Kim: When good intentions aren’t enough

Americans are generous when faced with catastrophe, a trait we learn from youth. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, schools ran food drives, clothing drives and fundraisers of all sorts to send aid to New Orleans. When the news featured Haiti and Hurricane Sandy, we rushed to help, and often that help was through donations. I remember my teacher commending us students for our disaster relief efforts, telling us what a wonderful job we did. We slept peacefully at night knowing we made a difference in the world.

We were naive, not considering that the difference, if it existed at all, could be negative. We donated kindly, but perhaps not thoughtfully enough. We did not realize that uninformed donations could be unusable, and even, in some cases, cause harm.

Donations for disaster relief typically fall into two categories: In-kind and monetary. For in-kind donations, or donations of goods and services, the donors themselves choose what to send, such as food, clothing, toys or medicine. As such, in-kind donations are personal in a way that monetary donations are not. While it is true that there are people who need these goods, in-kind donations are mostly inefficient. And when time is limited for rescues and help, inefficient is dangerous.

Those who have not experienced a natural disaster do not know what disaster areas need, and even if they have personally experienced a disaster, local needs can differ. For example, some people have sent cases of clothing that were unsuitable to the climate of the affected area. According to a 2013 article published by NPR, “about 60 percent of items donated after a disaster can’t be used.” Furthermore, in-kind donations must be shipped, stored, categorized, then distributed. As each of these steps require people, energy and time, in-kind donations may not actually reach the intended recipient when needed and even get in the way of disaster relief; in the above article, Juanita Rilling, the former director of the Center for International Disaster Information, recalled that a plane containing medical supplies could not land because of unsolicited donations on the tarmac. Volunteers and workers could not remove them in a timely manner due to the sheer amount.

For the reasons above, monetary donations are often preferred by organizations handling disaster relief. Unlike in-kind donations, monetary donations can be transferred quickly and organizations—especially those already on the ground— will be able to allocate them to buy what the affected area needs most. But it is easy to take advantage of the situation, as money is harder to keep track of than items. Scam artists may create fake charities or make use of an existing one, or executives may spend a bit more on “administrative expenses” than reported. The American Red Cross is often cited as an example of an unreliable non-profit; for example, the money meant for earthquake relief in Haiti reputedly built a total of six houses five years after the earthquake.

So, what can we do after a disaster like Harvey? Sending money is still an option, and one I strongly encourage, provided we research the organizations we donate to beforehand. Watchdog sites such as Charity Navigator and the Wise Giving Alliance can help the process, showing which organizations are the most effective. But at the same time, not all of us have the option to donate money. We need other ways.

Maybe our thinking should turn to being more proactive than reactive. In other words, we can think about disaster prevention in our own surroundings, notice problems before they grow more serious and contact our representatives to push for legislation to improve infrastructure and put people’s safety above profit.

One Case Western Reserve University student from Texas (not from the affected area, thankfully) noted that in his hometown, people were building houses on a hundred year floodplain. A hundred year floodplain means that there is over a one percent chance of the area flooding yearly, and the percentage grows larger each year. Statistically, the area—and the house—will flood within a hundred years. If the government were to buy the floodplain and prevent people from living there, or if it were to strengthen zoning regulations, it would mitigate the potential damage to both cost and lives. A small stitch of our time, just an hour or two writing to a local politician, can avert devastation. Politicians should react to their constituents’ worries.

And when we go get jobs as engineers or lawyers, we can act on these issues ourselves. Our ability to help in the aftermath of a disaster may be limited, but our ability to think ahead is not.