September 1st, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

New Orleans: What Disaster Victims Don't Need!

One last thought, and then I think I've actually run out of things to say about Hurricane Katrina.

In the wake of every natural disaster, well-meaning people do the same damned stupid things. This is not as damning an indictment as, well, frankly as part of me wants to paint it. My knee jerk reaction is to blame people's stinginess and stupidity. But most people have never been through this kind of thing on the aid-receiving side, have never really thought in depth about what it was like, and don't consult the experts before they donate. More importantly, America's most generous people, paradoxically, are the people who are living the closest to hand-to-mouth themselves. If they're going to donate to future tragedies, they want their current donation to do as much good as possible. The problem is that their instincts for what's the most good for the least expense are, well, pretty stupid, or at least ill-informed.

The people in New Orleans do not need your second-hand clothes. Thousands of people box up their clothes that are partially worn out or that no longer fit them, and then go looking for some charity that will ship those old clothes into the disaster area. They think that they're saving the disaster agencies money, since passing along hand-me-downs has got to be cheaper than buying new. They're not factoring in the transportation or sorting costs. In fact, those second hand clothes donated to disaster services get bundled up into huge bales, and sold to recyclers for pennies per ton, to be turned into pulp for paper or cheap fabric. And that's when the market for unsorted old clothing is good. When demand for scrap fabric of unknown quality is down, any charity that accepts this crap is going to end up sending most of it to the landfill, where (because of the volume) they're going to have to pay a dumping fee. Please, do not send your used clothing to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

The people in New Orleans also do not need the canned goods from the back of your pantry shelf. You may think that they're desperate enough to eat the stuff that you bought and then shoved to the back when you decided you didn't want it, after all. In fact, no, once again you're not factoring in the transportation or sorting costs. What's more, that's just not how large-scale disaster kitchens work. They don't prepare meals from 10oz or 12oz metal cans. They buy surplus agricultural products in 55gal drums and in bales and by the whole boxcar. It's a heck of a lot faster than going through your donated canned goods trying to figure out what to cook. At best, if you donate your unwanted canned goods to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, they will be quietly and behind your back shunted to Operation Food Search or whatever the regional clearinghouse for food pantry donations in your area is called. Just as likely, though, your unwanted canned goods are a distraction to the people who have actual disaster relief work to do, and are going, yes, once again straight into the landfill.

And finally, no matter how obvious it is to you that the children who survived this need something to cling to, something to cheer them up, do not go looking for some charity to ship your left-over toys to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, no, not even new teddy bears. You are at the wrong end of the needs spectrum. If those kids don't get some kind of a roof, even if it's a tent, over their heads? If those kids don't get to an emergency kitchen that's up and running? If those kids don't get out of the rising water? Then that toy isn't going to do them the least amount of good. And that's assuming that some charity is crazy enough to think that it's a good use of their volunteer time and transportation costs to get it to those kids in the first place, and assuming that some room can be found in the limited transportation going into the disaster zone to fit a boxcar full of random teddy bears. They're not thinking, "Boy, I wish I had a Barbie or some Hot Wheels to replace the ones I just lost," not yet they're not. They're thinking, and saying, "My tummy hurts (from dysentery, or starvation, or some horrific infection caught from tainted water). Make it stop!" They're thinking, and saying, "Why won't the water stop rising? Why won't somebody come get us off of this roof? Am I going to die?" If you're so shallow that your preferred way to donate to the poor is to send stuffed toys, at least save them for late November or early December and give them to the Marine Corps' "Toys for Tots" campaign. Do not burden the Hurricane Katrina rescue workers with toys that you want them to deliver.

What the victims of Hurricane Katrina need, frankly, is help. Professional help, help from people who have specific skills. They need help from people who don't have to be trained, and who are already organized into departments and units and organizations that work well together. It costs money to keep those people trained, it costs money to feed them, it costs money to ship them and their equipment into the disaster zone. It costs money to buy the perishable supplies that they're using up while saving lives, and costs money to ship those supplies in. Rescue units are going through generator fuel like there's no tomorrow; tomorrow's refuel of the generator gas tank will cost money. Look, I know that you think that giving goods that you can afford to pass on multiplies the value of your donation, because used stuff is cheaper than new stuff. But to get the stuff they actually need, they then have to turn around and sell your used stuff, if it can be sold at all, for less than you could sell it for -- and after eating the transportation costs and receiving costs to accept it from you in the first place.

Stop screwing around trying to be clever, and out-clevering yourself. Stop searching high and low for some organization with lower overhead or that has never had even one money scandal. Stop wondering about whether your $1.00 or $5.00 or whatever donation is worth as much as a box of clothes that used to cost you $500 when new. Just do what actually works. Call 1-800-HELP-NOW to donate by phone. If you absolutely don't have a credit or debit card and must mail cash or a check, use this online form which will help you route your donation to the fastest address. If you absolutely can not send money right now but have airline miles you're willing to part with, most of the major airlines have programs to let you donate airline miles to the Red Cross.

But all three of those options are inferior to what you really should, if you're capable of reading this online at all, be doing, which is using the web page to donate. Being fully automated, it's the way to get the money to the people who are caring for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, to the people who care for all of the victims of city-killing disasters, while wasting the least possible of that money on the administrative overhead of collecting it. If you do it this way, then yes, even donations of little more than pocket change really, really will make a difference.

Voted for Dean

New Orleans: What If the Real Reason is Much Worse?

(OK, nancylebov, you were right -- I did find more to say about this.)

What if we've been wrong? What if we weren't cynical enough? We've been speculating that this looks astonishingly like that the administration doesn't care about poor people's lives. Not a few people have been speculating that the administration didn't care if black people died.

What if it's much worse than that?

Could it be that thousands of people are dying of dehydration in the New Orleans convention center, not because they're black or poor, but because the majority of the poor people in New Orleans and Biloxi, both black and white, voted for John Kerry?

Are Dennis Hastert, Tom Delay, Dick Cheney, and Karl Rove sitting in front of their TV sets, knocking back beers, and having a good, long bitter laugh as they watch babies die? Are they saying, "Fuck you. You voted for the wrong guy, why should we care what happens to you? Next time the survivors will know better. Want your kids to live and grandparents to live? Next time vote for the right guy, assholes"?

Earlier this evening, someone asked NBC cameramen, "Where is the Red Cross?" So they asked the director of the Red Cross. Who complained bitterly that the Bush administration is keeping her people out, at gunpoint, because "it's not safe." Is that why? Or is it because they think it's not just a good idea but actually pretty funny that all those probable Democrats are dying?

All I do know is this. I may have Asperger's Syndrome, so maybe I'm missing some subtle emotional response that's beneath my radar. But the Bush administration is sure as hell not acting as if it cared if those people lived or died, and they're still not showing any symptoms, either emotional or practical, of sincerely caring now. If they're not cackling with glee, if they're not saying, "You know what you call ten thousand dead poor people in New Orleans and Biloxi? A good start!", then they've got some explaining to do. And that explaining had better be in the form of deeds, not words.

As I type this, retired Florida Republican congressman turned TV commentator Joe Scarborough is on MSNBC -- tearing the Bush administration a new one over their handling of this. It's not just me.