love, but not by sending clothes.
Here is what you hope they do. Pray. I use that word not in a trite way, but in a strong, proactive way. Pray for the people impacted by the disaster as they go through various stages of grief and then seek to come out the other end as stronger people. Pray for the first responders who go in when the situation may still be dangerous. Pray for the people with authority and power that they will make wise decisions about the deployment of resources. Pray for people who want to help that they will discover ways to help that actually benefit.
Second is the expression made famous by the movie Jerry McGuire, “Show me the money.” Making a financial donation to an organization—preferably a Christian organization—that can be turned into the right commodity at the right time in the right place is one of the best ways to help. I say this also knowing that some people may not feel they have the money to contribute, but they have old clothes and other things. Ok. That is fine. Hold a rummage sale and contribute the money you make.
Additionally, we must remember that an increasing number of people want to give something specific and personal rather than just a financial contribution. Are there ways for this to happen? Yes.
One of the ways providers of disaster response services can focus people who want to give something specific is to set up a disaster registry. During the response to Super Storm Sandy on the east coast of the United States in the fall of 2012, several organizations set up a disaster registry as a wedding registry on www.Amazon.com. They posted the specific things they needed, people could purchase those things, and they were sent automatically to the address of a staging area for the overall disaster response by that organization. What a neat idea!
This is just a beginning of ways to turn the second disaster into a second-mile response. What are other ways that occur to you?