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How To Help – After the Disaster

There have been a LOT of disasters lately – the earthquakes in Japan, the floods in New England, the tornado in Joplin, MO and most vividly in my mind, the horrible wildfires in Bastrop, Texas.

In the past, I have been a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was a Red Cross volunteer during Katrina/Rita (in Bryan, TX – where THOUSANDS of evacuees passed through), I have even gone to offer the Red Cross assistance to people who had normal house fires.  I thought that I KNEW, that I understood what people in disasters were going through but…

But, I didn’t know anything and honestly – most people who have NOT been through some sort of natural disaster have no flippin clue as to what is really going on in the minds of those affected.  (Notice that I didn’t say “victims” – I am NOT a victim.)

I also realize that most people, at least those who have a bit of compassion for others, that people want to HELP.  (Cue in the Beatles song – Help, I need somebody, Help, anybody….)  But, what people are thinking of doing and what is actually useful – 2 different things it seems.

So, I asked my fellow fire people for thoughts on what to do and give and what not to do and give…  The following is a list of suggestions and thoughts based off of our experiences of the past month.  It is in no way intended to make anyone feel bad – we realize that the best of intentions are meant with any offer… and in that, I at least, TOTALLY APPRECIATE whatever is given.  But, it is meant to help and guide you for the next time that the sky falls… PLEASE add to the list in the comments – this is in no way a difinitive list…


This is for the 1-5 days post disaster portion…

toiletries are nice – but if you can’t get it to them like immediately – they will have gone to Target or the grocery store and bought deodorant on their own.  Some things can’t wait.

Good books – as in, fiction books from the best sellers list.  I read “The Help” during the first week and it was the perfect thing.  I needed a way to escape my current new reality AND something to do at 2 am after I got the one hour of sleep for the night.

Craft kits – Do you know a person involved in the disaster who was a knitter, crocheter, quilter, cross stitcher…?  Under normal evacuation conditions, yarn is not one of the things that makes it out the door.  And yet, there’s lots of scientific evidence out there supporting the meditative like qualities that handiwork induces… which right now, is needed more than ever.  Plus, for a crafty person, having something to do with their hands is helpful in times like this.  Put together a zip bag of pretty yarn, the right sized needles or hook and a simple scarf or hat pattern, or potholder patttern… or a new cross stitch kit or…

DVDs – especially for kids.  We relied on Sesame Street, Dora, Caillou… the types will change based on the age of the kids, but they are all good.  Kids need to escape and feel “normal” too.  Going back to familiar shows helped to relax Rosie and provided distractions while her Papa and I called numerous folks and dealt with the vast number of insurance calls, family calls and our own nervous breakdowns.

At this point, especially once the fate of a disaster person’s home has been determined, people are going to start asking that omni-present question:  “What do you need?”

“I don’t know” was normally my answer.

I realize that this is frustrating for those of you who want to help, but really, I have and had no idea.  I needed everything and nothing.  I mean, I’m not POOR, right?  After all, we’re raised to think that “It’s better to Give than to Recieve”… and now you’re expecting me to reverse years of training and take stuff?  Despite the obviousness of everything, it still takes a while to get used to…

Also, I’m not one of those people you see on TV… except, that this time, I WAS one of the people.  It takes a while for us involved to wrap our brains around the fact that our situation is being talked about AROUND THE WORLD.  That people in France and Japan heard the words Bastrop Texas on their news programs and they were talking about my sky falling.  It’s crazy.

So… we’ll talk about a few basic rules of disaster assistance.

The I DON’T KNOW rule –  If the person you’re wanting to help utters those words and you still want to help but don’t know how – SEND MONEY.  I know, not politically correct, but oh so useful.  Gift cards work great, too.  You’d be AMAZED at how much money you spend in the first couple of weeks buying things like underwear and deodorant and eating out and gas and ….

The NIKE SHOE RULE – If a disaster person asks for help with a specific thing – JUST DO IT.  Don’t complain about it, don’t pester them with a zillion questions, JUST DO IT.  This, in a very non-pc and not grandmother approved but very common post-disaster terminology, is also known as the “just f-ing do it” rule.

The I WISH RULE – If you utter these words to a disaster person, “I wish there was something I could do to help” and then, when the person you’ve said this to replies with a list of things that you CAN do to help and suddenly you’re busy… you can see how this is not helpful and causes more distress for the already greatly distressed person.  If you want to help, help, if you don’t – stay in your house and try to avoid the rocks being thrown your way by everyone else who is helping.

The DO WHAT YOU OFFERED TO DO rule – If you agree to provide a specific assistance and then don’t or don’t do it in a timely manner… well, again with the rocks.   We folks in the midst of the fun don’t have time to worry if you’re actually going to pick up the pack of undies or not and are trusting you to be good to your word.  Now is not the time to not follow through.

