September 6, 2017

Gut-wrenching images of flood victims in the greater Houston area have stirred do-gooders’ emotions nationwide, compelling many to spring into action.

Millions of Americans, including residents of the Florida Keys, are rallying support by collecting food and clothing to donate to the flood victims of Hurricane Harvey.

Stockpiles of clothes and dry goods are being collected and driven to Texas in box trucks, trailers and by other means. But officials say that isn’t what is needed — at least at this time.

“People feel anxious and immediately want to help. It’s understandable, but we’re not quite there yet, and most likely won’t be for a while,” Federal Emergency Response Agency spokeswoman Crystal Paulk-Buchanan said. “We are still coordinating rescues and assessing the full scope of damage. We’re still figuring out what we need, and Houston is going to need help for a long time to fully recover.”

FEMA issued a press release last week advising people to not donate unsolicited goods such as used clothing, miscellaneous household items, medicine or perishable foodstuffs.

“When used personal items are donated, the helping agencies must redirect their staff away from providing direct services to survivors in order to sort, package, transport, warehouse and distribute items that may not meet the needs of disaster survivors,” the release stated.

Paulk-Buchanan said when bulk items arrive in the first few weeks into disaster recovery, there simply aren’t enough “hands-on-deck” to organize and distribute them.

“What is needed is still being determined and it’s difficult to get those things distributed into some areas still. This is a lot of moving parts,” she said.

Food donations can be particularly problematic.

“It winds up being the most expensive can of corn you’ll ever give,” Marty Senterfitt, director of Monroe County Emergency Management, said about non-commercially packaged food.

Food is easier to receive from a commercial vendor, as it’s shrink-wrapped, on a pallet and in a climate-controlled trailer, he said. It’s taken directly to kitchens that prepare free meals to disaster victims.

Senterfitt was in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and said citizen volunteers, though well-intentioned, became part of the problem during the recovery.

He said scores of unskilled workers would show up to help and need a place to sleep and fuel for their buses, when the two were already in short supply. He said the influx of helpers busied the secured roadways and made maneuvering efforts more difficult.

FEMA hopes to avoid a repeat of that.

“The state of Texas is asking volunteers to not self-deploy, as unexpectedly showing up to any of the communities that have been impacted by Hurricane Harvey will create an additional burden for first responders,” the press release states.

Paulk-Buchanan says anyone who decides to drive donations to Texas should first coordinate delivery with a receiving party and make sure they’re able and equipped to manage the donation.

It’s not a matter of being ungrateful; it’s a matter of being practical, she said. A semi-trailer packed with food and clothing may potentially sit for a day or two in Houston’s sweltering 90-degree heat. If such items happen to contain moisture or get wet, they can quickly develop mold.

Senterfitt referred to the trailers of donated clothing to Katrina victims as a “biohazard.”

“It’s more cost-efficient to give money to the Red Cross, or some other vetted organization already in place in Houston,” he advised. “We need to be wiser consumers and a little more thoughtful about what we give.”

Officials say those who want to help should donate money to the American Red Cross at redcross.org/donate/hurricane-harvey. Those who wish to physically volunteer should register with the Texas Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster at txvoad.communityos.org or through nvoad.org.

tjava@keysnews.com