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Donations Management: Handling the Second Disaster

Warehouses were filling up with hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of donations from the American people. Buckets, water, clothing, picks, shovels, teddy bears, etc. We literally had everything.

Nearly 20 years ago, I had the humbling privilege to be assigned as the donations manager for the state of New York following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center.

I deployed from California to the New York State Emergency Operations Center in Albany via the interstate Emergency Management Assistance Compact. It was a cold, dreary first day in upstate New York. I entered Highway Patrol Headquarters, proceeded past the blast doors, and down into the Cold War fallout shelter in the basement. There was a buzz of subdued, chaotic efficiency. The New York State Emergency Operations Center was in full activation.

The State Emergency Management Office’s (SEMO) deputy director covered the initial ramp-up to the “second disaster,” a flood of well-intentioned but not always useful in-kind donations. Within the first few days of the disaster, well-meaning people and organizations sent truckloads of what donations managers call “stuff”. Stuff was piling up all over the streets of New York City and around ground zero. There were literally piles of stuff clogging the streets, impeding access to the disaster site, and getting in the way of first responders’ ability to respond.

The SEMO deputy director made some preliminary arrangements, but needed to attend to matters more urgent. He briefed me on the current situation. Afterward I met the team, a handful of individuals with a big task to accomplish. It would be up to us to organize the transfer and storage of all in-kind donations.

Our first priority was to clear the stuff off the streets. The second was to organize the stuff, inventory the stuff, and try to put everything to good use. We started with one facility in Poughkeepsie, an abandoned state-owned building that was previously a psychiatric hospital. It may not have been ideal, but it was a start. We coordinated with the New York National Guard to clear the streets and transport the stuff to our facility. Over the next two weeks, we added three more warehouse locations to the operation.

Bayonne Marine Terminal in Bayonne, N.J., a warehouse by the Bayonne docks, was organized and managed by the Salvation Army. This was the go-to place for buckets. Responders carefully sifted through rubble at ground zero using these buckets. Bayonne Marine Terminal is also where I found letters and mementos addressed to first responders. We found a school near the incident site where we could properly distribute these items. 

King Kullen Warehouse, in Long Island, N.Y., was a warehouse donated by a local business. America’s Second Harvest and the New Jersey State Military Reserve managed this location.
At over 500,000 square feet, the Stratford Army Engine Plant in Stratford, Conn., was the largest warehouse. A Seventh Day Adventists team with a local youth volunteer organization and a local Teamsters Union crew managed it.

Once fully integrated into our operation, I visited each location. During that magical mystery tour, I experienced my first quiet moment during an 80-minute ferry ride from Long Island to Connecticut. There, on a railing overlooking the open water and reflecting on the past two weeks, I was totally overcome by the enormous generosity of the American people.

Warehouses were filling up with hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of donations from the American people. Buckets, water, clothing, picks, shovels, teddy bears, etc. We literally had everything. Dog booties started arriving in large quantities after people saw search dogs injured from walking through the rubble. In a televised interview, a firefighter from California mentioned it was colder than he thought it would be and he had not packed any thermal underwear. Can you guess what showed up next? That’s right. Pallets of long underwear started flowing into the warehouses.

This was an organizationally diverse operation. The facilities weren’t always constructed for warehouse operations, but we made the most of what we had to work with. Many different groups contributed time and labor to support first responders and the community.

My greatest revelation came during a discussion with a woman in South Carolina. She had a truckload of donations she wanted to send. My job was to make sure we didn’t get any more “stuff” flowing in. I called her, intending to give my best “don’t send stuff, send money” speech. She answered the phone and I identified who I was. Not missing a beat, she said, “Well, we have a truckload of donations we’d like to send, but don’t know where to send it.”

“Thank you very much, ma’am, but we don’t need any more stuff. In fact, we have more stuff than we can use. Please keep that generous donation in your community and perhaps put it to good use.”

“Oh sir, you do not understand. The churches in our town collected everything and loaded the truck. Then we took the truck to our town square, where we all prayed and our local clergy blessed it. So now we need to know where to send it.”

Silence. I don’t know if a second or a minute passed. All I could say was, “Ma’am, please send that truck to the King Kullen warehouse in New Jersey.”

Donations management is more than avoiding bad press. More than just ensuring resources are utilized efficiently. More than just providing for the victims and their families. People have a need to give. The Donations Management Unit has a duty to fulfill that need as well. The immense generosity I observed makes me proud to be an American. As an emergency management professional nearing retirement, this experience continues to be a moment I will never forget.

Jim Brown is the chief of the Technological Hazards and Emergency Management Systems Division of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services’ Preparedness Branch. Jim has over 20 years of experience in emergency management. He was specially chosen to deploy to the New York State Operations Center to establish Donations Management operations during the response to the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. He graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point.