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May 20, 2013

Oklahoma Tornadoes and Beyond: 5 Ways to Get Involved in Disaster Relief

The nation is focused on Moore, OK and communities surrounding it.

While I was speaking at a conference in Moore a few years ago, people told me of the tornado that hit in 1999. Moore is not rural Oklahoma, but it is a developed area, and the damage from that 1999 tornado was still fresh in their memory. Now, as the news unfolds, we see that this new tornado has brought devastating damage-- perhaps much more than in 1999.

Right now, Christians and churches are praying, but they are also asking, what can we do to help? Well, having worked at the North American Mission Board (the third largest volunteer disaster relief agency, right behind the Red Cross and Salvation Army), and having assisted in disaster relief work personally, there are a few realities to keep in mind.

Here are five key things (edited from an earlier blog post) to remember when thinking about disaster relief.

1. The time to prepare to help in a disaster is BEFORE a disaster strikes. Rushing off to a disaster zone without training or support may make you feel better, but it won't make the situation better. The Lutheran Disaster Response ministry says this:

It is nearly impossible to predict when or where a disaster is going to take place. It is possible, however, for communities to prepare for what may happen. Disaster preparedness readies us for the unexpected, and it allows for a more organized, timely, and efficient response when disaster strikes.

If you want to help, get your church involved by training in disaster relief now. For example, Samaritan's Purse has a volunteer network with a list of projects where they are currently involved. Many state conventions affiliated with the SBC provide disaster relief training in a variety of service areas. The Georgia Baptist Convention, for instance, provides training for feeding, childcare, chaplaincy, communications, and cleanup and recovery. Some conventions even have chainsaw school!

2. In most cases monetary donations are more helpful than volunteers. Yes, we live in a world where some want to DO more than they want to HELP, but at the end of the day that is more selfish than helpful. Ministering to disaster victims should be about meeting their needs, not fulfilling our need to feel helpful. The Salvation Army is blogging regularly about their disaster relief efforts. In a recent post, they explain how you can give:

  • $10: Will feed a disaster survivor for one day.
  • $30: Provides one food box, containing staple foods for a family of four, or one household cleanup kit, containing brooms, mops, buckets and other cleaning supplies
  • $100: Provides snacks and drinks for 125 survivors and emergency personnel at the scene of a disaster
  • $250: Provides one hot meal to 100 people or keep a hydration station operational for 24 hours
  • $500: Keeps a Salvation Army canteen (mobile feeding unit) fully operational for one day

It's perhaps not as personally fulfilling as delivering a warm meal in a storm shelter, but it is an effective way to help.

3. The best way to support is through established, reputable relief agencies. Relief agencies, or denominations with disaster relief agencies, are already at work before storms like Hurricane Irene even make landfall.

For another example, the Assemblies of God has an agency called Convoy of Hope. They explain its activity this past weekend in preparation for Hurricane Irene:

Convoy of Hope has deployed members of its disaster response team to North Carolina as Hurricane Irene bears down on the East Coast as a Category 2 storm. Disaster response team members will work with the local Emergency Operations Center and rendezvous at the state's pre-staging location...

"Convoy of Hope strives to maintain the ability to respond quickly and effectively to disasters," says Jeff Nene, senior director - public relations for Convoy of Hope. "Because of our logistical expertise, partners and strong relationships with government agencies and local organizations we can quickly get help to those who need it."

In other words, they are already on site making The Weather Channel look late.

4. By giving to agencies already in place, you minimize inefficiency and get resources to the areas of need. For example, Southern Baptists have assigned disaster relief coordination to the North American Mission Board. The NAMB disaster relief site explains, "When you give to Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, 100% of what you give goes directly to disaster relief efforts so your donation goes further. We do not pay salaries or overhead out of those funds."

Giving directly can be helpful if you have friends and relationships in an impacted area, but it is almost always better stewardship to give through a disaster relief organization. During times of extreme devastation like the Japanese and Christmas Eve tsunamis, the Haitian earthquake or Katrina, relief opportunities pop up all over the place. It sometimes reminds me of "Whack-A-Mole." The problem is that some of them are bogus, set up on the fly by hucksters using a coffee shop wifi and their black-ops PayPal account. Others are rife with overhead expenses creating what amounts to an organization of jobs where much stays home and little relief is accomplished.

5. Avoid the temptation to load up a tractor-trailer with supplies unless you are connected with someone on the ground meeting a specific request. In the days and weeks following Katrina, so much bottled water was needed we could have exhausted aquifers all over the country. But often a supply trailer becomes a receptacle for "guilt giving" with the resultant broken furniture, dirty clothes and perishable food. It does no good to barrage disaster areas with more stuff that winds up being added to the debris piles. Disaster zones do not need junk brought into them. Again, contact with people on the ground is very helpful to inform what items need to be brought into the area.

I can assure you (as I've seen it myself), unsolicited donations end up in piles and needed materials are nowhere to be found. When it comes to disaster relief, don't follow your heart, follow the direction of those already engaged.

So, help by praying and giving, then get better prepared for next time when you might also get personally involved as needed.

More disasters are coming. They always do. Be prepared, not just for the disaster, but to serve the hurting in these critical times.

Here is a video where Pete Wilson, Rice Broocks, Rusty Summeral, and I discuss disaster relief and the Nashville flood.

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Posted:May 20, 2013 at 12:00 am


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