Tuesday, October 30, 2012

If you want to help in disaster relief, donate money!

Some years ago I asked people involved in disaster relief about donated supplies. The answer was very negative.

Think about a warehouse in a city that has been hit hard by a disaster. It might get tons of donated materials. Unfortunately, the stuff would come in without any inventory. It would not be organized. I talked to people who had seen such warehouses where people were invited to come in and take whatever they wanted. People walked out with wheelbarrows of stuff, drove out with vans of stuff. Neither the recipient nor the managers of the warehouse knew what was being taken.

What kind of stuff? A lot of people, of course, donate things that they feel will be needed. Unfortunately, most of us don't really know what will be most needed in an emergency situation, nor do we have supplies of those goods to spare. So people send old cloths or spare canned goods.

On the other hand, it turns out that a lot of people take advantage of campaigns to collect such goods to get tax write offs for useless stuff. People told me about tons of pharmaceuticals arriving at relief warehouses, unsorted, and many of them expired. Of course, there was no way that those drugs could be properly dispensed.

Think then about the people trying to organize useful relief. They will need to purchase the supplies that are really needed, They will need to find ways to deliver the needed supplies to the places that were hit by the disaster -- not always easy due to the damage done by the disaster. They will need to develop the details of delivery of the stuff that is really needed to the individuals and families that need them. Add to that huge problem the need to deal with hundreds of tons of donated materials simply complicates their job.

That is why organizations such as the Red Cross encourage people who want to help to send money, not goods.

Even more important, that is why we need government disaster relief organizations. Unfortunately there are disasters every year, and there is a need for permanent organizations to plan for and organize for rapid response. A government can stockpile potable water, staple foods, blankets and other supplies that are frequently needed. It can develop the capacity to describe the disaster and its victims quickly and accurately, to communicate when phones are out of order, to provide emergency electric power, and the computers and software to manage the relief effort.

Mitt Romney and his campaign staff should understand this reality. The proposal to privatize disaster relief seems simply to be foolish, or worse a cynical effort to pander to the uninformed prejudice of a faction of the electorate. The fact that Romney is using the problems created by Hurricane Sandy to gain publicity, supposedly by collecting donations for the victims, is despicable.

I recall President Bush telling his direct of FEMA after he had booted the Katrina relief, "Heckofa Job, Brownie". It is nice to see President Obama on the job, and nice to hear from the Republican Governor of New Jersey that FEMA is doing a good job preparing for, during and after Sandy.

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