August 20, 2020 by Ryan Sabalow
It might feel good to organize a donation drive or drop off clothes, cleaning supplies, food and pallets of bottled water to disaster relief organizations responding to the fires roaring across the state. But it really isn’t helpful.
After a few days, your donated stuff — along with everyone else’s — will grow into a huge pile. Then aid workers and local governments have to sort through it for anything useful. Sadly, much of it will end up hauled to the local landfill.
After one of the Lake County fires in 2015, one local evacuation center had to bring in 18 semi-trailer trucks to haul away all of the donated items that none of the fire victims needed. The Valley Fire burned 1,955 buildings.
And, now because of COVID-19, many charities don’t want your donated stuff anyway.
“With our safety practices, we’re really shying away from all of that,” said Nicole Maul, a spokeswoman for the Northern California Coastal Region of the American Red Cross. “We want to slow any spread of COVID-19. If we’re bringing in outside items, that’s an added complexity. This year, we really can’t accept physical goods.”
Culling through piles of donated items distracts aid workers who might otherwise help people find places to live and navigate government bureaucracies to receive cash assistance and rebuild their lives. Local governments and nonprofits have to spend money on storage, sorting and hauling — money better spent elsewhere.
After the Camp Fire burned the town of Paradise in 2018, in what became the most destructive fire in California’s history, Butte County was so overwhelmed by donated stuff, officials were forced to haul it all to an empty Toys R Us building, the Oroville Municipal Auditorium, and eventually, the local Hope Center had to lease two 20,000 square-foot warehouses.
Some of the items people donated included prom dresses and bikinis.
“We were calling it the ‘disaster within a disaster,’ ” said Shelby Boston, Butte County’s director of Employment and Social Services. Butte County evacuation shelters will not be accepting any donations because of the pandemic, she said.
The Camp Fire’s avalanche of donated stuff is a familiar story for relief workers worldwide.
The federal USAID Center for International Disaster Information notes on its website that some of the more useless donated items sent to disaster zones over the years have included chandeliers, fertility drugs, weight loss drinks and pork sent to a predominantly Muslim country whose populace won’t eat the meat for religious reasons.
“This desire to help coupled with the lack of understanding of how relief operations are organized … results in huge piles of household goods that cannot be used,” Juanita Rilling, the former director of the agency, told me a couple of years ago after the Carr Fire burned more than 1,000 homes in Shasta County.
“It’s heartbreaking, but it’s avoidable.”
HOW TO HELP
Aid workers say if you really want to help, cash is best, because it can be spent on exactly what disaster victims need at the moment they need it.
If you don’t feel comfortable sending money, another option is to send gift cards to local charities in the area that are helping fire victims.
Here are a few relief organizations helping fire victims accepting cash donations:
• The Solano Disaster Relief Fund: https://www.solanocf.org/Funds/Public/FundView.aspx?hFund=157&hFundCode=1&hFundType=1.
• The Napa Valley Community Foundation: https://www.napavalleycf.org/donate/
• The North Valley Community Foundation: https://www.nvcf.org/donate
• The Community Foundation Santa Cruz County has a Fire Response Fund at https://www.cfscc.org/updates/fire-response-fund.
• The American Red Cross, which is paying to house people in motels this year instead of in traditional shelters due to the pandemic, is calling for cash donations. Its website provides numerous ways to donate.
• The Diocese of Sacramento Fire Assistance Fund is accepting donations by mail at Diocese of Sacramento Fire Assistance Fund, 2110 Broadway, Sacramento, CA 95818; by phone: (916) 733-0266; or online by visiting www.scd.org/donate. Click “Fire Assistance Fund.”