In the Jewish American culture, our young men and women come of age at thirteen. We celebrate this passage to adulthood with a ritual called a Bar Mitzvah (or in the case of daughters, a Bat Mitzvah). When my son and daughter had their Bar and Bat Mitzvah festivities, I received many inquiries from friends and acquaintances as to what an appropriate gift would be.
"Cash," I would always reply. Cash gifts are always considered the most appropriate - and traditional - gifts at a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Often, young men and women will use this money to travel to Israel with their temple or synagogue later in their teens or it is put towards their education.
However, despite my assurances that cash was, indeed, the most appropriate, many people felt it to be gauche, particularly in the South, and instead insisted on gifting picture frames, ornaments and jewelry. This year my daughter is traveling to Israel, and I will practically go into debt paying for the trip. Oh well, I suppose when she returns, she can put a photo in one of the picture frames.
I bring up this tradition because yesterday I received a call from a friend in the private sector. He in turn had received a call from a contact from a FEMA private sector liaison working with the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in Oklahoma. The local EOC was struggling to manage all of the in-kind gifts from generous donors from around the country who didn't believe the assurances of the media and philanthropic experts that "cash is best." All types of gifts are given with the noblest intentions, but let me explain what an inundation of in-kind goods can do to a community in crisis.
First they need to find storage for the items, which isn't always readily available. They need to rent or track down trailers, and those trailers take up land. Usually, the private sector steps up to provide storage on behalf of the state. But these trailers and storage lockers cost money: between 2005 and 2009, excess ice given to Hurricane Katrina relief came to a total of $12.5 million in storage costs! As reported by CBS News, FEMA finally melted the ice in 2009, rather than bear the burden of the costs so long after the storm http://cbsn.ws/11m3lXw.
Also, once the goods have been properly stored, there needs to be a robust gift distribution management center. It is hard enough to figure out how to distribute cash among organizations in the most effective way to ensure it is properly getting to individuals and families, but to manage the distribution of goods during a time of crisis becomes even harder. Often the in-kind donations sit unutilized for years. For example, in 2010 (five years after Katrina) a locker full of donated supplies was found in Dayton, OH. The Dayton Daily News reported that the goods ranged from new toys still in their packaging to old sneakers, all unused and forgotten http://bit.ly/11m3z0A.
Right now, people who need the most support are in shelters... What can they do with an old desk or a kitchen table? They will not have permanent lodging again for a long time: what they really need is cash to purchase the items they need right now as well as rent for future temporary housing.
There is also tons of debris lining streets in need of clean up... This is a challenge for many communities as evidenced in previous disasters. This extra burden of work handling in-kind donations while trying to manage clearing debris and paying for all the expenses of relief creates a sort of crisis within a crisis. It's nothing the community can't handle, but at this time, they need to focus all of their resources on the resilience of the community whose healing depends on how swiftly they move to and through recovery.
Admittedly, not everyone has cash at their disposal to give to aid with relief and recovery. However, there are other ways you can help other than sending in-kind donations:
• Sign up to be a trained volunteer
• Write a letter to your municipal representatives urging your local community to give
• Teach your children the value of service
• Learn about effective disaster relief and recovery giving at www.disasterphilanthropy.org
• Prepare your own community for a catastrophic disaster
• Learn about the effects of tornados and other disasters on communities
The only time to send supplies is when a community asks for specific goods. Even then, it is imperative to give only what is needed and requested, not what you would like to give in order to feel better. Following a disaster, most regions will set up a hotline that you can call to learn more about volunteer and donation opportunities. For example Moore, OK set up "Serve Moore" with the toll free number (866) 484-3500: interested donors and volunteers can call from 8 AM-8 PM Central Time to receive more information about what people and resources are needed. Many areas also have local 2-1-1 lines either run through their state Emergency Operation Centers, United Ways or Community Foundations. These telephone lines can provide information about what material needs a community may have following a disaster.
In truth, it isn't even the gift of cash that's best. It's the generosity of the American people, who always respond to disasters with such an urgent drive to help in any way possible. However, waiting for a community to request what they need most and giving that gift is the most effective and generous way to help. If Americans don't heed this message of sending cash, I'll be in double debt by the time I send my 14 year old son to Israel in 2016 and the picture frames will go unused in lieu of Instagram.