Thanks, But No Thanks: When Post-Disaster Donations Overwhelm | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio
Filed Under:

Thanks, But No Thanks: When Post-Disaster Donations Overwhelm

Play associated audio

Newtown, Conn., was so inundated with teddy bears and other donations after last month's school shootings that it asked people to please stop sending gifts. Relief groups in New York and New Jersey are still trying to figure out what to do with piles of clothes and other items sent there after Superstorm Sandy.

It happens in every disaster: People want to help, but they often donate things that turn out to be more of a burden. Disaster aid groups are trying to figure out a better way to channel these good intentions.

Juanita Rilling remembers it happening in 1988 when she was a disaster specialist trying to get help to hurricane victims in Honduras. "And one morning I received a call from one of our logistic operators, and he explained to me that they had a cargo plane loaded with medical supplies that needed to land," says Rilling.

But the tarmac was full, with piles of donations that no one had requested. The plane — full of needed supplies — had to find someplace else to go.

"And it ended up upending everyone's plans by about 48 hours, which is critical time in a disaster," Rilling says.

Rilling now runs the Center for International Disaster Information, which is trying to make sure that things like that don't happen again. But they do — over and over. By some estimates, about 60 percent of items donated after a disaster can't be used. Often it's old clothing and food. But sometimes it's things that make you wonder, such as chandeliers and high-heeled shoes.

When Superstorm Sandy hit, Rilling's group and others launched an ad campaign to encourage financial contributions. "Even a small donation can make a big impact and can quickly become exactly what people affected by disaster need most," the ad says.

But Leah Feder with Occupy Sandy says many people don't want to send just cash. Occupy Sandy is the Occupy Wall Street offshoot that's been on the front lines of providing relief to those affected by Superstorm Sandy.

"People's hearts cry out and they really want to be able to help and they want to be able to help in the way that feels as concrete as possible," she says.

Like other relief groups, Occupy Sandy was quickly overwhelmed with used clothes. But no one wants to discourage donors. So a volunteer had an idea: Why not set up something like a wedding registry on Amazon.com, where people could buy items that were actually needed, like face masks and dehumidifiers and cleaning supplies. Feder says it's worked so well that Occupy Sandy has now set up another registry with businesses in the disaster region, so they too can benefit.

"People still have that opportunity to choose what it is they're purchasing, so they're not just giving money to an amorphous, unidentifiable pool," says Feder.

Meghan O'Hara, who handles in-kind donations for the American Red Cross, says it's an intriguing idea. She knows that some people are wary of giving cash no matter how much groups like hers insist they can provide relief more effectively and at a lower cost. And she doesn't think that the urge to give something tangible can — or should be — completely stopped.

"Part of what people are doing is they're helping, they're trying to help. What we need to figure out is how to effectively handle that," O'Hara says.

So one thing the Red Cross has been doing since Sandy is monitoring social media sites. Wendy Harman, director of social strategy for the American Red Cross, says if she sees someone, say, tweeting about filling a truck with donations, she'll contact that person to make sure he knows whether the items are really needed and where they should go.

That way, Harman says, "they don't drive across the country and get really disappointed."

The Red Cross will also suggest alternatives such as holding a garage sale and sending the proceeds instead. In cases like the Newtown shootings, O'Hara says they suggest that people help one of their local charities in honor of the victims, rather than sending another teddy bear.

But she admits it's not always an easy message to get across.

"That's the tough part. How do you tell someone that's really not the best thing, when all they want to do is help?" says O'Hara.

Copyright 2013 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

Not My Job: Skier Mikaela Shiffrin Gets Quizzed On Downhill Cheese Races

If you think downhill ski racing is dangerous, then you've never seen the Gloucestershire Cheese Rolling Races, in which competitors hurl their bodies down a steep hill, chasing a wheel of cheese.
NPR

Spread Of Palm Oil Production Into Africa Threatens Great Apes

Palm oil growers are setting their sights on Africa as they amp up production. More than half of the land that's been set aside for plantations in Africa overlaps with ape habitats, researchers say.
WAMU 88.5

Democrats Push To Overturn Hobby Lobby Ruling

Virginia's Tim Kaine and other Democrats are trying to overturn the ruling with legislation they say will protect female workers.
NPR

Friday Feline Fun: A Ranking Of The Most Famous Internet Cats

Forget the Forbes Celebrity 100. This is the Friskies 50 — the new definitive guide of the most influential cats on the Internet. The list is based on a measure of the cats' social media reach.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.