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Managing the 'Disaster After the Disaster'

What do we do now to deal with unintended consequences of post-hurricane generosity?

You’ve probably been asked by out-of-state friends where to send Hurricane Sandy donations and what kind? It’s a daunting task to advise people when you’re in the midst of a crisis, but as the Associated Press reported, unwanted donations can become a “disaster after the disaster.”

“Ad hoc relief groups need to make sure they are taking in only items that are requested and can be distributed. Money is the best because organizations don't have to pay to move it and can tailor spending to changing needs,” James McGowan, a representative from the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster reportedly told AP.

I saw this problem firsthand after the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks when I volunteered with the Salvation Army. I was assigned to a packed warehouse in Bayonne, where the job was to divert excess donations to non-profits that could use them. I established quite a collection of t-shirts and Police Benevolent Association cards that were offered in exchange for sometimes valuable donations (like bullet-proof kevlar vests).

The moral of this story is that cash is often best, but donating money comes with its own set of challenges. The American Red Cross, for example, has reportedly raised $131 million for Sandy relief as of November 13. Fair or not, the organization is currently under fire for spending $181,000 to house volunteers at a swanky Manhattan hotel. This kind of criticism is not new. As AP reported, the Red Cross was criticized for its response to 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, but says it has learned from its mistakes.

"People have been giving without finding out first what a group's capacity is to actually deliver services," Ben Smilowitz, head of the Disaster Accountability Project, told Reuters.

As out-of-state inquiries flooded my inboxes, I initially advised people to donate to the Red Cross. Then I advised them to donate to a Hilton Honors initiative, not only because I’m a Hilton Honors member and appreciated the offer of HH points and matching donations, but also because the staff at the Hilton Garden Inn on Route 70 in Lakewood was amazing in the week after the storm. They offered free wi-fi and food to whoever showed up, worked tirelessly, and gave up rooms of their own to homeless families. They were sleeping on air-mattresses on the office floor, one young woman told me in between acts of hospitality like offering hot chocolate to lobby dwellers.

As local efforts kicked into high gear, I began telling friends to donate to initiatives launched by people I know and trust. My sister-in-law, for example, organized a Restore the Shore benefit concert for November 28 in Sarasota, Florida, and Abounding Grace Ministries, which has been doing work in lower Manhattan for more than 30 years, launched Grace in the Storm to assist New Yorkers.

High school classmates in Point Pleasant Beach held the most impressive clothing drive I’ve ever seen and the Police Athletic League in Brick became a feeding and distribution center. These last two efforts were quickly overwhelmed and stopped accepting donations of clothing and canned food. That’s a great problem to have, as is figuring out how to advise friends and family who want to give. So, I'm curious: where have you been telling loved ones to direct their donations and what kinds of post-hurricane disasters have you seen emerge from the outpouring of generosity?

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