How can we help when natural disasters happen?
¿Cómo ayudar ante un desastre ambiental?
febrero 6, 2023

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«Earthquakes do not kill, what kills is the lack of infrastructure, the chaos, the lack of preparation, resources and capacities»

Badaoui Rouhban, Former Director of UNESCO’s Disaster Prevention Unit.

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* 1998, Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras. More than 11,000 people died. More than a million and a half were left homeless.

Sergio was coordinating the on-site relief team when he received a wake-up call: “I got a call from one of our logistics experts who said a plane full of supplies couldn’t land because there were clothes on the runway. It’s in boxes and bales, and we can’t move them.» «Whose clothes are they?» He wondered, «Well, I don’t know whose it is, but there’s one high-heeled shoe, just one, and a bale of winter coats.» «winter coats? It’s summer in Honduras.»

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* 2004, after the Indian Ocean tsunami, an Indonesian beach was littered with used clothing. There was no time for disaster workers to sort and clean old clothes. So the contributions just sat and rotted away.

They quickly turned toxic and had to be destroyed, volunteers and local governments poured gasoline on them and set it on fire, and then it all went out to sea. This lack of foresight between the aid, volunteers and locals has been like one of the «worst catastrophes of the good intentions of aid».

In addition to this, two years later, in a study to measure the effectiveness of the help received during construction, they found out that communities were given the choice to choose between first-class houses or common-benefit houses; The families who choose first-class were left without further help.  Local economies collapsed due to the great inequality that was generated in housing.

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* 2017, Earthquake in Mexico , aid arrived for billions of dollars, both national and foreign aid. Much of this was donated in items due to the lack of confidence of donors to make a monetary contribution that does not translate into help. Result? Warehouses full of donations with no one to distribute them, local leaders hoarding the aid, and riots of people «stealing» them.

In the end, the government had to monopolize all aid in order to manage it efficiently, causing even more anger from those helping and those affected.

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* 2017, Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, leaving thousands of people displaced and homeless; the Infrastructure of many cities collapsed, so aid was sent in millions of bottled water.

Weeks later, the USAID Center for International Disaster Information reported with great concern: «We had to learn the hard way that used clothes and bottled water are not useful items to gather when trying to help, they just waste time, money and effort our volunteers.”

This is because bottled water is very expensive to ship and store, and creates a problem when it is not requested. It cost $350,000 USD to ship 100,000 litres of bottled water. For just $300 USD, aid groups can purchase a water purification filter that provides 1,000 litres of water.

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* 2018. Guatemala, the Fuego volcano erupts, leaving at least 50 dead and thousands homeless. Although the aid is already mobilized, there are already problems in the logistics, like this one organized by a priest from El Salvador, who collected tons of donations from local communities, just to be abandoned.

4 tucks with 15 tons of help were sent back to El Salvador due to none in Guatemala could receive it.

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* 2023. Syria y Turkey, dozens of earthquakes, with a maximum of 7.8 on the Richter scale, hit the border of Syria and Turkey, an area with more than 5 million people.

The world has turned to offer help but finds a geopolitical barrier in the region. Turkey has received the most aid, especially from the European Union and the United States, but Syria is excluded.

The reception of aid in Turkey is managed by the government, but many refuse to give aid to the Syrian government, and the Syrian government conditions aid reception only through them, which makes sense, but this tension makes this tragedy even more catastrophic.

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How can we help more efficiently ?

Who has had the opportunity to work professionally in social and humanitarian initiatives, we call the immediate overflow of aid the «Second Disaster.» Leaving even more victims than in the original disaster.

This small guide allows you to give some tips to better organize help:

1. Wait.

Solidarity requires an immediate response, especially after seeing photos and videos of the victims invading the networks. It hits our hearts and compels us to do something.

However, the Disaster Relief Funds are already in motion as they aim at allocating funds for this type of disaster.

These funds are precisely for disasters and emergencies. Support is needed when reconstruction efforts come when funds are scarce.

Your effort is required AFTER the disaster when the emergency moves to diagnosis and reconstruction efforts.

Nevertheless, if an emergency deserves an immediate response, like an earthquake, where the need for rescues is urgent, the best help relies on providing financial aid to local organizations.

Also, support pledges to send specialized human and technical teams to rescue.

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2. Before donating, ask these questions:

There are already dozens of fundraising campaigns in circulation in all parts of the world through events and crowdfunding campaigns, so ask yourself these questions before donating:

1. Who manages the aid?

2. Where does the aid go?

3. Do they have the logistical capacity to do it?

4. Is urgent the type of help they ask for?

5. How do they measure the application of this aid? Eg Number of people, regions, items purchased, meals, etc.

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3.Give money instead of items.

Managing aid: people, money, infrastructure, services, etc., requires precise logistics and efficient coordination, which is why few NGOs can do it.

Regardless of our political preferences or feelings, the government is the one who best coordinates aid, however, community leaders play a relevant role when it comes to making reality diagnoses.

If you know someone coordinating aid, help them first: What do you really need?

Ask them to give you a list of items they need, and ask for DONATIONS to buy them, TRY TO AVOID donating stuff since you will only create chaos of aid receptions.

The best thing you can do to help those who coordinate the aid is to be able to donate money to finance their operation.

You do not necessarily have to donate to a government, embassy or NGO.

You can also donate to local companies near the disaster: Hotels, supermarkets, schools, churches and even shelters set up for displaced people. 

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4. Join a campaign instead of organizing one.

We know that these moments generate a lot of expectation, attention and of course, cameras. Although I am not against the opportunity that some NGOs and companies can make use of good communication to teach their social responsibility, it is i

We know that moments like this generate a lot of expectation, attention and cameras. I am not against the chance for some NGOs and companies to make good communication and showcase their social responsibility, we need to accept there are organizations with a better reach and ability to help efficiently (point 2).

Join existing campaigns, and locate the best campaign and organizer. If you are a company making a donation, you can use their material as promotional material to invite others to donate.

We must always respect and recognize the initiative, commitment and goodwill of the organizations with more experience in helping.

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5. Entertainment is also crucial. 

One of the simplest and most efficient ways to help is to ask someone who is close to the disaster area to open the doors of their house to make games for children, recreational activities, readings, and music for the affected people, or If you know someone who can make these type of activities, you can fundraise to carry out these activities.

Psychological help through recreation is frequently ignored but it is highly important.

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6. Do not forget about the animals. 

If there is an animal shelter or an NGO that is coordinating help for animals, they will also need help. Consider donating money, effort or time to help these initiatives.

Do you have more tips or comments on how to better help in a natural disaster?
Share it with me: @Arrucha
I will include them in this post.

Autor: Roberto A. Arrucha – @Arrucha Director – The Global School for Social Leaders