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Calm Under Fire: Helping During Natural Disasters

It’s normal to feel overwhelmed, discouraged and helpless when learning that billions of animals in Australia have perished because of the wildfires, or that the aftermath of Hurricane Maria is still having a huge impact on the residents of Puerto Rico years later. Here's how you can help.

Written by
Brightly Staff

We’ve all felt it: that pang in our chest when we hear the news of another natural disaster. Whether it’s close to home or across the globe, we are all affected by these catastrophes. 

We’ve gone ahead and researched the best—and worst—ways you can help after a natural disaster occurs. Read on to discover what you can do to support those affected by these tragic events. 

What to Do After a Natural Disaster: Send Cash

Cash is the most productive way we can support communities affected by natural disasters. Before sending money, though, there are some details to consider.

When donating after a natural disaster, it’s essential to research your options. There are so many charities out there. It can be hard to tell which ones are doing important, impactful work in times of crisis. 

Start by looking for local organizations. They will know what their community needs and how to best utilize the donation you send. 

If you don’t have time to research the details of every charity you come across, it’s best to turn to a trusted source. You can search for reputable charities on websites such as Charity Navigator, Charity Watch, and Give Well. These organizations rate charities on their transparency, allocation of funds, and overhead costs so that donors have a clear picture of how their money will be used. 

Charity Navigator, in particular, compiles a convenient list of trustworthy organizations in the wake of natural disasters. Their current lineup is for charities supporting those affected by the Australian wildfires. This can be a quick, easy, and reliable way to choose an organization. 

Another easy way to choose an organization is to head to social media. Although celebrities and influencers might post heartfelt messages in support of a specific group, it’s essential to regard those recommendations with a critical eye. This doesn’t mean you should discount every suggestion made by a celebrity, of course! Just do a little independent research before donating. 

Even the most well-known charities can severely mismanage donated money. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the American Red Cross received nearly half a billion dollars to rebuild houses for Haitians. They used that money to erase their $100,000 deficit, and then to build homes for Haitians affected by the earthquake. Rather than the hundreds of houses promised, they only managed six

That’s why researching or finding a trusted recommendation source is vital to donating money in times of crisis. It will ensure that your money has the most possible impact on the affected community. 

Don’t Jump On A Plane

When we see those photos of badly burned koalas, destroyed homes, and desolate landscapes, it can be heart-wrenching. However, there are some things we shouldn’t do after a natural disaster, no matter how badly we want to help.

Unless your name is Kate Winslet and you’re in the movie Contagion, don’t hop on a plane to an area hit with a natural disaster. You will be putting yourself in harm’s way. You will also be slowing down the people and organizations that are meant to be there. The only volunteers who should be arriving to help are those deployed by government agencies or aid organizations. 

Don’t Send “In-Kind” Donations (Or if you do, follow these tips!)

Not hopping on a plane is pretty black and white. But there’s a gray area surrounding “in-kind” donations. These are donations of used clothing, medical supplies, or other physical goods. 

Sometimes local organizations will specifically ask for in-kind donations. It’s better, though, to send the cash so that the organization can buy exactly what it needs. Often those who donate in-kind don’t follow the specific directions of what to purchase, which makes it difficult for the organization to use what they receive. In other cases, organizations will receive so many in-kind goods that they can’t possibly sort, distribute, or use everything. 

One recent example of this is the craftivism group Animal Rescue Collective Craft Guild. Up to half a billion animals have already died in the Australian wildfires, and many more were injured. The rescued, injured animals have special needs—such as mittens for burned koalas, pouches for orphaned joeys (baby kangaroos), and wraps for bats. 

Craftivists around the globe came together to make what was needed for these animals. Unfortunately, some contributions came in made with yarn that could get tangled in their claws. Others had been knit improperly, or without following the provided pattern. And in the end, shelters had to ask organizers to stop the influx of crafts. 

If you want to send an in-kind donation, consider these three questions.

  1. Is a local organization asking for this item?
  2. If I need to make the item, can I follow the directions and stay in contact with the charity to ensure my gift is usable? 
  3. Would sending cash make the same amount of impact?

Being thoughtful about your in-kind gift will go a long way to helping your chosen organization after a natural disaster.

What to Do Going Forward

We’ve talked about the positive impact of sending money to a well-researched, local, and capable charity group in response to natural disasters. We’ve also discussed what not to do: hop on a plane or send in-kind gifts without thoughtful reflection. 

But what can we do to minimize the impact of future natural disasters? 
Call or email your local representatives. Make sure they know how important it is to support and vote for policies that will minimize natural disasters. And when your representatives are up for election, make sure to research their beliefs and voting records. No matter what your political stance may be, your representatives must understand the importance of systems and policies to prevent or minimize future disasters.

In This Episode

  • Intro: A clothing swap we went to & how you can plan your own [3:10]
  • The effect of social media on our response to natural disasters [6:02]
  • Liza’s personal experience with fundraising for natural disasters [8:30]
  • How you can help [10:59]
    • Send cash! [11:06]
    • Research your donation options [12:38]
      • How to search for reputable charities [12:48]
      • Be mindful of recommendations from influencers & celebrities [13:47]
      • Look for an organization that is local & on the ground [14:11]
      • Find a trusted source or expert recommendation [14:36]
  • How donations have been misused: the 2010 Haiti Earthquake [16:32]
  • How will the charity spend your donation? [18:47]
  • Do not send in-kind donations [20:27]
    • The Clinton administration sending subsidized rice to Haiti [21:20]
  • Listen to what the local organizations ask for [22:04]
    • Craftivism for the Australian wildfires [23:35]
      • The good news [26:55]
      • The bad news [28:56]
      • Stay in touch with local organizers [29:15]
      • Follow directions [29:51]
  • Do not fly to disaster sites - you aren’t Kate Winslet in Contagion [27:29] 
  • What can we do to lessen the impact of future natural disasters? [33:22]

Resources We Mentioned in the Podcast