Want to Help Disaster Victims? Send Cash.


The Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park erupted earlier this month forcing thousands of residents to evacuate and destroying more than two dozen homes. Hazardous volcanic smog, steam-driven explosions, and acid rain may also cause problems in the future, according to the US Geological Survey and Hawaiian Volcano Observatory

Many times, when natural disasters hit — and they’re becoming more common thanks to climate change, human behavior, and other factors — individuals want to help. 

But what is the most effective way to help when disaster hits? Monetary donations. 

Cash can be used immediately in response to a crisis and allows disaster relief organizations to purchase exactly what is needed, when it’s needed. It also allows organizations to spend money locally, supporting the impacted economy and cutting down on transportation time and costs, according to the United States Agency of International Development (USAID)

In some cases, shipping goods can cost more than the value of the items — especially if they need to travel by plane or are being sent internationally and have customs considerations. In other instances, items may not reach the disaster site quickly because of damaged infrastructure. Food may spoil if it takes too long to get to the area where it's being shipped.

Once these donations arrive, volunteers need to receive, sort, and house the items in a warehouse (if they can find one). Then, there’s the possibility that the disaster area could turn into a dumping zone where well-meaning individuals send items that are inappropriate given the season or the area's condition including shoes that aren’t suited for the terrain or expired medications.

In fact, relief workers often consider these inappropriate donations a ‘second-tier’ disaster because of the disruption they cause. A Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute study found that 50-70% of goods that arrive during emergencies should never have been sent and interfere with recovery efforts, citing examples of the after-effects of Hurricane Katrina. 

There is one exception. If you live near the disaster and can donate specific items that are being requesting at food banks, shelters, or police and fire departments; please do. Be sure, however, that the items won’t go bad before being distributed. Diapers, for example, were a much-needed commodity after Hurricane Harvey.

Monetary donations can also be beneficial long into the future, too.

After many natural disasters, there is a complicated rebuilding process. The city may conduct audits to determine why disasters were so impactful, such as broken levees. Infrastructure may need to be built or rebuilt.

Those who were disadvantaged in the past will face bigger hurdles — whether they need help with housing, finding food, or providing for their children. Additionally, in situations where industries are destroyed (think California’s wine region after the wildfires), social services may be needed that weren’t needed in the past. 

If you’re not sure where to give, consider choosing local organizations that are working on the ground. Sites like Charity Navigator can be used to determine which are the best (and how they’ll be using your money). Many news organizations also post articles with lists of the top options and the work that they are doing.

In Hawaii, consider donating to The Food Basket, which is dedicated to ending hunger on the island. The organization has set up a Lava Flow Evacuees Aid Fund. Kolten Wong, a St. Louis baseball player, has also started a GoFundMe campaign: Hawaii Natural Disasters Relief.