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The Three Worst Ways to Help During a Hurricane or Natural Disaster

Daniel is a nonprofit Executive Director, Texas First Responder, and has participated in three Texas Legislative Sessions.

People want to help when a natural disaster occurs.

It's the most human of responses.

Unfortunately, this help can sometimes create more harm than good.

This article examines three of the worst ways people try to help during a hurricane or natural disaster.

In 2017, I deployed to Houston with the Texas Army National Guard during Hurricane Harvey. It was a transforming experience with many lessons learned.

A major takeaway was seeing how helpful intentions can produce negative consequences. The following actions were witnessed firsthand and have been seen in similar disasters over the last ten years.


Do Not Show Up Without A Plan

The first unhelpful action is showing up to the disaster area without a plan.

This occurs during each disaster when people see destruction and feel an immediate motivation to help.

Unfortunately, freelance volunteering often creates more harm than good.

FEMA approaches disaster management according to four phases:

  1. Mitigation
  2. Preparation
  3. Response
  4. Recovery

The response phase is what most people see on television. It's normally short lived and involves helpers who have been specifically trained and identified during the preparation phase.

This is the phase with the most action and motivates people to volunteer.

When people randomly show up during disaster response there is often no place for their services. This is because the response plan is being executed by personnel and organizations identified during the preparation phase.

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This causes an unnecessary person to be in a danger area with no purpose.

During Hurricane Harvey, our convoy drove upon a man holding onto a tree in the middle of a drainage ditch. He was attempting to help when flood waters turned him into a victim. The water rescue was intense and placed our team into a riskier scenario than was necessary.

This water rescue delayed us from reaching our primary mission and significantly fatigued a team leader.

This is an example of good intentions creating negative consequences.

It's human to want to help and there are positive ways to contribute.

Here are three better options to channel that motivation:

  1. Recognize that you are motivated to help and commit to being trained for the next disaster.
  2. Look for volunteer opportunities during the recovery phase. The recovery phase is where help is most needed.
  3. Look for volunteer opportunities in your region. Many people are evacuated to distant cities and placed in improvised shelters. There may be a greater disaster related need locally than in the actual disaster area.
Convoying through Houston during Hurricane Harvey

Convoying through Houston during Hurricane Harvey

Do Not Donate Without A Request

The second unhelpful action is donating items that have not been requested.

Each disaster motivates a few people to clean out their closets and pantries to help those in need.

Unfortunately, donations of canned goods and clothing can create logistical nightmares for those who never requested them.

During Hurricane Harvey, a well meaning person noticed our vehicles and brought a large donation of towels and clothing to our location.

Unfortunately, neither us or the local fire department could find anyone needing these items. We were still in the response phase and most people were evacuated to other towns.

The items were never given to anyone.

It would have been better for the donors to have contacted specific shelters or organizations to find if those items were needed in the area.

Organizations providing assistance during a disaster often list their exact needs to avoid unnecessary donations. The goal is for you to supply their mission as they provide relief.

If you feel motivated to donate items during a disaster:

  1. Find an established organization directly supporting disaster relief efforts. They will have the best insight about what is needed and how to distribute your donations.
  2. Find out which items are needed and focus on those. It may be better to withhold a donation of clothing if that need is not present.
  3. Establish a point of contact to stay updated on future needs. This ensures you're tracking on the best ways to help as the situation changes.
Conducting water rescues in a Houston neighborhood during Hurricane Harvey.

Conducting water rescues in a Houston neighborhood during Hurricane Harvey.

Do Not Provide Financial Support To Freelance Efforts

The third unhelpful action is financially supporting freelance disaster missions.

Do not give your money to outsiders with good intentions.

Give that resource to those providing direct support.

A gentleman showed up to our staging location with coolers full of food and drinks stating he was there to cook for first responders.

He had driven four hours just to feed us and was financially supported by his local church.

Unfortunately, there was no need for his service. We were well fed and overly supported by the local community.

The gentleman was allowed to cook his food, take pictures with different responders, and then post about mission success on social media.

This is an example of wasted resources on a freelance mission.

Unfortunately, this occurs each disaster. People perform freelance efforts that appear to be providing a public good but deliver little benefit to actual needs.

A better option is to find someone providing direct relief so you know there is a strategic plan for your donation.

If asked to donate to a freelance mission, review the following:

  1. Is there a requested need being met by this mission?
  2. Is this mission supporting an organization providing direct relief to the area?
  3. Will the resources be delivered to those in need?

There may be a place to financially donate for disaster relief if any answer is no.


The best way to help during a hurricane or disaster response is by supporting those providing direct relief.

It's true that anomalies exist with each of the points provided.

During Hurricane Harvey, citizens randomly showing up with boats and large pickup trucks were extremely useful and provided a great public good.

On the whole, however, most actions falling into these three categories do not provide as much help as intended.

The disaster response phase produces emotional reactions in any human with a heart. The best way to channel that motivation is by supporting the mission of those providing direct relief.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Daniel J Owens

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