The Best Relief: Cash

Here’s a tip for anyone who wants to help tornado survivors: Send money.

Don’t send clothes, blankets, jugs of water and other goods you think the people of Joplin, Mo., might need. Send cash and let relief workers at the scene of the disaster who know the situation decide how it should be spent to help people in need.

Don’t be like the unidentified trucker who called Radio Station KZRG in Joplin for directions. “I have a truckload of cat food, and, you know, where should I take this?” she asked the broadcaster. “Well, you know, I don't actually know,” he told her.

Shippers and transportation providers that want to help should work directly with relief agencies to move high priority supplies, and they should know who will receive the freight and where before heading down the Interstate highway to Joplin.

They can go to the American Logistics Aid Network, or ALAN, for example. ALAN lets shippers and transportation providers review lists of actual needs posted by relief agencies on its Web site and provide matching goods and services.

“We want to ensure that we respond in a way that does the greatest good,” Jock Menzies, president of ALAN, said after a series of deadly tornadoes swept through the South earlier this month, killing hundreds of people.

“At present, providing financial support to agencies working in the disaster area is the most effective,” Menzies said. “Other specific needs are sure to emerge, and we’ll definitely involve our supply chain network in helping to meet them.”

In too many cases, the majority of relief goods sent by donors in the wake of a disaster go unused because they are simply not what’s needed, said José Holguin-Veras, a logistics professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.

He’s seen this happen at disaster sites from New Orleans to Haiti and Japan, and he fears it will happen in Joplin, too, unless donors, transportation providers, relief agencies and governments get a better grip on the relief supply chain.

“In Haiti, I asked the logisticians at many relief agencies what there number one obstacle was, and the top response was donation management,” Holguin-Veras said. “They had to divert precious resources to handle the flow of non-priority goods.”

It’s already happening in the Midwest, where police departments, churches, charitable groups and businesses are planning “stuff-a-truck” events, asking for new or “gently used” clothing, non-perishable foods and other donated goods.

Too often, people who try to do good by filling trucks with donated goods wind up creating bottlenecks and confusion at disaster sites. Too often, trucks are dispatched without a clearly identified consignee who can receive and store goods.

A big question is where will the goods be stored and how will they be distributed? In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Holguin-Veras saw donated clothing piled on street corners. “You wind up with rotting piles of stuff that become a health issue.”

On a visit to Japan this month, Holguin-Veras, who specializes in disaster relief logistics, saw one warehouse where one-third of the workforce was employed sorting through donated clothing to determine whether it was usable.

Charitable groups collecting clothes and other goods would be better off selling them and using the cash they raise to help tornado victims, Holguin-Veras said. “Potential donors should try to find out if the relief agencies really need this stuff.”

Part of the problem is that post-disaster supply chains are typically thrown together on the spot with whatever is available. Transportation and logistics companies need to work out contracts and relationships with relief agencies before disasters strike.

Shippers that produce goods that could be used in an emergency need to let relief agencies know beforehand what supplies they can count on as donations. Again, ALAN is one group that can help coordinate such disaster planning efforts.

I spoke with Holguin-Veras Thursday while he was attending a meeting of the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters, a forum where relief organizations share knowledge about disaster preparation, response and recovery.

The National VOAD met in Kansas City, Mo., close enough to Joplin that Holguin-Veras could monitor local media coverage of the response to the tornado. What he saw disturbed him. Too often, he said, media reports distort recovery needs.

“The journalists focus on the most immediate and dramatic needs — clothing, water. That sets up a feedback loop. Tons of this stuff is donated. There needs to be a clear message to the viewers on what to donate and not to donate,” he said.

That clarity has to come from local and national relief organizations, which must do a better job talking to reporters about how to cover disasters and emergency response needs before a deadly tornado strikes, said Holguin-Veras.

When in doubt, “Send money first,” he said. That allows relief agencies to buy supplies locally, cutting transportation and storage costs and effectively giving the agencies more money to spend on more distressed disaster survivors.

Why not start with the American Red Cross? Since March 31, the American Red Cross has launched 30 relief operations in 23 states to help people affected by tornadoes, floods and wildfires and estimates it will need $41 million.

To date, the group has raised about $33.6 million. To make a donation, visit www.redcross.org or call 1-800-RED-CROSS. You can also text the word “REDCROSS” to 90999 to make a $10 donation. Every bit, or byte, counts.

Contact William B. Cassidy at wcassidy@joc.com. Follow him on Twitter at @wbcassidy_jo

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