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Thanks, But No Thanks: When Post-Disaster Donations Overwhelm

Posted: January 9, 2013

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It happens after every disaster. People want to help, but their donations often turn out to be a burden. Newtown, Conn., for example, was so inundated with gifts, it asked people to stop sending them. Instead, disaster aid groups are trying to figure out a better way to channel good intentions.

Volunteers sort through piles of donated clothes for Superstorm Sandy victims at an impromptu Staten Island aid station in November. Relief groups are still trying to figure out what to do with donated clothes people sent to New York and New Jersey in Sandy's aftermath.

Volunteers sort through piles of donated clothes for Superstorm Sandy victims at an impromptu Staten Island aid station in November. Relief groups are still trying to figure out what to do with donated clothes people sent to New York and New Jersey in Sandy's aftermath. Seth Wenig

Unsolicited donations of used clothing, bottled water, canned food and personal grooming products piled up following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The piles had to be moved aside to make room to stage and deliver critical relief supplies.

Unsolicited donations of used clothing, bottled water, canned food and personal grooming products piled up following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The piles had to be moved aside to make room to stage and deliver critical relief supplies.

Newtown, Conn., was so inundated with teddy bears and other donations after last month's school shootings that it asked people to please stop sending gifts. Relief groups in New York and New Jersey are still trying to figure out what to do with piles of clothes and other items sent there after Superstorm Sandy.

It happens in every disaster: People want to help, but they often donate things that turn out to be more of a burden. Disaster aid groups are trying to figure out a better way to channel these good intentions.

Juanita Rilling remembers it happening in 1988 when she was a disaster specialist trying to get help to hurricane victims in Honduras. "And one morning I received a call from one of our logistic operators, and he explained to me that they had a cargo plane loaded with medical supplies that needed to land," says Rilling.

But the tarmac was full, with piles of donations that no one had requested. The plane — full of needed supplies — had to find someplace else to go.

"And it ended up upending everyone's plans by about 48 hours, which is critical time in a disaster," Rilling says.

Rilling now runs the Center for International Disaster Information, which is trying to make sure that things like that don't happen again. But they do — over and over. By some estimates, about 60 percent of items donated after a disaster can't be used. Often it's old clothing and food. But sometimes it's things that make you wonder, such as chandeliers and high-heeled shoes.

When Superstorm Sandy hit, Rilling's group and others launched an ad campaign to encourage financial contributions. "Even a small donation can make a big impact and can quickly become exactly what people affected by disaster need most," the ad says.

But Leah Feder with Occupy Sandy says many people don't want to send just cash. Occupy Sandy is the Occupy Wall Street offshoot that's been on the front lines of providing relief to those affected by Superstorm Sandy.

"People's hearts cry out and they really want to be able to help and they want to be able to help in the way that feels as concrete as possible," she says.

Like other relief groups, Occupy Sandy was quickly overwhelmed with used clothes. But no one wants to discourage donors. So a volunteer had an idea: Why not set up something like a wedding registry on Amazon.com, where people could buy items that were actually needed, like face masks and dehumidifiers and cleaning supplies. Feder says it's worked so well that Occupy Sandy has now set up another registry with businesses in the disaster region, so they too can benefit.

"People still have that opportunity to choose what it is they're purchasing, so they're not just giving money to an amorphous, unidentifiable pool," says Feder.

Meghan O'Hara, who handles in-kind donations for the American Red Cross, says it's an intriguing idea. She knows that some people are wary of giving cash no matter how much groups like hers insist they can provide relief more effectively and at a lower cost. And she doesn't think that the urge to give something tangible can — or should be — completely stopped.

"Part of what people are doing is they're helping, they're trying to help. What we need to figure out is how to effectively handle that," O'Hara says.

So one thing the Red Cross has been doing since Sandy is monitoring social media sites. Wendy Harman, director of social strategy for the American Red Cross, says if she sees someone, say, tweeting about filling a truck with donations, she'll contact that person to make sure he knows whether the items are really needed and where they should go.

That way, Harman says, "they don't drive across the country and get really disappointed."

The Red Cross will also suggest alternatives such as holding a garage sale and sending the proceeds instead. In cases like the Newtown shootings, O'Hara says they suggest that people help one of their local charities in honor of the victims, rather than sending another teddy bear.

But she admits it's not always an easy message to get across.

"That's the tough part. How do you tell someone that's really not the best thing, when all they want to do is help?" says O'Hara.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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