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Responding to Disaster with Compassion… and Cash?

This week, the country continues to watch in distress as the people of Texas and Louisiana struggle with the danger and damage caused by Hurricane Harvey. We’ve all seen the images- highways washed out, rescue boats searching through neighborhoods, nursing home residents waiting patiently for assistance as the water rises around them. It’s easy to feel helpless when you consider a natural disaster of this magnitude, and it can be frustrating to be so geographically far from the issue. How are you and I supposed to make a difference thousands of miles away here in Connecticut?  My first urge is to send something, anything, to the people who have lost everything. Food, maybe? Clothes? Toys? Toilet paper?

While this reaction is pretty common, it may not be the most practical (or effective) approach to aiding disaster victims. In fact, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy’s CEO Bob Ottenhoff says that in this case, sending physical items to a disaster-affected area only complicates things further:

"This is not the time to be donating products or even services. That's frequently the urge, and most often that is the wrong thing to do. ...With the floods blocking off streets, when warehouses are not available, there's no place for these products — there's no place to store anything, there's no place to distribute anything. And that's going to be the case for some time."

 It makes sense that I want to send a tangible product- I want to feel useful, to go out and purchase something and know that it is now being used by someone else. I can picture someone eating a can of soup or wearing that T-shirt that I put in the mail. But oftentimes, the biggest impact comes from another kind of donation: simple, boring cash.

"I say donate funds, because we can use those to purchase exactly the type of disaster relief supplies that are going to be most helpful," says Derrick Chubbs, president and CEO of the Central Texas Food Bank in Austin. "It also avoids complications of sorting and having to distribute varied types of food items."

That’s logical- as someone thousands of miles away who’s never lived through a disaster of this scale, how would I know what kind of supplies or services are needed? But by donating to a charity I trust, I can ensure that my resources will be used to the full extent of their capacity. In addition, many charity and relief organizations have arrangements with suppliers that allow them to purchase products at reduced prices, so the $1.19 you spent on one can of soup at the store could’ve bought two cans if it was purchased by an area food bank (fun fact: the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center has some arrangements like this). So donating money is a yes, but to where?

This one’s up to you. If there’s a particular organization you’re familiar with and passionate about, go for it. If you’re not sure, look for an organization that has an established reputation, and do your research (don’t fall for scams!). And think about what kind of assistance you want to offer- are you looking to contribute to immediate rescue and relief, or to long-term rebuilding efforts helping people get back on their feet? Both are equally important. While United Way partners with organizations like the American Red Cross and Salvation Army that provide immediate relief, our particular focus is on mid and long-term recovery. United Way Worldwide recently established a Harvey recovery fund, with 100% of donations going to local United Ways in Texas and Louisiana. The local agencies they support will be crucial for disaster victims as they reestablish their lives in the coming months and years.

While the stories and images of Hurricane Harvey’s effects are heart-wrenching, it gives me hope to see so many people reaching out with compassion to support one another. I’m inspired by people’s willingness to care for strangers and the resilience shown by members of the affected communities.

Live United,