Giving in the wake of a disaster

The sun is shining brightly as I write. The temperature is in the low 70’s heading toward the high 80’s before the day is done. As I look out my office window there is nothing to suggest that it is anything other than a beautiful spring day in Memphis, Tennessee.

Looks can be deceiving. The Mississippi River is already overflowing its natural banks, and the water is rising. The river was supposed to crest on Wednesday at its second highest level in recorded history. Now we are being told that it will crest sooner and, likely, higher than we were being told yesterday. And it is not just the mighty Mississippi that is a threat. As the water flows south at flood level our local tributaries are expected to back up and even flow backwards as their water has nowhere to go forward.
 
Like I said, it looks like a beautiful spring day in Memphis. But it is not. And it is going to get worse, much worse, all while the sun is brightly shining. Many Memphians have been evacuated from their homes. That number will rise in the hours to come. And those who seem to be hit the hardest, at least so far, are those in already challenging economic circumstances. The challenges of recovery will be long and hard for many.   
 
In the midst of all of this I have a deep and growing concern. Up and down the even mightier than usual Mississippi River there is, and will be, flooding and ruin for many. Memphis is a big, well-known city. It is a tourist destination. It is a relatively easy place to get to. It is not too difficult for the national media to cover Memphis. I wonder who is covering the smaller towns and the farm communities already under deluge. I worry, too, that Memphis has been covered by television for days before the really hard flooding hits. Once the river crests and all the pictures have been taken of the water at its highest, will the media leave?  
 
In Alabama folks are still looking for bodies of still missing tornado victims. The death toll there continues to rise.Yet most of the national weather related coverage is taking place in Memphis.  Two weeks ago Tuscaloosa was the sexy place to cover. Now it’s Memphis. Soon it will be parts of Mississippi and then Louisiana.  New Orleans, still trying to recover from Katrina, will likely become the next big story.   
 
Though it has been some time since I have served as a disaster relief coordinator for Church World Service, I think much of what I learned then still holds true. I know, too, from my past work as a member of the Week of Compassion Advisory Committee there are some responses that are more helpful than others. With that in mind I humbly offer the following advice and encouragement.
 
First of all, do respond to what you are seeing. Almost always the best response is making a financial contribution to an organization with some background in disaster response. Week of Compassion fits that bill. Unless you are on the scene already, the best thing you can do is make a financial contribution to help with recovery and relief.  Money can be moved into an area quickly. It costs nothing to move it near a disaster area to purchase services and items near the scene. Those who know what they are doing can get exactly what is needed and do it quickly.  Giving money also helps the local economy of the area that will need money to help in the recovery. Money is almost always the best early response.
 
Second, if you do give money, place the least number of restrictions on your gift as possible. You may think it is a wonderful idea to give a gift to purchase diapers for babies. Let’s say you write a check for $100 specifying the money be spent for diapers.  Someone has to track that money, making sure it is only used for the purpose you have specified and that the diapers are dispersed to those who actually need them. In the midst of a crisis, don’t tie the hands of those who are “on the ground” and know what the critical needs really are. Don’t create extra work for those already working hard.
 
Another related challenge of specifying exactly how your contributions are to be spent is this. Let’s say you send a contribution and specify that it should go to “flood relief in Memphis.” I love Memphis. We’re going to need a lot of help here, but if you limit where or how the money can be spent then that is the only place it can be utilized. There is a still a need in Tuscaloosa. If most people specify their gifts for Memphis, other places with great need may get left out of the equation.
 
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)’s Week of Compassion has a fund which channels money to disaster relief and recovery called the Compassion Response Fund. When I want to make a contribution in response to a disaster, I make a gift directed to this Response Fund. There are funds for development work and refugee assistance, as well.  If I am responding to news of a disaster I direct my gift to the Response Fund, but give the leadership overseeing the fund the freedom to use my gift where most needed. My encouragement to you is to give the experts and local leadership some freedom and trust to be good stewards of the gifts you give without tying their hands too much.
 
Another piece of strong advice I would give. Do not go to a disaster area uninvited and without prior arrangements.  When you get there you are going to want clean water, food to eat and a place to stay. You are likely to be competing for those very things with the people you mean to be coming to “help.” There will be a time for volunteers. That time almost always comes later, not during the disaster itself.
 
Related to that last bit of advice, do not take things to a disaster site that have not been requested.  And when a request comes, take good stuff. Those who deal with disasters often refer to something called “the secondary disaster,” the unwanted, unneeded people and stuff that require more work to deal with than any benefit offered. Secondary disasters always arise from well-meaning people, but they are a serious problem. Don’t contribute to the disaster. Don’t bring unrequested items unless you are certain of what you are doing. Remember, money always works!  
 
Finally, it is a good idea to know who you are giving to and through. There will be lots of organizations with their hands out.  Some will be good. Some will be total scams created to capitalize on the good hearts of potential donors. Do a bit of research before you give your money away. Week of Compassion has a proven track record of effective and efficient stewardship. I encourage you to give to our trusted and true Week of Compassion. Give generously, and give wisely. 
 
-Rev. Dan Webster
Faith Christian Church
Memphis, TN