The NOT THAT DESPERATE rule – When donating items to relief centers, please realize that your items need to be in GOOD CONDITION.  If you have things that are damaged that might be OK for a thrift store donation (where people expect things to need a little help) – this is NOT OK for donation centers.  I got some really cute shorts but with a missing button.  Some great silk pants – that the hooks were missing on… I don’t have time, energy or the supplies to fix this stuff!  Basically – if you don’t want an item in your house or closet, then no one else will want it either – even if they have nothing else.

When donating clothes, a little sorting goes a long ways.  PLEASE…

– label and sort your clothes and put in different boxes.  Label by gender and size.  Please realize that we are already without a home – we don’t need to LOOK homeless too!

Below is a list of things that can be included for the longer term relief…

– Babysitting.  Talking with the friendly folks at FEMA is usually easier without a screaming 2 year old.

– Calgon – as in “Calgon, take me away”… OK, so this might not ever really be used, but with a note with the commercial catch line on it, it might provide a very rare commodity in post disaster situations – a laugh.

– Don’t send stuffed toys for kids unless you are replacing a specific beloved toy.  There were MOUNTAINS of stuffed toys at donation centers.

– Jewelry.  Some pretty earrings or a necklace.  Not on the “need” list that most of us are using right now, but it will help the soul of the woman that it goes to – again, a less tangible but ever so needed item.

– Music.  Know your friends musical taste?  Did they loose their collection, too?  I still don’t have any CDs to play in my new RV… but thanks to a friend sending a gift card to Amazon, a few choices will be on their way soon.  Again – this helps in the relaxing stage.

– Storage space.  In the first weeks post disaster, we get offered lots of stuff, but often, our living situations are not yet determined (and can’t be – insurance takes a while)… having a place to store the great furniture donated is a huge help.

– Craft store gift cards.  Again – not “needed” but a bit of yarn or fabric that I get to pick out?

– Call me.  I will need time to vent, to process to know that I have friends.  Phone calls are hugely important.

– Services.  Are you a photographer?  Offer to take pictures of the family to make new memories.  Do you make furniture?  Quilts?  Cook well?  Providing a meal or two is a huge help.

– Clean up services.  Have a tractor and trailer?  Chainsaw?  Muscles?  Right now (4 weeks out from the fire) we’re starting cleaning up our property.  Taking the scrap metal (old truck, metal roof, fridge…) to the metal recycler is a huge help.  Cutting down trees (we hired a family friend), planting back green stuff (eventually)… theres LOTS to do and we will need lots of help.

– Stuff that they had before.  I LOVED my Fiestaware dishes… And a friend gave me a set.  Yes, there were other dishes that came my way before I got my new Fiestaware, but … These are another step back to “normal”.  Be sure to ask first, but often it is the mundane things being replaced that help the most.

GETTING BACK TO NORMAL – Even though there will never be normal again, having some things that you had before, like my Fiestaware, or a bird feeder, or the cute sheets on the toddler’s bed… it helps us feel like we will be OK.  That bit of the familiar during all of the chaos, helps.  It just does.

Finally, the best thing that I can tell you as far as helping post disaster:


Anything is better than not helping at all.

It is in times like this that we find out who our true friends are, what family members truly care about us – it is a brief moment of clarity.  Be one of the people who we remember as being there in our time of need, call, send money, babysit, cut down trees…

Many thanks to those of you whom I can count as having been there for me in the past month.  The recovery is just now beginning – thanks for helping us start out on the path back to a “new” normal.


7 responses »

  1. Megan Swicegood

    Thanks so much for sharing this. Sometimes I get paralyzed by all the choices there are for ways to help. It’s so hard to know what really helps and what doesn’t. I know that anything helps, but when giving my time, energy, and money, I’d much rather it be something really comforting and that helps someone move back to normal. Thanks so much for sharing.

  2. Love y’all so much!!!

  3. Thank you for posting this – it’s so nice to get an honest and straightforward perspective on what we can do to help those faced with such a disaster. Much love to you and your family –

  4. Heading this way from Caitlin’s recommendation. Thanks SOO much for this super useful list based on your first-hand experience!

  5. I’m printing this out. First, to have In Case. Second, because Caitlin and I (I’m her mom) have a good friend who lost her house in the New England floods and, while I HAVE helped, this will help me help more. Third, maybe the carry-the-umbrella-so-it-won’t-rain rule will work–if I print it out, I won’t ever need it. Thanks for this, and, oh, one thing you didn’t cover–how do I say “good luck with everything” and sound like I really, truly, truly, do mean it?

  6. Pingback: What To Say to a Disaster Person « Life on the (Clothes) Line

  7. Thanks for taking the time to post this “How to Help” info and your other “What to Say” blog entry.

    Most folks (at least I think it’s true for most people, and I hope it’s not just me) are totally clueless about what to say & do when others are dealing with monumental challenges unlike anything they have ever faced themselves.

    I’ve copied & pasted your insights into a doc on my hard-drive for future reference… so someday you might just be responsible for one less insensitive comment or lame attempt at helping! (REALLY!)


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