Watching the heartbreaking images of Texas from thousands of miles away can make you feel a bit helpless. There’s a strong pull to jump in your car and race to the epicenter, so you can make a “hands on” contribution to the recovery effort. There’s even a name for this for this kind of spontaneous travel: “disaster tourism.” It’s a wonderfully generous and well-intentioned idea. But before you pack yourself off to Texas, there are some important things to consider.
First and foremost, your presence must help more than it hurts. Resources in disaster areas are limited. When you travel there, you’ll be using up some of those precious resources – shelter, food, water, fuel – that are needed for the victims. Even just using cell signal bandwidth, electricity, and the roads or airports (if they’re open) can place a burden on an already overburdened place. In short, adding more people to a destination in crisis is not a good idea, unless those people have specialized skills or equipment that are in demand. (In the case of Texas, people with boats were needed and welcomed.) So consider carefully whether the kind of aid you can provide will be more helpful than burdensome.
When making a decision to volunteer, timing is critical. Even now in Houston, it’s difficult for relief organizations to reach the people who need help. And conditions there are still dangerous. You don’t want to be a volunteer who becomes another victim.
Once a destination gets past the initial crisis stage – when basic services have been restored, the needs have been identified, and volunteer efforts have been organized – then traveling there to volunteer can indeed be beneficial, and you can feel more confident that you’ll be making a worthwhile impact.
If you do go to a disaster area to volunteer, coordinate with an organized, reputable organization. As with all volunteering, whether in your neighborhood or far from home, it’s important to do your homework and make sure you’ll be helping in a constructive way. Just showing up somewhere without a plan will only create more chaos. Volunteers who want to head to Texas are encouraged to sign up with the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (link here).
And finally, once a semblance of normalcy has returned to the destination, “recovery tourism” becomes an option. This means bringing tourism dollars back into a destination that was severely damaged, to help lift its economy and fuel its recovery. Traveling to the Gulf Coast after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is a good example; once the beaches were cleaned up, the affected towns needed tourists to return. It may take a while to get to that point, however; we need to make an effort not to forget about these places, even after they’re no longer featured on the nightly news.
In Houston, there is no shortage of volunteers on the ground: local people have been turning out in droves to volunteer in shelters and to help their neighbors. For now, for most us, making financial donations to reputable organizations is the best way to support the recovery.
(If you’re looking for donation ideas beyond the Red Cross, consider one of the local charities listed here.)