VOICE: Disasters: What Can I Do?

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Your phone lights up with story after story about the huge hurricane that just hit down south. Floods, fires, hurricanes… the world is experiencing disaster after disaster and you want to help. What can you do?

Start by asking critical questions like those below. Then, check the blog later this week for more tools and resources that address natural disasters.


The urge to help people is a normal response to these kinds of disasters. You want to send them water, clothing, food, shoes and more – the photos and videos of people evacuating have really gotten to you and you just want to help. However, it’s important for you to know a few things before you start clearing out your closets, garages and local stores to donate to disaster-affected people.

Immediately after a disaster, the true needs of the community are still unknown. Although well-intentioned, most disaster relief workers will tell you that the flood of unwanted material donations that starts showing up almost immediately is known as “the second disaster”. Stop for a moment and picture a community devastated by wildfires. The ground is still smoking, first responders are on site and community members haven’t yet been allowed home. Now imagine 3 tractor-trailers of used, second-hand clothing arriving that night. Who takes responsibility for these donations? Is the highway even open into the community? How will these items get to community members who aren’t even in the community at this point? What happens with leftover items? Who pays for sorting, processing, storing and distributing these “free” items?

In the Slave Lake wildfires in Alberta in 2011 (at the time the largest disaster in the history of Alberta) truckloads of goods came in from across Canada. It became a logistical nightmare for the community, who had to eventually rent warehouse space, sort through and throw out items (such as bags of old underwear or half-full bags of dog food) or arrange to have it shipped to Calgary and then overseas. This unwanted burden on a community already facing major challenges is definitely not helpful and should be avoided.


QUESTION: What can I send that would help?

TIP #1: Don’t clean out your closets, garage or local stores to donate goods to people – give cash instead!

IDEA: Host a garage or community sale with your unwanted items and raise some cash to donate!

Consider this list from a Slave Lake report about donating goods vs. cash:

Donations of clothes, furniture & household items:

  • need sorting, cleaning and storing
  • are very labour intensive
  • can cost staff time and facility rental
  • can be counter-productive
  • up to 75% may not be used and could require disposal

Cash donations are:

  • much simpler to deal with
  • can be used in diverse ways
  • can be used when needed
  • maintains dignity, pride and freedom to purchase according to personal needs
  • can be designated to specific uses to revitalize the economy

There are even more reasons why it’s best to give cash to reputable organizations instead of donating goods. Organizations often have agreements in place with major suppliers that not only make your donation go further, but can be organized and timed to suit the real needs of the community when most needed. Due to these corporate agreements, matching donor programs, or bulk buying power, the $1 you give can often turn into $7 or more for disaster response efforts.

It’s also true that people affected by disasters tend to prefer cash over in-kind aid (donated items) due to the dignity, control and flexibility it gives them. Think about what it would be like to be evacuated with only the clothes on your back, or to have your home burn down… would you rather dig through piles of donated items or buy what you need? People reeling from a disaster are helped by being able to make these decisions for themselves.

QUESTION: What about international disasters?

For international disasters, the first tip still applies: don’t send goods, send money. However, there are a few other things to think about when figuring out how you can help people on the other side of the world following a disaster like an earthquake, hurricane, or tsunami.

First, let’s talk about how the international humanitarian system works. In global disaster response, major organizations typically coordinate their efforts to ensure needs are met. There is a “cluster system” under the United Nations that helps to ensure a coordinated response to disasters in-country. The ‘clusters’ are just key response areas in which various humanitarian organizations take action to provide water & sanitation, shelter, health services and much more. This approach helps to provide a systematic approach to humanitarian response, ensuring the key players are communicating and prioritizing needs, while coordinating and collaborating on response areas.

Although it’s been around since 2005 as an established part of the disaster response system, some organizations still try to work outside the system, complicating response efforts. Often well-meaning groups or volunteers book flights to countries immediately following a disaster out of a desire to help, but end up accomplishing little and requiring resources (flights, accommodations, food) needed by disaster-affected residents or trained responders.

QUESTION: Does the organization I support follow best practices and have proven experience? 

TIP #2: Support reputable, experienced international relief organizations!

IDEA: Do your research and look at a number of different news sources when decided what organization to support.

There are international guidelines around disaster response, including very specific minimum standards for any provision of services. These guidelines, known as the SPHERE Standards, offer clear standards for important services such as food security, shelter construction, water & sanitation, or health. It’s important to support experienced organizations that know how to effectively meet the needs of people displaced by disasters.

QUESTION: How can I sign up to be a volunteer ahead of time?

TIP #3: Volunteer, and get trained before a disaster!

IDEA: Get a group of friends, classmates or family members together and attend a training session. Do some online searching and register today!

Many organizations like the Red Cross provide training for volunteers before a disaster, to have a list of trained people they can call when disaster strikes. Many other NGOs, faith-based organizations and groups offer similar training.

The Government of Canada has a great summary of the best ways to respond to a disaster, whether international or domestic. They also have details on how to help and where to find more information about experienced humanitarian organizations.


In summary, there’s a lot you can do to help after a disaster! Just make sure you’re going about it in a way that will get the right kind of help, at the right time, in the right way, to those who are most affected.

Follow along with current events through these resources:

The Guardian – Natural Disasters

Canadian Space Agency – International Satellites Supporting Disaster Management

CBC Archives – Natural Disasters


Written by: Grace Van Mil


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