I WAS IN A GYMNASIUM a couple of days after the tidal surge of Superstorm Sandy had receded from the Jersey Shore. We were sorting through donations that had been pouring in from around the country. There were toys everywhere — stuffed animals, board games, books, puzzles, costumes. There was an entire corner piled with teddy bears.

“Are we really going to need all of these?” I asked one of the women in charge.

“Oh, no,” she said. “A lot of the clothes will get taken, but this is way more toys than we’ll need. We’ll give them to Goodwill.”

A lot of the toys were brand new. It was heartbreaking, seeing such staggering generosity in the face of the disaster, and not being able to accept it.

Hurricane Harvey

This weekend, Texas was hit by Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm. The floodwaters, as of this writing, have yet to recede, but when they do, officials estimate 30,000 people will be forced from their homes. Those of us here on the Jersey Shore have seen what follows, and it is not fun — these storms leave their mark. Streets need to be cleared of debris, insurance has to be paid out for thousands of people, FEMA relief has to be applied for, homes have to be renovated or torn down, livelihoods have to be rebuilt, economies have to be kickstarted, and people have to deal with the trauma of seeing the lives they knew swept away.

Embed from Getty Images

From the outside, the overwhelming impulse is to want to help. But there are scam artists out there, and not all help that is given is help that is needed. So we’ve tried to put together some of the basics for how to help out those affected by Hurricane Harvey.

If you’re far away from Texas

As tempting as it is to send clothes or toys, the best thing to send is pretty much always cash. Your cash may well, in the end, be used towards clothes or toys, but it can also be put towards clean-up, towards water and food, and towards rescue efforts. If you send cash, those on the ground will be able to make strategic decisions about how to spend it. If you send clothes, there’s really only one use for it.

Here are good places to donate to:

  • All Hands Volunteers — They help organize volunteers around disaster relief. You can donate to them or volunteer your time.
  • American Red Cross — They are on the ground for pretty much every disaster in the country. You can click the link to donate, or you can text HARVEY to 90999 to automatically donate $10 to their efforts.
    • If you want to double your reach, Amazon is matching the first million donated to the Red Cross for Harvey. Just follow this link.
  • Americares — They provide medical supplies to disaster areas.
  • The Center for Disaster Philanthropy — Most organizations are focused on the emergency relief that needs to be taken care of in the moment. The Center for Disaster Philanthropy tries to take the strategic long view, and will focus on “rebuilding homes, businesses, infrastructure, meeting the needs of young children, supporting mental health needs, and boosting damaged agricultural sectors.”
  • The Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County — They are helping those displaced by the storm to find shelter.
  • Convoy of Hope — They are a faith-based organization that helps with emergency relief in the US and around the world.
  • Direct Relief — They provide medical relief to poorer people in disasters around the world.
  • Global Giving — They help connect people with local nonprofits. Their Harvey efforts are directed at helping local NGOs provide relief.
  • The Greater Houston Community Foundation — They have a relief fund specifically for Hurricane Harvey.
  • Samaritan’s Purse — They provide relief and often help with rebuilding efforts.
  • Save the Children — They provide relief to vulnerable children and families.
  • The United Way of Greater Houston — They will be needing funds to help with relief efforts.

Now is also an excellent time to donate blood. It doesn’t take too long and can be literally life-saving. Red Cross has a tool to help find donation centers near you.

If you want to donate to an organization that you’ve stumbled across, do a bit of quick research before you give — Charity Navigator is a great resource for checking a non-profit’s bona fides.

If you’re close by

First and foremost: Do not just drive to Houston if you do not have a specific place you are volunteering or a family member you’re helping. During disasters, authorities usually don’t want a lot of outsiders coming to town because of the worry of looting, and it’s a bit of a logistical nightmare dealing with people who want to help, but who have no directions as to how to help. Often, parts of the area will be closed down to people who do not have a local address. So check to see if it’s okay to go first.

If you know someone who lives in the affected areas and they need help, go to them. When Sandy hit on the Jersey Shore, I went to my wife’s parents house. Her parents knew some people in the area who were asking for help, and we were able to go over and help them. Communities often have a better idea of how to help each other out than aid organizations do.

Texas Food Banks are accepting donations of nonperishable foods to distribute to survivors. Blood is desperately needed in South Texas — here’s where to give. The Texas Diaper Bank needs diaper donations for families affected by the storm. The Animal Defense League of Texas needs volunteers to take care of pets displaced by the storm.

Preparing for the next storm

In 2010, Haiti suffered a catastrophic earthquake that killed over 100,000 people. A month later, there was an earthquake in Chile that killed 525 people. The Chile earthquake, while still catastrophic, was nowhere near as destructive as the Haitian earthquake, in spite of the fact that the Chilean earthquake was 500 times stronger than the Haitian one.

Why such starkly different outcomes? In part, it’s because Chile is a richer country than Haiti. But it’s also because Chile sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, where earthquakes are far more common. As a result, Chile has spent more time building an earthquake-resistant infrastructure.

The truth is that most of the measures that save lives in disasters have been taken long before the storm forms, long before the tremors start, long before the funnel cloud starts to touch down. I grew up in a tornado-prone area, and so we prepared for tornadoes. We had drills, we discussed what we would do if the sirens started, where in the house was safe, what we should and shouldn’t do. Children who live in hurricane areas drill for hurricanes, and children who live on fault lines drill for earthquakes.

Do the work now — set up an emergency preparedness plan with your family, and find out what your town’s disaster response plan looks like. It might be something that you can casually work on now that will literally save lives in the future.