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What you may not know about disaster relief

  • Are you prepared in the case of a disaster? Are you sure?
  • Insurance, organization, long-term plans are all things that slip through the cracks when the unthinkable happens
What you may not know about disaster relief

No matter how many times a hurricane churns off the coast or a tornado touches down in an unsuspecting area, the aftermath of a disaster is often met with confusion. Concerned citizens want to help, and affected residents want to know the best way to recover. When it comes down to brass tacks, what do you need to know about disaster relief?

HLN spoke to Caitria O'Neill, the CEO of In June 2011, a tornado unexpectedly ripped through her hometown of Monson, Massachusetts. O'Neill and her sister decided to devote their time and interests to lead volunteer coordination efforts and create an infrastructure for sustained relief. Since then, the sisters have headed up, which helps other towns handle recovery efforts after disaster strikes.

We asked O'Neill for the most important advice she could give to those affected by disaster, to those who might be, and to those who just want to help.

HLN: What are some of the first questions that arise after a disaster? What are some of the first needs?

Caitria: Believe it or not, the first needs are usually on the part of people who want to help. Typically, people who want to help are ready long before the people who need help are ready for it. The first needs on the ground are generally for organization. Somebody in the immediate area has to step up and start regulating all of these donation items and all of these volunteers. Someone needs to make sure people know to not just show up and drop things off, they need to go through a community organizer.

HLN: What are some of the things people in the midst of a disaster area always forget?

CO: As a homeowner, your responsibility is to be able to take care of yourself for 72 hours after a disaster. It may take that long for people to reach you and provide immediate aid. The second is, people don't know what the responsibility of large aid organizations are. [After the tornado in Massachusetts,] I was expecting FEMA to parachute through my broken roof and fix it, but that’s not their responsibility. My expectation were completely off-center. It turns out local agencies like churches, libraries and spontaneous citizens are often tasked with debris management and cleaning up after a disaster.

HLN: For people who are not in the affected area, but have friends, family or concerns in the area, how should they attempt to contact or enter the area?

CO: Use technology. Use the Red Cross Safe and Well Program. For every Red Cross shelter, there is supposed to be a log where people admitted to those shelters can be found. Another one is Google People Finder, which was used to great effect after the tsunami in Japan. Going straight into an area is often dangerous, and you’re getting in the way. Do keep in mind, if you are trying to find someone, cell service and Internet could be down. Be patient. Generally someone will head to a shelter, and will be able to contact you from there.

HLN: What are some of the main problems you see in the current structure of large-scale disaster relief?

CO: No one prepares the community for what happens after the relief organizations leave. The Red Cross and other aid organizations will provide their services, but really, they don’t live there. Local organizers will end up needing to fulfill the longer-term needs. As a local organizer, I may see a lot of people giving donations and helping aid organizations, and its all going wonderfully, and then they all leave, because the relief period is drawing to a close. As an organizer, I maybe haven't been actively collecting long-term resources because I didn’t know I was going to need them. If you're in charge in the aftermath, immediately open up a database. It can be a Google doc, a handwritten list, anything, but create a resource that you can come back to when the relief period wanes.

As for public interest, people are really motivated in the first couple of days, because that’s when they're seeing pictures of the damage, and then there's usually some sort of touching loss of property or loss of life that speaks to them. But once the news cycle moves on, people don’t think about it. Something that the media can do is find follow-up stories. What I urge communities to do that have faced disaster and have trouble attracting resources, is to frame a story. Be compelling. If a family got summer clothing from FEMA, but then as winter closes in, they find themselves without coats because the community can't provide them, that’s compelling. That touches people's hearts.

HLN: What are some of the most important things to take into account when preparing for a disaster?

CO: Know ahead of time what the recovery structure in your area is going to be, get a list of phone numbers, have some sort of way that does not involve the Internet to find resources after a disaster. There are a lot of places, like elementary schools, that may actually be designated shelters that you don't know about. Be informed about what is going to be going on around you. Make sure, financially, that you are prepared in whatever way you feel necessary. If you do have insurance, make sure you understand your coverage plans. Make sure you have pictures of everything valuable in your house. Have, as part of your plan, a way of letting people know you're safe.

HLN: How can the average citizen help affected communities?

CO: No one wants to hear this, but the most flexible thing you can give is money. The trick is figuring out where to give it, but you can also give it to local organizations that will end up bearing longer term costs, like a Chamber of Commerce or local church or school.

Skilled labor is often needed, and sustained labor is needed. A lot of time you’ll have someone who is a brilliant tax attorney shoveling debris. They will do it for a day, and will feel good about it, and should, but they could have been offering their services to people whose financial situations have become confusing because of the disaster. In that way, volunteering skilled labor is just as important.

Also, there is a big rush at the beginning, but the real needs come out much later after that. Find a disaster or recovery that’s been going on. They’re not receiving the same attention, and they might be starting to feel the pinch.

If you're thinking of volunteering, you have to approach it with caution. You need to be mentally prepared for it. It’s a hard thing to do. You need to protect yourself legally. If you are going to touch anything, you need a volunteer waiver in your hands. You have to protect the people you are working for and the people who are working for you. To that end, if you do get involved, make sure you’re not a one man show. It's hard work, and it’s emotional, but it's also important. Don't underestimate the work you do.

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