After a Disaster, Blood, Sweat, and Cash Is Better Than Canned Goods

Your jars of mayo are no good here.
Flood-affected residents of Delfin Albano, Isabela, in the Philippines receive Red Cross relief goods on Oct. 20, 2015. (Photo: Noel Celis/IFRC)
Jun 17, 2016· 4 MIN READ
Gwendolyn Wu is an editorial intern at TakePart and a junior at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The donations come in as a swell, peaking and flatlining not long after. When a disaster occurs, well-meaning people rush to provide humanitarian aid in whatever form they can: donating blood, money, cases of water, cans of food, clothing, or tools.

While immediate aid following a natural disaster or a terrorist attack helps, experts say communities often need attention and supplies after a tragedy is no longer breaking news.

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“[Relief efforts] are ongoing long after a disaster, and it depends on the size and scope of every disaster and the need long after the actual incident itself,” Jon Myers, director of communications for the American Red Cross of Los Angeles, told TakePart. “Haiti, for example, is something where they continue to require mental health, so they go through that, so Red Cross comes in and does a lot of casework. People try to rebuild lives after an incident like that, so the relief efforts don’t go away anytime soon. It’s like a marathon, not a race.”

Although scouring a kitchen cabinet for cans of soup or cleaning out a closet and sending gently used clothing to a relief agency might sound like a good idea, Myers says charities and aid workers aren’t always able to provide those items to people in need.

“Don’t send goods,” he said. “We’re not really equipped to take in a lot of goods and redistribute that, so for us, we look for financial donations.”

Sometimes donations of goods veer into the realm of the extreme. Last week in a Reddit thread about how to best help in a crisis, user JasonOct responded with an unusual anecdote: “A wealthy local donated 600 jars of mayonnaise, which expires in months. There were only about 20 something refugees in the camp.”

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The public is catching on to helping in a more useful way: sending cash using the American Red Cross’ text donation service or donating to crowdfunding GoFundMe campaigns. Following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, people raised $488 million in conjunction with the American Red Cross to donate to relief efforts. GoFundMe campaigns raised more than $2.5 million for victims of the wildfire disasters in California last year. Aid agencies can use those funds to meet both short- and long-term needs.

Some donors may worry that if they give cash, it won’t end up helping people in need. A report released Thursday by Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley found that about one-fourth of the money donated in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake was used by the American Red Cross for internal expenses.

“Our statement that 91 cents of every dollar donated went to our programs and services in Haiti is absolutely true,” read an American Red Cross statement on Thursday disagreeing with the report. The aid organization also emphasized the impact it has made in the impoverished Caribbean country.

“The story of Haiti is a very positive story that shows the American Red Cross and our partners have and continue to deliver close to half a billion dollars of humanitarian assistance in the form of new hospitals, repaired homes, clean water, vaccinations, job training, improved sanitation and other life altering assistance to millions of Haitians—and spent our donor dollars wisely and well,” the statement read.

According to Kelsea Little, the media director of GoFundMe, while 5 percent of funds donated go to the company, the rest goes to crowdfunding campaign recipients.

“Campaign organizers can update their donors on how the funds can be used and are encouraged to do so,” Little told TakePart. “If the campaign is for another person, the funds will not be released until we can verify it’s going to the right person and the right place.” For example, Equality Florida’s Pulse Victim Fund for the victims of the terrorist attack in Orlando, Florida, had raised nearly $5 million as of Thursday.

For people who aren’t comfortable sending money, donations of blood are an essential, lifesaving option.

After a disaster with significant injuries, blood donors often come out in waves to provide transfusions for patients. Needs are often met right after a crisis, but there can be lulls throughout the year. While the American Red Cross has met all the needs of the injured victims of the Orlando tragedy, on Monday it reinforced its need for a constant supply of blood in a joint statement with transfusion nonprofit AABB and America’s Blood Centers.

“Volunteer blood donors are needed each and every day to help save lives,” the statement read. “This weekend’s tragedy illustrates that it’s the blood already on the shelves that helps during an emergency—that’s why it is so critical that eligible donors give on a regular basis to ensure we have a readily available blood supply.”

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Blood’s shelf life is a mere 42 days, and if donors give en masse after a disaster, any that isn’t used within that time will go to waste. According to the American Red Cross, someone in the United States needs a blood transfusion every two seconds, and hospitals need approximately 36,000 units of blood a day to match that figure. Given that blood donors can help out multiple times a year, the organization constantly pushes for donations over social media.

It’s also possible to make a long-term impact by participating in hands-on efforts to bring homes directly to communities affected by disaster. Habitat for Humanity volunteers travel to areas ravaged by earthquakes, mudslides, or tornadoes to build simple shelters for those who have lost their homes.

By starting with shelters, aid workers create a pathway for those without homes to transition into permanent ones. This might not be the first thing that many people who want to provide aid think about, but it’s important in ongoing efforts to rebuild communities affected by hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornadoes, according to Ali Mullin, a spokesperson for Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles.

Habitat for Humanity’s “strategy places affected families on a path to durable, permanent shelter solutions using incremental stages as needed, such as erecting an emergency shelter, accessing or affirming land rights, improving a transitional shelter solution, defining next steps for a disaster-damaged house, or expanding a new core house solution,” Mullin wrote in an email to TakePart.

Although organizations that provide assistance say they would prefer consistent, ongoing help, they appreciate that people seem to be ready to give no matter what.

“As soon as something happens, we definitely see an influx of campaigns being created, and we have an entire team dedicated to looking at the campaigns, making sure they’re right and go live,” said GoFundMe’s Little. “[GoFundMe] has over 20 million users, and they’re always really ready to hop on and help.”