Mennonite Disaster Service volunteers repair a roof near Aibonito, Puerto Rico, in the wake of Hurricane Maria. The team included people from Puerto Rico, New York, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. (Larry Stoner)

Hurricanes. Flooding. Wildfires. Earthquakes. The deadliest mass shooting in history. The United States and its neighbors have been hit with one-two punch after one-two punch of disasters and tragedies in recent months, and figuring out where and how to help can be head-spinning.

Greg Forrester, president and chief executive with National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (National VOAD), says skills of all sorts will be needed for the next decade to help recovery efforts in places like Puerto Rico, Texas, Florida, California and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Travelers can make a big impact, he says, as long as they align with the right organizations at the right time. In other words, don't just load up the car and hit the road. He says when people "self-deploy," they can do more harm than good.

“It’s with the best of intentions, but they also don’t realize there are fundamental ways that they also would get in the way. And they may actually impact the ability of survivors to get the resources for them to recover,” Forrester says. “It’s disaster gawking. It’s similar to when you see a car accident and all the traffic is slowed down,” he says.

Forrester urges people to take a long view. Months and years after the camera crews leave, the affected areas will need teachers, business consultants, nurses, behavioral health professionals, agricultural experts and skilled volunteers. Forrester shared the following advice on how to avoid being a disaster gawker and to make a difference.

Know when to give vs. when to go

There’s an anatomy to a disaster, and early on, your money will make a greater impact toward recovery than your hammer-wielding hands. “The most beneficial [aid] is always money,” Forrester says. He says to donate to an organization that’s skilled at working in these areas, because its leaders work with the communities to understand their current needs and know how to get supplies into the right hands.

Initially, he adds, the focus will be on stabilizing the area and ensuring that local residents have access to housing, food and water. In Puerto Rico, for example, Forrester says that he’s trying to make sure volunteers — unless they are on an assessment team — stay away until further notice. “Otherwise, you actually take services away from survivors, because there’s no shelter. You’re taking livable housing away from those who need livable housing because they live there. You’re taking water and sewer and the rest of that stuff away,” he says.

Work with an organization that’s helping

"The unaffiliated volunteers are like the plague of locusts," Forrester says. When people show up on their own, rather than with a group doing work in the area, they don't know where to go, they don't know what's needed and they can detract from recovery efforts. Forrester says people should consider their personal affiliations — religious organizations, veterans group, animal rescue outfits — and see whether they can join a team through those organizations. Travelers can register to volunteer via National VOAD and and regional VOADs (Puerto Rico's is; Florida's is, Texas's Gulf Coast is, California's is as well as other volunteer coordination organizations, such as Volunteer Houston ( and Volunteer Florida (

Consider your skills

Just about all skills and talents can be put to use, Forrester says. In the past, he has seen volunteers consult on money management, dentistry, home building, youth programs, micro enterprise, teaching, agricultural development, animal husbandry and more. “It really runs the full gamut, and we’ve been able to engage people based on what their skill set and experience is,” he says. Again, the key is to align with a nonprofit group or church that’s already involved, and let them know you’re ready and willing to travel. And keep in mind there’s no rush: There’s a long road ahead for the recovery efforts. Forrester says his organization is still helping the area hit by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and that it worked nearly 12 years to help after Katrina.

Know your limitations

If you don’t know what you’re doing, you could make matters worse. Forrester says that after Hurricane Harvey hit the Gulf Coast, “they had a fantastic outpouring of untrained volunteers.” He says there were cases in which those volunteers mishandled flooded homes, removing more sheetrock from walls than necessary. “Instead of cutting the sheet rock at four-feet high because the house took in two feet of water, they just took out the sheet rock all the way to the ceiling,” he says. In doing so, they created more expensive work for the next round of repairs, and may have caused damage to the home that the Federal Emergency Management Agency won’t cover.

If you go, be ready for anything

When asked how people should prepare to help out when traveling, Forrester says this: “We say it’s ‘flexibility, flexibility, flexibility and patience.’ Sometimes we flip it around and go ‘patience, patience, patience and flexibility.’” While disaster management has improved over the years, there are still times when it feels confusing and chaotic, especially early on. You may be in an area without electricity or with sparse accommodations. You may be asked to do tasks you didn’t sign on for, because that’s what’s needed at the time. Be ready to help when called upon in any way you can.

Leave it to groups working on the ground to supply supplies

Don’t collect water, food and clothing to bring to the area (or to ship to the area). Forrester says there’s a system set up and sending in unsolicited items disrupts that system. “We call donations the second disaster,” he says. That’s because volunteers will be needed to sort through the donations, taking those volunteers away from helping survivors. He says that after Harvey, people from across the country sent clothing — much of which wasn’t a fit for the climate — and it took precious volunteer hours to sort through it and, often, dispose of it. In Puerto Rico, a cry went out to send water and supplies, and now it’s unclear what to do with it. “I’ve got hundreds of thousands of pallets of collected stuff sitting in warehouses and hangars across this country right now with all the intentions of it going to Puerto Rico,” Forrester says. “So then it becomes a matter of what’s the cost effectiveness of actually shipping that to Puerto Rico?” Plus, it’s more complex than just getting the donated items down there. There are long-term implications to think about. If people send years’ worth of water, food, diapers and more, people won’t need to buy anything, stores will struggle to stay in business and people will lose their jobs. “You end up almost collapsing an entire economy if you actually drop all of the donations into that particular economy,” he says.

Volunteers are a vital part of recovery after a disaster, and travelers can make a difference on the road in the short- and long-term. Forrester says they just need to understand that there’s an order and a process in place and that they respect that. “Make sure you’re adding to the community engagement rather than taking away from it,” he says.

Silver is a writer based in Chicago. Find her on Twitter: @K8Silver.

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