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Donation Overload

Emergency managers share experience and advice to ensure donations don't become a disaster.


Disasters are emotionally conflicting events. On one hand, hearts sink at the sight of suffering fellow humans who've lost everything; on the other hand, spirits soar when generous contributions and random acts of kindness are practiced by selfless passersby. Disasters certainly have a strange way of bringing out the best in people.

Donations of time, goods and money are critical in the aftermath of any catastrophe -- whether they impact a single home, a community or a city the size of New York. They bring comfort to those who have little left, and are essential to emergency managers in the recovery phase.

Much like disasters, however, donations can be unpredictable and overwhelming. And as emergency managers would not want to be surprised without an evacuation road map, they shouldn't overlook the importance of fashioning a donation plan.

Too Much of a Good Thing

In her 20-year career in the emergency management field, Angee Morgan has seen a lot. She was at ground zero in New York after the 9/11 attacks; and as a Midwest resident, she's also seen more floods and tornadoes than most. Today, as plans chief of the Kansas Division of Emergency Management, Morgan said donations aren't what they used to be.

"My first disaster was in 1991," she recalled. "It was a tornado in Andover, Kan., and there were a fairly large number of deaths. That was really before we knew anything about donations, but it was localized, mainly donated goods, clothing, food, water, cars -- that type of stuff -- and it was handled mainly through church groups and the volunteer organizations that are active in disasters, like the Red Cross and the Salvation Army."

In 1993, when Kansas suffered calamitous floods, plunging 56 counties into a state of emergency, donations of a different type and scale started to appear.

Morgan said perishable donations -- such as semis full of bananas -- were being made, so there was added burden of distributing these items in a timely fashion. It was then, Morgan said, that a mentor from FEMA suggested she implement a donation management plan for the state before things became problematic.

Since then, Morgan has witnessed and heard of the kindest yet most unusable donations. After the Oklahoma City bombing, she heard of emergency managers who received 200 pairs of shoes. "Why did those people who didn't make it in there need those shoes?" she wondered.

And again, after 9/11 in New York, Morgan had to figure out what to do with 200 lawnmowers and more than 40,000 pumpkins, among other donations that she and her team received.

"It really couldn't be ignored," Morgan commented. From talking to others who had received unsolicited donations during hurricanes Hugo and Andrew, Morgan knew it was trouble. "They always talked about the 'second disaster' of donations."

In Texas, Gloria Roemer, communications director for Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, whose office is in charge of emergency management, said she was moved by residents' benevolence toward Katrina victims who were temporarily sheltered at the Houston Astrodome.

"We even had people driving up with food casseroles in their cars. They would say, 'Here, I baked two pans of lasagna.' It was overwhelming and it really brought tears to your eyes at the generosity of people really wanting to help," Roemer recalled, adding that unfortunately these generous offerings soon became a "logistical nightmare."

"We literally had thousands of people driving to the Astrodome and dropping off boxes," she continued, noting that these occurrences put a strain on personnel.

Something had to be done.

Get That Partnership

"We usually plan for evacuations or the response along a catastrophic line, but donations planning never receives that much attention," said Lea Stokes, director for the office of external affairs at the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. "It's something people usually deal with after the fact. I suggest they consider donations as [they do] some of the other aspects, and have those same pre-planning meetings for it. If not, the donations aspect can even slow down the overall operations function of managing the disaster."

For Stokes, Morgan and Roemer, charitable organizations have become part of the plan.

"Every county should have a basic plan on how to respond to emergency situations," Roemer said, "and in this plan, before anything happens, they should already have these partnerships formed with an organization such as United Way or Interfaith Ministry -- there are so many different ones."

Kansas chose the Salvation Army as its prime partner, and signed a memorandum of agreement with the charitable organization. "They take the lead on our donations management goods. They actually do all the warehousing -- sorting, inventorying, disbursing," Morgan said. "That's the beauty of having that. You have the experts working on it, and then the state just gets involved if there's something that can't be resolved."

In New York after 9/11, Morgan said the Salvation Army set up an electronic database to match donations to needs. In one instance, a casino offered a few thousand large and extra-large sweatshirts. Although they weren't immediately needed, the offer remained in the Salvation Army's database. However, as volunteers poured into the city to help clean up and as fall settled in, the organization returned to its database and accepted the casino's offer. "So that's kind of the smart way to donate," Morgan added. "This partnership has been really successful."

She also noted that it's easier and quicker for voluntary agencies than it is for the government to obtain free or discounted commodities -- such as buildings and janitorial services -- from companies. "There's less red tape. It's worked out really well," she said, "but ultimately it helps those who need it the most."

Ask Well and You Shall Receive

Handling such large volumes of goods can be challenging, but quality donations make it worthwhile. However, Stokes pointed out, quality is not always what you get.

"In any disaster," Stokes said, "one problem is that many people want to just donate their own items instead of throwing the items out or having a yard sale. All that really does is slow down the process of having to organize this stuff and go through it to see what is good or bad."

To halt -- or at least reduce -- unneeded donations, Stokes, Morgan and Roemer suggest establishing a clear, strong, well prepared communications plan.

"You don't get on TV and say, 'We need stuff,'' because that's what you're going to get," Morgan said.

She recalled an instance in which a radio station was organizing a collection of unsolicited items. "We put the kibosh on that and said, 'That's a big mistake, and this is why. If you want to do something, this will be better,'" she said, adding that at the same time, it is important to handle these matters delicately so as not to appear ungrateful.

Morgan also stressed that all disasters are different. For example, after the 2001 Hoisington, Kan., tornado, donations included baby diapers, baby formula and other items for children. The town's demographics, however, simply did not call for such items. "It was more of an elderly community," Morgan said, "so we needed more walkers, adult diapers and things more for an elderly person."

Instead of encouraging just any donations, Morgan explained, emergency managers must be very selective and specific when communicating volunteers' and victims' needs to the media. "Because you can say, 'We need shovels,'" she explained, "and then you might get three semi-loads full of shovels, but you only needed three."

To prevent these occurrences, she added, her department also teaches a donations management course open to locals, volunteer agencies and anyone interested.

In Harris County, Roemer, who coordinates communications with the media, said in case of a disaster, she works closely with the United Way's press group to broadcast what's needed, and in this case, redundancy isn't a bad thing.

"In the aspect of donations, you could have two different entities speaking to the media, saying they need women's undergarments, boys' athletic shoes," she said. "When they get hit from both sides -- that's a good thing."

Stokes also suggested establishing a call center staffed with volunteers to communicate the victims' evolving needs.

"The Volunteer Commission Service staffed a phone bank to give the information out as to what is needed," she said. "It did change because Katrina hit in August when it was 90 degrees, and then winter set in, and all of those families had lost their winter clothes. So then it became more of a winter clothes and coat drive for children."

Although Stokes and Morgan say money is often the ideal donation because it lets emergency managers purchase exactly what's needed, generous donations of goods are here to stay. Adding donations to the emergency management equation is yet again the best way to avoid the second "disaster."

"Good or bad, we just have a lot of disasters in Kansas," Morgan said, "and that's just one more element of our disasters we plan for. I guess that's good for us."