Eric Fichtl

When Disaster Strikes: Considerations for Helping Relief Efforts

The decision to head to a disaster area is not one that should be taken without first considering the complexities of the situation.


This text originally published: 30 June 2005

<p>Image: Creative Commons, Flickr / Yisris used under CC BY 2.0 license, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/</p>



When disasters strike, many of us look for a way to contribute to the relief of the victims. Our desire to help can surface whether the disaster is natural, such as a hurricane or earthquake, or human-caused, such as a refugee crisis, or even some combination of the two, like a drought-induced famine. As we struggle to find ways to help our fellow human beings in places that are often far from our homes, we must weigh our options, and our feelings, carefully. The decision to head to a disaster area is not one that should be taken without first considering the complexities of the situation. This article gives you a few issues to think about as you look to get involved in the disaster response.

Helping out close to home

Often, the fastest way to assist disaster victims is to donate money to a charity that is responding to the disaster. Many charities specialize in providing relief in acute disaster areas, yet they face significant financial outlays to get their staff, equipment, and supplies to the affected regions. Your donation helps put experienced disaster responders on the ground, and gives them the tools they need to help victims recover.

If you aren’t in a financial position to donate, you can still help the relief effort in a variety of ways, often right in your own community. For instance, you can contribute to the disaster response by collecting supplies to send, by volunteering at the local office of a charity that has sent staff to the affected area, or by organizing other initiatives in your community that raise awareness about, and funding for, the relief effort. Such efforts shouldn’t be downplayed: Running a food drive, organizing a benefit, collecting clothes and supplies, or lobbying community leaders to support the relief effort can all generate tangible results for disaster victims. Idealist’s Volunteer Center can give you tips on getting active in your area.

So, you still want to go?

For some people, donating money or volunteering locally feels too passive, or may not be financially possible. Seeing images of disaster often prompts an urge to head to the affected area and assist victims directly. However, if your response is overly emotional and underestimates the complexity of working in a disaster area, you risk doing something rash for which you are unprepared, and you could damage the relief effort in the process. While there are opportunities to take an active role in disaster response, there are several crucial issues that would-be disaster responders must first consider.

Cost-benefit analysis

Despite your initial sense that you aren’t in a position to donate money or volunteer locally, bear in mind that volunteering to respond at the crisis scene isn’t going to be free, either. The costs you incur just to get to the disaster area may ultimately be a poor allocation of valuable resources, especially if you end up sapping scarce supplies once you arrive in the affected region. On the other hand, you may be a more effective responder on your home turf rather than out in the field: If you’re in school or college, or in a company, religious group, or union, think of the number of people you have the potential to involve in the disaster response just by raising your voice and steering your combined efforts. If you truly think it’s worth the cost for you to head to the field, there are other important issues to consider as well.

Going it alone vs. going with support

Individuals with special knowledge and specific skill-sets can undoubtedly improve relief efforts, often by plugging short-term holes in the existing efforts. But quite soon after a disaster, individual responses can also lead to the unnecessary duplication of efforts and can run into significant viability problems. Relief agencies are effective in part because they have significant support infrastructure behind their field programs to ensure that their efforts can be sustained for the longest possible period. If you have local knowledge or special skills, there is a good chance that a relief agency will have a way to incorporate you into their relief effort. Although you may confront some initial bureaucracy by joining a larger effort, you will likely be able to sustain your efforts much longer working with a dedicated team supporting you.

Are you physically prepared for this?

Despite your best intentions, your presence may compound, rather than alleviate, the problems in the disaster area. Why? Disaster areas are usually characterized by a severe breakdown in the supply of food, water, medicine, and shelter. Likewise, you may need special clothing, transport, and other equipment just to get into the affected region, let alone stay there. Disease can spread quickly in disaster areas, and you are likely to need immunizations or emergency medication for such illnesses as malaria, cholera, dengue, yellow fever, gastro-enteritis, and dysentery, among others. Disaster areas can also be the scene of crimes of desperation or the products of violent conflict, so you must also consider your personal security. Finally, depending on the tasks at hand, disaster responders can put in long shifts with little rest, so your physical fortitude and your health status are also important considerations. If you are not prepared on all these fronts and opt to head to a disaster area anyway, you may quickly end up as “one more mouth to feed,” unwittingly detracting from the efficacy of the relief efforts.

Are you emotionally prepared for this?

There’s more to disaster relief work than physical challenges. Disaster survivors who have lost their homes, possessions, and loved ones, or who have witnessed acts of violence and degradation, are likely to suffer feelings of anguish, anger, remorse, and pain, and may experience symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In other words, disaster victims have physical as well as emotional needs, and relief workers must attempt to address both. If you aren’t emotionally prepared for the overwhelming stress of working in a disaster area and assisting disaster victims, you may experience many of these emotional conditions yourself. Action Without Borders/Idealist.org created a resource for aid workers that helps them prepare for the special stress that they typically experience in the field, available at Psychosocial.org. If you do head to the field, keep tabs on the emotional well-being of yourself and your fellow relief workers: the ability to remain emotionally stable in trying circumstances is crucial to the success of the relief effort.

Are you “legally” prepared for this?

Though it may be the furthest thing from your mind in the aftermath of a disaster, you need to consider the legal regime of the country where the disaster has occurred. Do you need a passport, or a visa, to enter the country? Will authorities allow you into the affected region? Will you need documentation to prove your qualifications as a relief worker? It’s important to realize that the chaotic images you see of the disaster area may be quite localized, and that the laws governing that region may otherwise be in effect, even if these seem to be an impediment to the urgent response. Simply put, without the right papers and permissions, you may never even get close to the disaster area, let alone one of the victims.

By all means, volunteer. But consider the timing.

Despite your initial desire to help, you may be far more effective as a long-haul volunteer rather than a first responder. That is, long after the disaster’s immediate aftermath, as the victims struggle to rebuild their communities, they will still need assistance. And that may be the best time for you to head to the region, especially because many of the more immediate challenges no longer inhibit your ability to help out. The extra time may also allow you to improve your knowledge of the local language and customs, which both increase your ability to assist the victims. Volunteering your skills as a teacher, a builder, a doctor, or any number of other professions can offer affected communities a resource that they may never have had before, or one that was tragically lost as a result of the disaster. It’s worth recalling that victims don’t stop being victims just because they’re no longer in the news.


The impulse to help when other people are suffering is commendable, showing the best qualities of humanity. But there should be no illusion about disaster volunteering, either: it is dangerous, stressful work often in extreme environments. Many people simply aren’t prepared to handle working with disaster victims and coping with the many challenges of even a short time spent in a disaster area. The point of highlighting these concerns is not to discourage you from getting involved in a disaster relief effort, but rather to try to ensure that you get involved in the way most suited to your abilities. In the rush of emotion that comes with news of a disaster, do yourself—and the victims—a service by carefully considering whether you will be a help or a hindrance if and when you get to the disaster area. Also consider whether contributing—financially or as a volunteer in your community—to disaster relief, or volunteering in disaster areas some time after the initial catastrophe, might not serve the relief effort more efficiently. Think carefully about how you can best assist the victims, and then act.




Image: Creative Commons, Flickr / Yisris used under the CC BY 2.0 license

First published at Idealist.org in 2005.