Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Disaster After the Disaster

For all the evil in the world and all the bad things that happen to good people, there are so many more people who care and who want to help. This ratio of bad things (few) to good people (many) is what keeps this world going, and its a good thing 99 percent of the time.

However, sometimes all the good people help too much.

Like the 60,000 Teddy bears overwhelming Newtown, Connecticut. If you can read the article above from the Associated Press (in the Jan. 7, 2013 Wall Street Journal), the town has its city tax assessor organizing a warehouse and 800 volunteers to deal with the influx of donations.

Some experts call this phenomenon of too much help the disaster after the disaster. Newtown is overwhelmed and has been learning to turn away donations.

This issue of too much (or dare I say, misguided) help isn't unique to towns in the East coast recovering from a school shooting. Warehouses of stuff from people with good hearts have piled up in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and in tornado-struck Joplin, Missouri, for example.

The problem of receiving help from people whose hearts are bigger than their philanthropic savvy is even being built into crisis plans. The Michigan Department of State Police Emergency Management and Homeland Security Division includes donations management as part of its Disaster Management Plan.

A key quote:
Non-useful and unwanted donations can be expected.  Such items may include unsorted dirty or climate-inappropriate clothing, used mattresses, highly perishable foods, worn-out or cast-off items (junk), etc.  These items must be planned for and disposed of in a manner that would not be considered offensive to the giving party.  (Such disposal activities should not be publicized in any manner.)

In addition to the logistics issues posed by overwhelming amounts of donations, comes the sensitive issue of saying thanks, but no thanks. The Michigan disaster plan notes helpfully that if you plan to just chuck all the (junk) in the trash then such disposal activities should not be publicized in any manner.

I hate to say it but maybe they should let people know their junk is well, junk. All those church groups collecting knitted blankets, all the civic clubs collecting gently used toys, all the Facebook initiatives to send a box of chocolate or a bike or a helium balloon to every victim, MAYBE THEY NEED TO KNOW THEY ARE WASTING TIME AND MONEY.

Is the fact that you are well-intentioned absolve you from taking responsibility for causing the poor people of Newtown to sort and box THOUSANDS of teddy bears that they don't want?

During every disaster there are real needs. Needs for food, clothing, shelter, even soft knitted scarves and Teddy bears but just shipping stuff to The People of [insert tragically struck City here] isn't the way to do it.

There are great aid organizations both locally and nationally for every situation. Seek them out through reputable news sources. They probably just need money. But find out what they do need before sending anything, no matter how good YOU feel about your donation. Don't become part of the disaster after the disaster.


  1. Nicely put, "... people whose hearts are bigger than their philanthropic savvy." I couldn't believe it when I saw local media publicizing on FB that a school district was collecting donations and sending a truck. "The disaster after the disaster" is certainly well known enough that they should know better; but, for every FB comment of, "this is NOT what these people need," there were at least a dozen, "they need to know we are thinking of them and this is how to do it." I was amazed, and not in a good way.

  2. This is a subject that people have passion about.Culturally we don't like to point out when people have good hearts but terrible execution. Just read the comments on the disaster article that I link to.

    I haven't seen anything but I do wonder also about the programs to send boxes to "any soldier." Is there logistics at the other end to handle the influx? Maybe there is.

  3. What a wonderful message! This reminds me for Martin Luther King Jr, before he gave his famous speech "I have a Dream...". One of the things I remember reading is that he knew that he life was a risk and a lot of his friends where telling him to sit this one out. But he responded something to the effect of, "how can I rest while evil continues to work everyday all the time. No, I must continue to fight for what is right and good!"


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