Volume XV | Issue 1 | Spring 2015
Kathleen Weis, chief executive officer of the American Red Cross Capital Region chapter, and Robert Foxworthy of CAL FIRE survey the fire damage in Weed, three days after the fire. Photo: Virginia Becker

Each disaster brings its own lessons

Donate money, not stuff, is just one of the suggestions from the experts

In one three-month period last year, there was only one 18-hour period when the American Red Cross’ northern California chapter didn’t have at least one shelter open somewhere. Front and center on the Boles Fire, Red Cross volunteers opened and manned two shelters, as well as provided meals, emotional support, help assessing damage and health services.

work continues long after the disaster fades

Volunteers unload food supplies in Weed after the Boles Fire. Photo by Virginia Becker.

The Red Cross knows better than most how important it is to plan for disaster. “Our work continues long after the disaster fades from the news cycles,” says Kathleen Weis, chief executive officer of the Capital Region chapter in Sacramento. Each event brings its own lesson, and below we look at a few of them.

Start preparing now

“A disaster is not the time [for organizations] to begin passing out their business card,” says Bob Ottenhoff, chief executive officer of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. “Many times, the community and private foundations and corporations and really, even the nonprofit community, have not done much in the way of planning and preparation.”

Having a plan in place for who does what eliminates the need to take time away from dealing with the crisis. Ottenhoff says that officials of the donor community are often left scrambling until decisions are made about who is going to raise money and who will manage the funds. In Weed, the Shasta Regional Community Foundation stepped up with a donation web page within hours of the fire. 

Be very clear about money 

People have historically been generous about donating money in the aftermath of a catastrophe. In fact, Ottenhoff says 90% of all dollars are donated within 90 days of the event.  There needs to be transparency and clarity about why the money is being raised, who is making the decision about what to do with it, and who is responsible for it. 

“Donors gave lots of money around Oso, for example, but the expectations for it were not always clear,” Ottenhoff says. “After the Sandy Hook shooting, there were all kinds of people who were creating funds, all kinds of people making decisions on where it was spent. That raises potential for conflicts.”

Be clear about donations

A forklift operator moves around piles of donated stuff in Weed.Within a couple of days of the Boles Fire, Weed was swamped with donations of clothes and goods, filling a warehouse. Relief workers requested no more. The Red Cross suggests that rather than donating stuff, sell the items in a yard sale. Then, give the proceeds to a relief fund, which can be used for specific needs like water and food. Photo by Dana Hight.

During the Boles Fire, the community of Weed was inundated with donations of materials, including food, clothing, and pet supplies. It took several days to set up a system to handle the donations, and storing, hauling and distributing it took precious time and space. Eventually, the sheer volume of goods made it necessary to ship some of the items out of Siskiyou County.

Eric Kiltz, disaster program manager with the Red Cross of Northeastern California at the time of the fire, told the local newspaper shortly after the fire that they were unable to store and haul any more supplies. Financial donations, he said, would better serve the organization in the long run. “The point about money is that money can be leveraged better than stuff,” Kiltz said. “If I get money and I need bottled water, I can go and get exactly as much as I know we need.”

One option endorsed by the Red Cross is for those who have clothes or goods to sell them in a yard sale and give the proceeds to a relief fund.

Consider a coordinator

Cover of The Resilience Dividend book showing an area wiped clean by a hurricane.The Resilience Dividend by Judith Rodin is available through Select Books.

In her book The Resilience Dividend, Judith Rodin, president of The Rockefeller Foundation, advocates for communities to name a “chief resilience officer.” The CRO, she says, should have the ear of the city’s top-decision maker, and have the proven ability to act as a conductor for a disparate orchestra of resilience-builders, from law enforcement to disaster planning to economic development. “Every city has a different set of needs—but every city needs a Chief Resilience Officer,” Rodin says. (The Resilience Dividend is available free to residents of Oregon and Siskiyou County, Calif., on Select Books.)

Chart your progress

When the devastating flood of 2007 hit the town of Vernonia, community leaders looking ahead to the recovery phase had an advantage — they’d been through it before, just 11 years earlier. The 1996 flood taught them the importance of being at the table in all stages of the crisis, not just after the rescue and response phases were complete. 

“People are understandably focused on rescue,” says Jim Tierney, executive director of the Community Action Team serving the North Coast area. “The idea that you would be trying to talk and think about recovery on day 1 or 2 is hard for some people to accept.”

Tierney has developed a detailed Disaster Recovery diagram (see below) that illustrates the journey that Vernonia is taking to recovery, beginning with day 1 of the disaster. “The chart is a road map for recovery people to take to the rescue people, and show how vital it is for them to be at the table,” Tierney says. 

In 1996, Tierney’s team was waved off until the immediate rescue phase was over. That almost happened again in 2007, Tierney says, until a city official who had been at the earlier flood insisted on the recovery team’s inclusion.

Their involvement paid off in some tangible ways. From the first day of the 2007 flood, for example, there was one recovery team member whose sole job was to track the use of volunteer resources. Later on, that information brought in more than $300,000 in matching funds.  

Small Community Disaster Recovery DiagramSmall Community Disaster Recovery Diagram
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