Best Disaster Practices
Guest blogger/fire survivor shares firsthand how to really help
By Kelly Conrad Simon,
8:30AM, Fri. May 29, 2015
[Editor's Note: Sometimes best intentions can cause more problems. Texas Parks & Wildlife biologist Kelly Conrad Simon, whose house was a total loss in the Bastrop fires, posted this on Facebook – an invaluable list, some please do and please don'ts – for those who wish to help friends and individuals during a disaster. ]
I wanted to put the unwanted experience I gained when I lost my home and possessions in the Bastrop Fire to use for those who want to help the current flood victims. Thank you for indulging these thoughts:
1. What to donate? I appreciated everything I received, but the most versatile and immediately useful things were Visa gift cards. Some of my friends even cashed in their unused AmEx points on Visa cards. Generous beyond measure. I still think of y'all with a full heart.
2. Donating clothes? Please consider waiting, or donate specific items to people you know. Sorting, bagging, and labeling the clothes before you send them is a godsend. Please do not fill a trash bag with mixed clothes. It's just too hard to deal with for people who are digging themselves out of disaster. If you're not willing to sort through it, imagine how difficult it would be for someone exhausted from the disaster.
3. Don't over donate Please do not say "If you don't need these things, I know you'll pass them on to someone who will." That is a wonderful sentiment, and initially I was happy to do that. But carrying it out is exhausting. You have to find a place to store the stuff (I filled a garage completely with donated stuff), remember exactly what stuff you have, and then identify people who need just that stuff, and find a way to get it to them. It became a full-time job for me, and I just couldn't do it very long. Ultimately I boxed up everything I couldn't use and sent it to charity. That amounted to two (2) trailer loads and a truck load. Imagine how exhausting that would be. Now imagine doing that when you've lost everything and are trying to rebuild your life.
4. Please call and ask about specifics Some of my friends called and asked for specific toy recommendations, clothing sizes, and mental health needs. They actually did sort through and send specific things, boxed, bagged, and labeled by age, size, gender, person. This must have taken so much effort. It yielded such a treasured gift. My throat still tightens when I think of it.
5. Please don't be vague Please don't say "Let me know if you need anything." I needed lots of help, but I didn't know how to articulate it at the time, so I brightly said "Sure! Thanks, I'm doing fine." I really wasn't fine. If you can, offer to do specific things: "I can find you a rental house/apartment." "I can coordinate your cleanup effort." "I can spearhead your scrap metal recycling." "I can coordinate the donations - I'll ask for them, sort them, redistribute what you don't need." "I can make calls and get your through replacing your identification documents." Think that sounds daunting? It really is. Now imagine being responsible for all of it. That's what the survivor is facing, and they're also dealing with the insurance company and FEMA and trying to hang on to their job, too.
6. Please suggest specifics Some of my friends called just to say "Hey, how's it going? Can I help with laundry?" Others called to ask how it's going and what I needed. I once jokingly replied "Whisky and chocolate," and they actually sent it – along with gift cards and toys for the kids. I broke down and cried. Again. Good call, Friends.
7. Please do not assume Please don't remind the survivors that "It's only stuff. You can replace stuff. They are only possessions." Survivors know that – they are exceptionally grateful for every blessing, no matter how tiny. But "stuff" isn't just "stuff." Pictures and heirlooms from beloved relatives now gone and framed tiny baby handprints have meaning and stimulate memories and they were viciously taken without your permission. The survivors may feel like they've been robbed, raped, and left to rot. It seems extreme, but those are the feelings. Intellectually, victims know and may even reassure friends that "it's only stuff." But deep down, it isn't.
8. Exhaustion That's what these survivors are going to feel, physically and emotionally. And it's going to last much longer than the TV cameras and the relief efforts. Whatever you can do to help relieve that exhaustion will be appreciated beyond the ability to repay you. And if you can, recognize that you will "recover" from the devastation a lot sooner than the survivors, who will be dealing with repercussions for years. Do your best to be tolerant of emotional breakdowns, and try not to roll your eyes in the many months ahead when you hear the refrain, "Back before the Flood," or "When we lost the house…," or any other reference to the flood.
There's more of course. I'm remembering friends who got filthy as they helped me sift and dig and cry through ash to find anything I could, strangers who took apart my charred and twisted metal roof and brought me back a check from the metal recycling, friends who coordinated donations, friends and family who helped transport large donations, friends who gave and loaned me furniture, friends who called on me, family who took us in at a moments' notice, family who connected me with professionals who volunteered to help me with legal documents, volunteers who cheerfully sifted through ashes, relieving me of having to look at every ruined trinket of my life, volunteers who gently led me away when they carted up what was left of my dream home and took it to the dump, friends who thought deeply about me and my family and brought things we would never ask for (a brand new guitar. a real live plant. artwork. I cried over each and every thoughtful gift), friends who showed up at just the right time, co-workers, clergy, and friends who wouldn't take "I'm fine, really" for an answer.
I try to forget sometimes, but I'm grateful that I never will.