08 November 2012

The two things to do after an emergency

Back to blogging after several days off! Let's see. In the past 10-odd days, Rowhouse Livin' dealt with Superstorm Sandy; a few planned and unplanned days when my daughter wasn't in school; a half-day in continuing legal education (I swear I don't procrastinate to meet my yearly requirements by the end of my compliance period); and Election Day, which I spent supervising a team of volunteers conducting non-partisan exit polls regarding voter ID, a controversial issue here in Pennsylvania and particularly in Philadelphia.

I love working election days, even off-years, and even off-year primaries, when turnouts are crazy low. My usual work involves visiting all the polling places in a ward and gathering information about turnout, poll staffing, and so on for a non-partisan watchdog organization. Usually I do my canvassing in Brewerytown, a neighborhood I don't get to regularly. It's a lovely change in the home-work-school-errands routine; it's a privilege check for when I feel like complaining about how my money is tight; and the data helps inform policy work for better election practices.

But back to Rowhouse Livin' urban home economics.

After Sandy finished rolling through the northeast, I saw a few news items and social media posts about what to do to get rid of your home's emergency supplies. And I said, "What?! Why would anyone get rid of their emergency supplies?"

I mean, I think the intention was noble. I think the idea was to have people donate their surplus blankets, canned foods, and sanitation supplies to others who had lost everything. But here at Rowhouse Livin', we know two things that you should do instead.

1. Keep, rotate, and replenish your own emergency supplies. Whether you used just a single can of ravioli or you went through a week's worth of batteries, bottled water, and beans, now is the time to look at your stores and evaluate what's up. Make a list of what you need to bring your pantry up to the level you need, and get cracking on building up your supply again. Do it in one fell swoop, or pace it out over several trips to the store, but do it soon! Areas of the northeast that got slammed by Sandy were hit with snow and more power outages in a nor'easter just a week later. Anything can happen, and sometimes things happen one right after another. Rowhouse Livin' operates on the principle that "extra" emergency supplies aren't unneeded; they're just not needed, yet.

2. Donate only cash. Unless you know you can meet a specific, stated need from a shelter, agency, or family, don't donate goods -- whether food, household necessities, clothing, or equipment -- for a few reasons. One, groups like the Red Cross don't have the person power to process non-cash donations. Every sack of clothes you donate takes time, hands, and physical space away from providing services. Even if you donate brand-new things, like underwear in the original package and a case of MREs, it takes time and personnel to sort and deliver the items. Two, groups like the Red Cross know what they need better than you do, and they can get a better deal on supplies than you can. To illustrate these two points, let's say the Red Cross knows that a shelter in north Jersey needs soap. Should you buy a pack of soap, or even a case, and drop it off at the Red Cross office in town? Heck, no! The Red Cross can negotiate larger quantities at a better price than you can, and may even be able to get a pallet donated and delivered to a particular location, free of cost. But if you donate a pack of soap, now people at the Red Cross have to coordinate delivery of that soap: research where it needs to go, organize the delivery, put it on the truck, deliver it, unload the truck, direct distribution, and complete the paperwork involved. If you had given cash, they could have delivered more soap to the shelter at a lower cost in person-hours and in money.

What about the Salvation Army, you say? Same principle. Give only cash to the headquarters or local offices. Give saleable clothes and household items to the thrift stores (call first or talk to a manager to ask what kinds of items work for them), because that's where they have the person-hours and physical space to process donations and turn them into cash.

Huge exception: have you received a very specific request for particular things? Then see what you can do to help. For example, I'll be attending a Sandy relief fundraiser this weekend where the organizer has specifically asked for blankets and flashlights. I hope people bring blankets and flashlights -- but I hope they bring brand new blankets and flashlights that they bought that morning, not blankets and flashlights they retrieved from their own homes. Because if they do, then what happens the next time there's an emergency here?

Bottom line, your own "extra" emergency supplies? Keep 'em, and give cash, instead.

1 comment:

Lynn said...

I had never really thought about your point, to donate only cash as that is the easiest for the organizations to deal with. It seems so obvious, now that you say it :) I will remember that in the future. Thanks for the excellent reminder.