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How to Help in A Disaster

Hattiesburg, Mississippi

Tornado Damage – Hattiesburg, MS

With all the recent disasters we see and hear about, it’s human nature to want to help our neighbors both near and far in need.  But it’s often not clear what is the best way to really be of assistance. This is why I am reprinting a post on this subject from a federal disaster worker at  AllExperts.com.

Question:
What would you say are the best things to do after a major disaster? To help someone else, not yourself.

John Doe

Answer:
John, thanks for asking.

If you are not in a disaster but want to assist people who have been affected by one, there are several things you can do.  There are also certain things you should not do.

First, support organizations which are responding to the disaster.  Non-profit organizations which respond to disasters are not funded by the government and need financial support.  Choose your favorite, the one you think does the most good and donate money to them.  You can find a list of National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD) here: http://www.nvoad.org/  These are recognized organizations and will not scam you.

Unless specifically requested, do not donate clothing, food or other items.  During Hurricane Andrew, tons of donated items had to be disposed of in Florida (fur coats, kitchen utensils, old shoes) because they were not needed and/or there were not enough people available to sort through them.  There was no place to store much of the donations and they became wet, moldy and a health hazard.  

There are agencies in the NVOAD (above) who do take donations of clothing, food, water and other in-kind donations, so check with them and ask what they need.

Seeing the suffering caused by a disaster makes most people want to help in some way.  If you would like to volunteer, go ahead and find an organization which can give you the proper training and credentials so that you can really help.  Many NVOAD groups have free classes in disaster response and relief and you can sign up and take them.  Other agencies have need for people with special skills (counseling, social work, massage therapy, cooking, building, etc,) and are happy to find new volunteers.

Please don’t just go to a disaster area to volunteer.  There are several reasons for this,  First, disaster areas are usually dangerous with debris and  limited emergency services.  Police and sheriff’s departments are stretched thin, as are fire departments, paramedics and hospitals.  Trying to find a place for unattached volunteers to work is just not a priority when disaster survivors need their attention.

During Hurricane Katrina, fire departments from all over the country just took it upon themselves to travel to Louisiana.  I was there at the firefighters’ staging area.  Although their hearts were in the right place, it was sometimes a strain on local responders trying to find them a place to stay and assign them to work teams.  You don’t really think about it, but when people’s homes are destroyed, they are staying in motels and eating at restaurants.  If too many workers come into the area, they take up those rooms that the disaster stricken families need.  When I first got to Katrina, there was no power and no food shipments coming in.  I went to a Burger King drive in one night and the sign said, “We have burgers, no buns.”  The next night I went through and it said, “We have buns, no burgers.”  

I know this is a lot, but finally, let me say: be prepared.

-Get your home ready for a disaster, have a disaster go bag, water, medications, a disaster plan, a place to shelter inside the house.
-Designate a family meeting place and someone outside the area to contact in case you and your family get separated. (Sometimes phones don’t work locally but connect to other cities and states)
-Make sure you have appropriate insurance (Home owners insurance does not normally cover flood damage).
-Keep your important papers (deeds, car registration copies, insurance papers, utility bills) somewhere that is safe and waterproof
-Take them with you if you have to evacuate.
-Learn first aid and CPR, find out what your community’s emergency plans are.
-Vote.  Pay attention to which of your representatives supports government disaster response.  The money that goes to disaster victims is the money they (and you) have been paying in as taxes.  It is your disaster savings account.  And if it is ever your turn, you will need the same aid.

That about covers it.  I hope you decide to become a disaster volunteer or get a job with a disaster agency or company.  There’s no better feeling than helping someone who has lost everything.  I know, I’ve been there.

Allexperts.com

The New Dust Bowl

The New Dust Bowl

Long Dunes

This is an image of the formally fertile Texas Panhandle.  These dunes are created by topsoil blown from tilled fields which have received no significant rain for months.  We are having frequent dust storms which obscure visual range and cause traffic accidents.  And soon, no doubt, we will begin having riotous range fires.

On a typical day in the Spring, sustained winds in Amarillo, Texas may run thirty miles per hour, gusting to sixty.  Downslope winds coming from the mountains of New Mexico dry as they expand, wringing any humidity from the air as it travels Eastward.  Likewise, air coming in Westward over the Caprock is forced up and cools rapidly, causing precipitation to fall before it reaches us.  All this results in nothing but dry, hot air.  And it’s getting drier and hotter.

Native plant which grow here are used to little precipitation.  This is, after all, a high, arid desert.  But with irrigation and an acceptable annual rainfall in the past, this area grew wheat, sorghum, soybeans and cotton.  Now, with an average rainfall of less than two inches per month, very little grows here without a huge amount of irrigation.  With the dryness of the air, tremendous amounts of water are lost to evaporation before they even hit the ground.  The water is wasted, the plants are stunted, the harvests are low. Fields are left with stunted crops unharvested, dried out: fire hazards.

Dead trees and dusty ground have thinned herds

Two Steers

The Panhandle was alive with cattle at one point.  Herds of Black Angus, Hereford Whiteface, Longhorns and Limosin roamed the area.  But as grazing land dried up, ranchers sold off their herds due to the cost of grains.  This is an image of two hybrid cattle on a dusty, overgrazed field.  Many of the trees here are dead, the rest twisted to the Northwest from the constant push of the Southwest winds.  A fire in this field would spread in an instant, fueled by the bone-dry vegetation and high winds.  It would travel faster than these two steers could go, roasting them alive before anyone could get there to help them.  It’s happened before.

Firefighters can barely keep up with the fast moving flames.  Grass fires create their own winds as the rapidly rising hot air sucks in the relatively cooler air along the ground surface.  The firestorm pulls in fuel, oxygen, rocks, and builds strength as it travels.  They are hot, they are quick, they are deadly.  In Arizona last year 19 firefighters were killed in one blaze alone.  Every day we have fire weather warning.  We keep our fingers crossed.

calf or foal being covered by drifting dust

Dead Calf

The losses suffered are not just financial.  This image is of a young foal being covered in the drifting sand is not remarkable in itself.  What is frightening about this scene is that at three o’clock in the afternoon, at a temperature of 88 degrees, there was not a single fly on this carcass.  Under ordinary circumstances, there would be a visible cloud of them on and over the body.  But there were none.

In fact, in 1974 there were grasshoppers, cicadas, dragonflies, ants, praying mantis, bees, wasps, beetles and any number of other insects in the area.  Car windshields had to be cleaned of insect parts after a drive in the country.  There would be swarms of gnats, mosquitos, mayflies and other flying creatures in the yards, fields and ponds.  Now there are not.  Our cars are not covered with bugs, just mud.  There aren’t roly-polys under the rocks, just sand.  Our wasp problems have solved themselves.

As for the birds that used to eat those bugs?  They’ve just disappeared.  We have the occasional Robin, but the others: meadowlarks, mockingbirds, flycatchers- they’ve moved on. Instead we have sparrows, finches and doves; the seed eaters.

I have a story told to me by a friend about a local rancher and his elderly mother.  The rancher went over to his mother’s house during a particularly bad recent dust storm.  He found her crying at the window.  When he asked what was wrong, she turned to him and said, “This is how it started the first time.”

The geographical center of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, according to filmmaker Ken Burns, is just short of two hours’ drive from here.  There are still a lot of older adults who remember the harsh, dry conditions and the monster, daylight eating dust storms.

They are afraid.

I am too.

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