Let me tell you about the “second disaster.”

Everyone sees the first disaster, when floods (like the ones in Eastern Kentucky) or fires devastate an area. The second disaster comes later, when these flooded, burned-out communities are inundated with things – clothes, toilet paper, used furniture, pallets of canned food or dish soap. Volunteers are overwhelmed with fleets of tractor-trailers loaded with….stuff.

Yes, this sounds ungrateful. People are honestly trying to help. But the “second disaster” is real. There are even social science papers written about the phenomenon.

The solution is easy. Send money. That’s it. That’s what communities dealing with flood and fire need. And they will need it for years to come.

We know that first-hand here in La Grange, Texas. Five years ago, Hurricane Harvey dumped nearly 30 inches of rain on our part of rural Texas. The Colorado River, which runs through town, rose 50 feet. Hundreds of houses and businesses flooded. People lost everything.

La Grange was all over the national news. That was the first disaster.

The town came together quickly. We opened a relief center where people could get water, some clothes, food. Then the trucks started to arrive – pickups from Austin, semi-trucks from Iowa, loads of everything from diapers to a shipment of MyPillows.

Volunteers in La Grange, Texas, sort through donations that poured into the community after flooding from Hurricane Harvey destroyed hundreds of homes in 2017. Managing items the community didn’t need took tremendous effort. (Photo by Bill Bishop)

We had lots of volunteers and we spent days unloading boxes of used clothes. Luckily, we had a huge warehouse. We needed it, because the town was inundated, not with flood water this time, but with mountains of stuff.

This was the second disaster. An article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review describes this well-known phenomenon:

In every major disaster, individuals and community groups all across the country send enormous quantities of unproductive relief supplies—such as used clothing, shoes, bottled water, toys, and canned food—to help victims and their families. Well-meaning people spend millions of dollars on the items themselves and on transporting those donations to disaster sites. When these items finally arrive, they create chaos and extra work for disaster relief workers—a process so counterproductive that many call it “the second disaster.”

There are no bad guys causing the second disaster. It is really just the opposite. The second disaster is caused by good will.

“Generally after a disaster, people with loving intentions donate things that cannot be used in a disaster response, and in fact may actually be harmful,” Juanita Rilling, the former director of the Center for International Disaster Information, told NPR in 2017. “And they have no idea that they’re doing it.”

 Recovering from a disaster takes a long time. It took years to rebuild the homes we lost here in Hurricane Harvey. And our flood was nothing compared to the waters that have ravaged Eastern Kentucky.

What these communities need is sustained help. They will need assistance for years to come.

What they don’t need now is a box of used shoes that will have to be cleaned and sorted. They don’t need more things that will need to be stacked, stored, inventoried and – maybe, but probably not – distributed.

If you want to help, send money. Here is a list of organizations that could use your generosity.

General recovery funds established by the state and a regionally based community foundation.

Mutual aid groups distribute funds and goods directly to community members. Here are three that have been verified by local organizations.

Many nonprofit and community organizations have been affected by the flood. Here are two that have created ways to donate directly to their recovery and one that is helping direct funds to other organizations.

Bill Bishop is a contributing editor and a co-founder of the Daily Yonder.

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