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Lessons from Sandy: How to Avoid a Second Disaster

by Janine Boylan on January 21, 2013

Tools symbolizing the need to avoid a second disaster by making good choices when you donate after disasters like Hurricane Sandy

Donations of tools: helpful or costly after a disaster?
© Thinkstock

Making Good Choices—Will You Give a Hand? Or the Shirt Off Your Back?

Hurricane Sandy tore through the Northeast nearly three months ago. While Congress debates aid funding, millions of people are donating to the victims. Are they making good choices? What choice would you make? Take our poll.

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Nonsensical Donations

You probably didn’t choose the last answer in our poll. But these are real items that supposedly well-intentioned people donated after different disasters. Obviously, the victims didn’t ask for them.

Instead, those absurd items needed to be stored or transferred somewhere else. That took time, effort, and money away from helping the victims. Dealing with heaps of unwanted items like these is what relief teams call the second disaster.

Piles and Piles

A natural, immediate response to disaster is the desire to help those in need. Sending clothing to those who have lost everything seems like a very logical, helpful contribution. I have done it.

piles of clothes, showing the second diaster and not making good choices when you donate after disasters like Hurricane Sandy

Piles and piles of donated clothing can lead to a second disaster.
© Thinkstock

But since then, I’ve learned that chaotic, unsorted mountains of clothes are not always that helpful. Shoes can be especially troublesome because one shoe tends to wander away from its mate when there are hundreds of them in a vast storage area. And the victims often don’t want baskets of clothes or single shoes. OIC!

Believe it or not, without planning, food can also be a problematic donation. If no one expected it and it can’t be distributed quickly, the perishable donations turn to mold.

And while victims may eventually need appliances, they certainly wouldn’t ask for a fancy food processor when they don’t even have everyday supplies like garbage bags.

Even building materials that no one requested become problematic. When people need crowbars or hammers, receiving two hundred shovels isn’t constructive.

Organizations always are trying to find ways to encourage appropriate gifts while not discouraging enthusiastic givers. As a relief worker in Joplin, Mo., told the Los Angeles Times after the 2011 tornado there, “We have been overwhelmed by disorganized generosity.”

An “Oh, I See” Idea

John Heggestuen and Alex Nordenson, like many others, responded to the Sandy disaster by volunteering their time. (Did you choose that response in our poll?)

While volunteering at Occupy Sandy, the friends quickly noticed that clothing donations were growing, but victims were not taking them. People explained that they really needed things like cleaning supplies and diapers.

Alex remarked that the organization needed something like a wedding registry to connect eager donors to the exact gifts that people needed.

John had a Oh, I See moment. Just as Alex suggested, he set up a wedding registry list on Amazon, listing the bride and groom as “Occupy Sandy.” He and other volunteers added exactly the items that victims were requesting.

And the result? Meaningful donations started pouring in immediately. More than $1 million worth of needed items have been purchased for and delivered to those who need them, including everything from infant formula to generators.

After that, other branches of Occupy Sandy followed John’s idea and set up more gift registries. Since so many people still need help, the organizations update their lists to reflect the changing needs. The organizers are careful to not only list how many of each product they need, but what its priority is. Below is an example of a request for respirators because, as the listing states, “people are coming down with serious respiratory problems from breathing mold.”

gift registry showing lessons learned from Sandy: how to avoid a second disaster

Occupy Sandy Staten Island’s gift registry on amazon.com

What’s the Key to Making Good Choices?

So what is my OIC lesson from Sandy about giving? We need to listen and find out what others need before we give. I’m thankful for the reputable relief organizations and local groups who are in the Northeast to do this for me.

Once I know what people need, I can go about making good choices—informed choices—about my giving and avoid that second disaster. If others need money, my time, or even a golden prom dress, I can decide how to give it.

I know there are creative ways to share what disaster victims need besides wedding registries. Share your stories in the Comments below.

Or inspire insight with your own OIC Moment here.


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