The feeling that pervades the hours and days after a natural disaster is often one of helplessness. But if anything, the devastating earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, floods, forest fires, mud slides, even a tsunami and a volcanic eruption, of the past five years—enough to make one wonder if the Mayans were onto something—have taught us that the flip side of every disaster is the opportunity to help those around us. Every natural disaster is a reminder of humanity’s extraordinary capacity for compassion and generosity.
I recently watched floodwaters in my home state of Tennessee engulf entire neighborhoods. The destruction left by more than fifteen inches of rain over a three-day period was almost incomprehensible. The thing that will stick in my mind, however, will not be the sight of our downtown underwater, or news images of a building floating down Interstate 24, but the image of a neighborhood full of volunteers digging through soaking-wet trash bags, pulling couches to the curb, tearing out insulation, and delivering pizzas. I will remember the dozens of people I spoke to from all over the country at a fundraising telethon, and the local businesses that donated proceeds to relief efforts. I will remember Nashville turning out for its own.
In the wake of a natural disaster—local or elsewhere—many of us wonder how we can help. The first things we turn to are the obvious: food, water, shelter, medical aid. But as relief efforts continue, there are other needs that may go unmet or unnoticed—not for lack of caring, of course. Here, a list of unexpected ways you can help in the wake of a disaster.
1. Babysitting Services
After a disaster comes the cleanup, something that Don Lauritzen, of the American Red Cross, reminds us can be hazardous, especially for children or pets. Debris may contain sharp objects or glass, and floodwater is often contaminated. Building structures may also be precarious. Offer to watch children or pets while victims investigate and clean.
If those affected by a disaster hope to be covered by insurance, it will be essential for them to document the damage to their property. Chances are, their cameras were not the first things they grabbed when they evacuated or rescued belongings, so disposable cameras are a helpful donation.
3. Sunscreen and Insect Repellant
Along with protective clothing, like rubber gloves and rubber boots, volunteer crews need sunscreen and bug spray. Cleanup work is often outside, without the benefit of shade, and wet areas especially can become breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
4. Cleaning Supplies
None of those volunteers can clean without cleaning supplies. There are never enough garbage bags, and bleach is also essential; in a pinch, if there’s a water shortage, it can be used to treat drinking water (only household liquid bleach, not scented or color-safe).
5. Laundry Services
If clothes have been soiled or soaked by dirty water, they’ll need to be cleaned before they start to mildew. This will be difficult if water and electricity have been disrupted, as often happens after an emergency, or if someone’s washing machine was one of the casualties. Flood victims in Nashville didn’t realize the value of laundry services until the Tide company brought in mobile Laundromat trucks. They were a lifesaver (and a clothes saver).
6. New Underwear
Donated clothes come in by the garbage-bag full. What’s often not included in those bags, however, are clean underwear and socks, clothing that isn’t recycled but is often lost in disasters. A clean pair of underwear can change a person’s day.
7. Feminine Products
As you just witnessed in whatever disaster you experienced, Mother Nature is the boss around here, and her monthly gift for women doesn’t stop coming in the event of emergencies. Buying tampons or maxi-pads is the last thing a woman living in a shelter or salvaging her home needs to think about.
8. Pet Supplies
As many people saw during Hurricane Katrina, pets are affected by natural disasters as well. Pet owners need pet food, litter, medicines, and even free dog-walking services.
If there’s enough warning, people in the line of a storm might need space to store things out of harm’s way. After a disaster, they may need an area in which to dry things out and clean them off. Nonprofits also need spaces, such as parking lots or empty warehouses, to set up shelters, relief centers, and donation drop-off points.
10. Communication: Help Get the Word Out
People in the midst or aftermath of a crisis may have no way to find out what’s going on. Volunteer for a crisis hotline that directs callers to the appropriate organizations, or distribute flyers with relevant phone numbers, addresses, and email addresses. The Red Cross’s Web site is a helpful clearinghouse for emergency information. (It also offers tips on disaster preparedness.) Check your local government’s site as well.
Cars are often lost to natural disasters, and public transportation is sometimes disrupted. Consider offering a carpool service between relief centers, shelters, churches, and the grocery store, or donate bus passes.
12. Personal Comforts
To give luxury items to someone who’s just lost everything may seem frivolous. Who needs a gift certificate to a fancy restaurant when their entire kitchen has just been destroyed? The truth is, a lot of people do. The emotional and psychological toll of a disaster is often just as serious, though less visible, as the material damage. Sometimes small personal comforts can help return a sense of normalcy. Contact a service that offers counseling for disaster victims and see what personal comforts might be appreciated—things like stuffed animals for children or massages for adults.
The main gift you give when lending a hand during a time of crisis is hope. A donation, monetary or otherwise, no matter how big or small, expected or unexpected, lets the victims of a natural disaster know that they are not alone. It’s the small things that build—or rebuild—a community.