The urgent need to “do something” in response to Hurricane Harvey has compelled thousands of Central Texans to donate, organize relief efforts, and volunteer. But nonprofits organizing disaster-relief efforts are asking people to be patient and be smarter about how they give.
Red Cross of Central and South Texas Region reports that more than 5,800 people from the Austin area and across the country had signed up to volunteer. But in the initial days of Harvey rescue and recovery, accommodating all of those volunteers has been a challenge, says Matthew Teter, a Red Cross spokesperson. This week, the Red Cross had to update its online volunteer registration page to withstand the demand, and its staff is working through the paperwork, training and background checks to get thousands of volunteers activated.
“We just ask that people stay patient with us in the process,” said Teter.
Similarly, the Austin Disaster Relief Network has been overwhelmed by people wanting to volunteer and donate. ADRN works with the City of Austin and the Red Cross shelters to manage donations of clothing, food and personal and household items. Those signing up to volunteer receive an email asking them to be patient while ADRN organizes its action plan. “We have to be fluid and flexible,” said Katherine Ellis. “Sometimes the information we send changes. Folks should just be aware that we’ll be making updates every day.”
Donating new items, especially undergarments and baby items, whenever possible can help restore the dignity of those living in the aftermath, says Ellis. “Imagine that you’ve just lost everything and you’re getting a second-hand, really ratty, used item. We’re not going to give that to them. We’re going to keep the quality of the items high.”
While ADRN welcomes all donations, Ellis said, not all items are needed right away. First, ADRN requests things that can help people living in shelters. “They don’t have a lot of space,” said Ellis. “Hygiene kids, pillows, blankets, those things that are going to make them feel comfortable.” This weekend, ADRN began collecting clothing items, which will be distributed as more people are settled into a long-term shelter. And then later, it will distribute household items as victims begin to move into permanent housing.
More than anything else, both organizations say, monetary donations go the farthest. Red Cross, which continues to face skepticism about how it spends donations, emphasized that in its work operating 243 shelters across Texas for 35,000 people, the money is being used to provide food, medical services, mental health services and the immediate needs of evacuees. “We always respect donor’s wishes,” said Teter. “We encourage people to designate Harvey for their donations.”
Philanthropic professionals note that the urgent need to help can feel less urgent as time passes, but that long-term recovery efforts to rebuild housing and communities can take years. “It’s equally as important to provide support to those local organizations who are going to be there to deal with the impacts long after the disaster response agencies leave,” said Sam Woollard, a professional philanthropic advisor with Successful Giving. Organizations like the Greater Houston Community Foundation, Habitat for Humanity and United Way for Greater Houston have established special funds for long-term recovery.
Anna M. Babin, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Houston, said, “Once the community is stabilized, United Way will focus on long-term recovery effort,” including housing repairs and case management, “which will be massive because of the large number of people impacted.”