Think before you donate items in response to a natural disaster. That’s the message relief agencies desperately wish to send to well-meaning individuals.
Nice gestures and good intentions often translate to nightmares for the victims of natural disasters and the relief organizations trying to help them.
According to CBS News, wherever a disaster strikes, there are often mountains of unneeded and useless donations that pile up in warehouses, beaches, landfills, airport runways, and just about every other place imaginable.
“Generally after a disaster, people with loving intentions donate things that cannot be used in a disaster response, and in fact may actually be harmful,” Juanita Rilling, director of the Center for International Disaster Information in Washington, D.C., told CBS. “And they have no idea that they’re doing it.
“The thinking is that these people have lost everything, so they must NEED everything. So people SEND everything,” Ms. Rilling told CBS.
In disasters such as the Houston floods, another flood of useless and incomprehensible donations strikes soon after. According to CBS, relief workers have dubbed these contributions “the second disaster.”
Among those items: winter coats and jackets in hot, tropical regions, prom gowns, high-heel shoes, single shoes, wigs, pumpkins, tiger costumes, tons of clothing that are usually dirty and ripped, and — believe it or not — used tea bags. Such donations invariably have to be set on fire, warehoused, or disposed of because there is insufficient help to open, clean, sort, and distribute items.
Even items that are useful, such as bottled water, can be wasteful and misguided contributions to the point of tragedy. Ms. Rilling told CBS of one case in which someone sent 100,000 liters of bottled water from the U.S. to West Africa at a cost of about $300,000. While that water provided drinking water for 40,000 people for one day, the money could have been invested in portable water purification units that would have supplied the same amount of water, sans bottles, for about $300.
“It is heartbreaking,” Ms. Rilling told CBS. “It’s heartbreaking for the donor, it’s heartbreaking for the relief organizations, and it’s heartbreaking for survivors. This is why cash donations are so much more effective. They buy exactly what people need, when they need it.”
She explained that money doesn’t feel personal enough for many people, so they want to send something that is theirs. However, cash donations empower agencies to purchase items locally in the quantities needed. That also means the items are fresh and familiar to disaster victims and local merchants are supported, which gives the economy of the devastated region a much-needed boost.