Yesterday was the 16th anniversary of the day that changed my life, changed the place that I live, and changed my outlook on life. You see, 16 years ago, I called the Alabama coast home and I called Biloxi, Mississippi the city where I was employed.
Monday, August 29, 2005, was not the first time I had experienced a hurricane. It was, in fact, the 13th time I had to prepare my home, board the windows, make the decision to stay or go, and pack my memories into plastic tubs so that they would be safe in case the worst happened.
I remember vividly sitting in my office on Friday, Aug. 27 trying to decide if I should take my computer home with me or not. (Note: today this would not be a decision at all since laptop computers are now attached to us permanently.) Hurricane Katrina was spinning in the Gulf of Mexico, projected path uncertain, but both my home and place of employment were well within the cone of uncertainty.
To make a long story short, I took my computer home. Over the next week, I would travel back and forth among 3 states, experience a gas shortage, and witness the worst destruction imaginable. Homes and businesses destroyed, no power, no internet, no air conditioning, no restaurants, and no hot water. I was lucky, my home only lost a few shingles, and my daughter was safe. The same could not be said for my co-workers, friends and extended family. Many had lost their homes, and in some cases, loved ones. It was emotional and painful to watch as many working in our company command center discovered what had happened.
Now that you have the back story, let’s fast forward to some of the things I learned. Most importantly, that in a time of disaster, it is in our nature to help. For many people, that help comes in different ways.
If you live within the disaster zone, you quickly learn to rely on the kindness of strangers and neighbors. Out of nowhere it seems that people begin sharing whatever they can – generators, gas, chainsaws, food.
Then, the cavalry arrives. This is typically government and civic rescue groups, power company personnel, and utility workers. Followed by insurance adjusters, FEMA employees and volunteers all set to help put lives back together. There is a lot of paperwork, and a lot of stress. In many cases, people have lost their home and sometimes their job at the same time.
So, what can you do if you live too far to help or cannot volunteer your time? Here are six things you can do to make a difference.
1. Clothing is not always the best donation. Clothing donations should always be made to a reputable charity in your area that specializes in handling clothing donations. One of the first memories I have when I arrived at our office in Biloxi was the parking lot across the street. The shopping center had been destroyed and the parking lot was filled with piles and piles of clothing. It was not sorted, it was not clean, it was wet. There was no organization in charge of this operation. People had driven to the area with a clothing donation and found that most of the typical drop off locations were gone or destroyed. So, they dumped the clothing into a parking lot. Many, many others followed, and needless to say, all they accomplished was creating a mess for city workers to clean up.
2. Only use a chainsaw if you know what you are doing. According to the CDC, each year 36,000 people are treated in hospitals for chainsaw injuries. The potential for injury increases after a hurricane or tornado. That being said, there is a big need for chainsaws. Consider making a financial donation to an organization that provides this equipment to trained professionals.
3. When it comes to food, a hot meal is preferred no matter how hot it is outside. Granted when there is no power, it is challenging to offer hot meals. This is where creativity is helpful. Food trucks and pop-up meal preparation centers are the highly valued. At this point, people, both workers and victims, are surviving on cold cuts, bread and chips. There are many opportunities for a sandwich, but limited options for a hot meal. If you own a food truck, put it to work. If not, consider donating to a restaurant or organization that is providing this service.
4. Get creative when you are considering a financial donation. Many companies have foundations to enable them to do community work. For example, locate a mattress store or furniture store in your area. Make a donation or offer to run a fundraiser to help them provide these items to people in need. And always do research into the organization before making this decision.
5. Make a donation to a specific company foundation, perhaps a vendor you work with. The company I worked for already had a Sunshine Fund established when Hurricane Katrina made landfall. This fund was designed to bridge the gap between local, state and federal aid. For example, we discovered that employees often were assisted by volunteers to clean and dry homes. But the next step, was to bring electricity back to the home. This could only be accomplished once a new electrical panel was installed. Employees often were waiting for insurance checks or FEMA checks. In order to speed the process, employees could apply for a grant to cover this expense. The Sunshine Fund was administered by a Community Foundation and could accept donations from companies and people that did not work for us. Over $1 million was raised to help our employees get back on their feet.
6. Consider setting up a fund at your place of employment to assist your employees or coworkers in a time of disaster. The best way to help in your own community is to be prepared when disaster strikes. Contact your local community foundation and start a disaster fund today.
The video interview above was one of many recorded in the days, weeks and months following this day that changed the lives of so many.
If you live close enough to a disaster zone, consider contacting a local religious organization or community group and volunteer to babysit for children of disaster victims. There is a lot of paperwork, and a lot of time standing in line to apply for aid or file an insurance claim. Children are often taken along because school and daycare are closed. Also consider volunteering at a local animal shelter. When homes are destroyed, many pets find themselves homeless too.
Lastly, remember that both victims and workers have experienced trauma. It is vital that each receive the mental health support they need. It was a year after Katrina when I first experienced the signs that I needed help. I woke up one day and could not open my mouth. I soon discovered after seeking medical advice that the stress of the past year caused me to clinch my jaw especially at night. My body let me know that it was time to seek help. A donation to any organization providing mental health aid to victims and workers is a valued gift.
Jill Alexander, APR, Fellow PRSA is an associate teaching professor at University of Missouri-St. Louis. She also serves as PRSA regional representative for the Midwest and Southwest Districts. She moved to St. Louis along with over 100 coworkers following Hurricane Katrina.