Many people are inclined to help others after a disaster such as Hurricane Katrina strikes. But knowing how to help so that victims will get the greatest benefit from volunteer efforts is important, say LSU AgCenter experts.
Janet Fox, an associate professor in the LSU AgCenter's 4-H Volunteer and Leadership Development office, and Lanette Hebert, 4-H regional coordinator for the LSU AgCenter's Southwest Region, say planning volunteer efforts during a crisis ensures victims' needs are met.
“When disaster strikes, people everywhere want to help those in need,” Fox said. “To ensure this compassion and generosity are put to good use, it's important to know what stages victims go through in disaster recovery.
“With each stage, the needs of the victims change. Therefore, to be meaningful, thought needs to be put into what victims' needs are and how the volunteer program can best meet their needs.”
In the past decade, there have been more than 585 major disaster declarations and an additional 106 emergency declarations that have disrupted the lives of Americans and tragically affected the communities where they live and work.
To serve effectively and meaningfully, it's important that volunteer organizations determine what phases of disaster response their programs are most suited to help. Disaster planning involves preparation, prevention, response and recovery.
Fox says volunteers can play a significant role in addressing the needs of communities hit hard by a disaster.
“Volunteers play an important role in providing a listening ear,” Fox said. “It is important volunteers discourage rumors, which just add to feelings of fear and abandonment.”
It also is important volunteers stay involved in the disaster response that begins to evolve.
“Volunteers can play a role in mobilizing community response and work in cooperation with other organizations,” Fox said. “Communities must explore available resources, including fiscal and emotional resources. Working together will prevent duplication and waste, and better match resources to meet local needs.”
As people begin the long-term recovery process, finances are critical. Fox suggests financial contributions be made through a recognized voluntary organization to help ensure contributions are used as intended.
“The media might ask for items to be donated, but immediately after a disaster, relief workers usually don't have the time or facilities to set up distribution channels, and often these items go to waste,” Fox said. “Individuals and groups who want to donate supplies or their time should coordinate these efforts with the coordinating agency or agencies to they can be directed to the right needs.”
Organizations such as the American Red Cross, United Way and local governments serve as the coordinating agencies for a disaster.
To determine what can be done to meet the needs of victims of disaster, Fox says volunteer program administrators should: listen to media for needed items and drop-off locations, identify opportunities to volunteer and develop an ongoing communications system that can be shared with affiliated and unaffiliated volunteers.
Because needs vary with each disaster, Hebert says volunteer programs must be flexible with the volunteer response they give to a disaster.
“For example, there may be lots of volunteers one month and none the next month,” Hebert said. “It's important to pick a date, get a schedule and make plans but also to be flexible.”
It also is important to understand reactions people may have following a disaster, Hebert said. In most instances, victims are dealing with a wide range of emotions. Most disaster victims experience grief expressed as denial, anger, depression and finally, acceptance. Some individuals become withdrawn and are unable to talk about the event, while others have intense feelings of anger and sadness.
Not everyone has immediate reactions. Some have delayed reactions that show up days, weeks or even months later, and some may never have a reaction.
“It's important to respect the feelings and experiences of those who have lived through the disaster,” Hebert said. “Support and outreach efforts should be organized as soon as possible.”
When working with disaster victims, volunteers need to understand how the disaster affects the victim. Several factors contribute to how a victim copes with the disaster, according to Hebert.
“Victims are more vulnerable to the effects of a disaster if they have had direct exposure to the disaster,” Hebert said. “This includes being evacuated, seeing injured or dying people, being injured themselves and feeling that their lives are threatened.
“A person is more vulnerable if they have experienced personal loss, including the death or serious injury of a family member, close friend or pet.”
Another factor Hebert says to consider is that volunteers often are introduced to cultures quite different from their own.
“The behaviors, values and beliefs of the victims can differ greatly from the volunteers trying to serve them,” she explained. “It's important to avoid stereotypes about people. Volunteers should be open to learn as a result of the experience so they develop empathy and understanding of how to serve effectively.”
For a person to be an “A+ disaster volunteer,” Hebert said a few skills are needed. These are: acceptance, awareness, attentiveness and attitude.
Hebert encourages people to volunteer, saying supporting disaster victims through volunteering has many benefits.
“Volunteers who serve grow to understand themselves and others,” she said. “They witness and begin to understand the issues of poverty first-hand and see how rich their own lives are.”
Hebert also said volunteers experience the joy of selfless giving.
“Getting to know people from different backgrounds helps volunteers understand how compliance with certain aspects of our nation affects the life, health, safety and dignity of others.”
A. Denise Coolman writes for the LSU AgCenter (318-366-1477 or firstname.lastname@example.org).