Get ready to guide volunteers into action after next disaster

September 10, 2006|By Lisa Orloff

Our nation has just marked the first anniversary of one life-changing event, Hurricane Katrina, and is about to mark the fifth anniversary of another: the 9/11 attacks. We are still healing from both.

Although we will never forget the deaths of our citizens and rescue workers, or the physical and emotional destruction these events wreaked upon our country and the world, we do not often examine the experiences of the legions of community volunteers who came out to help during and after these events.

Yet their experiences hold valuable lessons that relief agencies have just begun to incorporate and that the vast majority of our cities have not translated at all into new policy or plans.

Many community volunteers responding to 9/11 reported the frustration of feeling underutilized and unsure where their place in the effort was. Four years later, lack of preparation left thousands of potential community volunteers on the Gulf Coast to fend for themselves; instead of being part of the relief effort, they became victims.

In both disasters, some community volunteers were utilized for the short term and then dismissed, with no way to connect to support that they greatly needed. In Lower Manhattan and around the Gulf Coast, many volunteers were exposed to the same physical and emotional hazards as trained rescue workers - sometimes causing lasting injury or illness - and were given little or no official help.

The surprise and swiftness of the 9/11 destruction, and the scale and power of Katrina, amply demonstrated that certain disasters exceed the capacity of our government and of even the largest and most experienced professional response agencies. In the national discussion of how we can do better next time, calls for a complete overhaul of the disaster response system from the top down are common. But no matter what changes are implemented at the national level, communities and relief agencies must work together to ensure comprehensive preparation, recovery and long-term support plans that are locally based, using existing knowledge and resources. In short, we need community volunteers and we always will.

Before the next anniversary, our cities and relief agencies should collaborate with and incorporate trained community volunteers in their strategic disaster response plans, so that these essential volunteers make themselves available and organize in an appropriate way when they are needed. These plans should address the individual needs and capabilities of community volunteers through screening and training methods available through the major relief agencies.

Ideally, all volunteers should also undergo self-care education, such as that offered free by World Cares Center; this equips volunteers with knowledge and skills to confront the significant emotional, physical and social challenges involved in disaster relief. In this way, communities establish more effective disaster relief plans.

Our cities and relief agencies must also prepare to effectively manage community volunteers who have had no official training, some of whom will be first on the disaster scene simply by being close to the disaster when it strikes. More than 100,000 people, most of them untrained and unaffiliated with any agency, came out to help in the days after the 9/11 attacks. More than double that number volunteered all over the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The influx of people seeking to help can be an overwhelming burden without a structure in place to utilize them. Our relief agencies and cities must acknowledge that "untrained" people can help, and must provide a method to quickly align them with the appropriate disaster response agency. This enables a safer and more productive symbiotic response between volunteers and professional responders.

Katrina and 9/11 also teach us that after the official disaster response, locally led and managed support is essential for long-term community recovery and individual healing. People directly affected by the disaster, who know the specific needs of their community, hold the key to providing health and wellness programming that builds individual and community resilience in the months and years after the disaster. Cities and relief agencies must also plan to dedicate long-term community resources to help the volunteers who have helped them.

Community volunteers are an essential and inevitable part of disaster response, and they come with various strengths and weaknesses. Learning from the experiences of 9/11 and the Gulf Coast, we must acknowledge and empower these volunteers with better plans that have comprehensive provisions that include them. If we do so, when the next disaster arrives, we can reduce the destruction and speed the healing.

Lisa Orloff is the founder and executive director of World Cares Center, a nonprofit organization that works to foster safe and effective disaster response and resiliency. Her e-mail is

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