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7 Ways You Can Help After a Natural Disaster

Looking to make the biggest impact during a crisis? Here’s how to help those affected by natural disasters right now.

Volunteer rescuer workers help a woman from her home that was inundated with the flooding of Hurricane Harvey on August 30, 2017Joe Raedle/Getty Images

How to help with natural disasters

It’s not your imagination: Natural disasters have been increasing in frequency and intensity over the last 50 years, and especially over the past two decades. In 2021 alone, the Emergency Event Database recorded 432 natural disasters worldwide, ranging from tornadoes and hurricanes to floods, earthquakes, wildfires and other extreme weather events. They caused 10,492 deaths, affected 101.8 million people and caused approximately $252.1 billion in economic loss. And thanks to climate change and higher global surface temperatures, those numbers will continue to rise, according to scientists.

If you’re trying to figure out how to help with natural disasters, such as the recent hurricane in Florida, you’re in the right place. The survivors of these natural disasters need aid—and fast—but it’s difficult to know what will make the biggest impact. This guide will help you get the necessary resources to the right people quickly and easily, as well as help you prepare for a potential emergency, especially if you live in a state prone to natural disasters.

Linda Beltran, left, of Ahaheim, makes a cash donation to American Red Cross volunteer Dee Luna durAllen J. Schaben/Getty Images

Donate to trusted disaster relief organizations

While there are many ways to give to charity, giving money is often the most helpful after a natural disaster. That’s because it’s quick and easy to do, and money can be used where it’s needed most. You can donate cash or gift cards to those in need, but it’s often easier to donate through a reputable charity or relief organization. Unfortunately, there are a lot of scam charities, especially in the wake of a crisis, so it’s important to donate only to vetted organizations.

Here are some of the best organizations that help with natural disasters, according to Charity Navigator, a nonprofit dedicated to analyzing and scoring charity organizations based on their effectiveness, finances, transparency and leadership. This list is a good place to start if you’re looking for ways to help those affected by Hurricane Ian right now, and many of these organizations also provide support to other humanitarian causes, such as the war in Ukraine.

Direct Relief

Direct Relief‘s assistance programs focus on emergency preparedness and disaster response, tailored to the particular circumstances and needs of different populations.

Red Cross

The biggest first-line emergency response organization in the world, the Red Cross provides shelter, food, medical care and comfort to victims of natural disasters worldwide.

CDC Foundation

The CDC Foundation is the nonprofit organization authorized by Congress to combine government and community resources. It manages hundreds of programs, including emergency responses to natural disasters.

World Central Kitchen

Founded by celebrity chef José Andrés, World Central Kitchen cooks hot meals on-site for victims of natural disasters, including Hurricane Ian’s victims.

UNICEF

UNICEF (short for United Nations Children’s Fund) provides medical, nutritional and other support for children who’ve been affected by disasters worldwide, especially those in developing countries.

The Humane Society

When looking for organizations to help those in need, don’t forget our four-legged friends! The Humane Society provides shelter, food and medicine to pets, as well as working to reunite them with their owners or rehome them after natural disasters.

Volunteers Lily Frey, 6, left, with Ashia Ortiz, 16, and Jannah Green, 14, right, scrub a hood during a car wash fundraiser to support the purchase of a service dog for autistic teen Seth Oran, 15, of Sinking Spring. Held at Discovery Credit Union in SpriMediaNews Group/Getty Images

Create a fundraiser

Put simply, more people equals more money, and creating your own fundraiser is a great way to mobilize people who want to help. If you’re dealing with a local natural disaster, start by raising funds through your community—local service clubs, schools and churches often have built-in networks. Designate a charity to receive the funds so people can donate directly, on the organization’s site or through an app; that way, you won’t have to deal with transferring donations through your personal account.

You can also organize an online fundraiser through GoFundMe or GlobalGiving. These sites allow you to raise money for specific people or situations and can feel like a more personal donation for charitable folks. Over the past year, GoFundMe has also been a go-to fundraising site for those who want to help after other tragedies, such as mass shootings.

Ashley Smith hugs her daughter Hayllie Smith, 8, while helping organize donations for flood victims at the Saul Communty Center in Saul, KyThe Washington Post/Getty Images

Collect supplies

Many people jump to provide food, clothing, shelter and other immediate needs during a natural disaster, and while these impulses are great, it’s best to take a little extra time to figure out what is really in short supply. This will help you give relief organizations exactly what they need—instead of overwhelming them with items they don’t.

Start by checking an organization’s website; they often have lists of what is needed and where to send it. Or call food banks, shelters or community organizations in the affected area to see what specific needs they have. For instance, people who suffered through the wildfires that recently blazed through Northern California needed special masks, while those recovering from the Kentucky floods requested dehumidifiers. And keep in mind that tools, medical supplies, diapers and formula are often far more needed than bags of last season’s clothing.

Nigeria Red Cross Society Distributes Emergency KitsNurPhoto/Getty Images

Ship supplies

Once you’ve gathered supplies, it’s important to ship them properly—and to the people who can distribute them. Large-scale organizations have detailed instructions online for how to store and ship donations. Do not send anything they didn’t specifically request. If you’re sending specialized items, like tools or medical supplies, try to go through a company in the local area. You can also send a gift card from stores like Home Depot or Lowe’s, or donate emergency kits through the Red Cross.

If you’re helping with a local disaster, you can drive the supplies to the relief organization yourself. Just be sure to call ahead, as many organizations have specific hours and locations for accepting donations. And an important note: Do not drive into an affected area; instead, reach out to the officials coordinating the relief efforts and follow their instructions.

Red Cross Holds Blood Drive In Louisville As Nation Faces ShortageJon Cherry/Getty Images

Donate blood

Disasters stress medical resources in the affected communities—that includes supplies of blood. You might be surprised to learn that it’s important to donate blood during a natural disaster even if your local area isn’t affected. While your blood likely won’t be used in the disaster zone, it can free up other blood supplies that can. Your blood donations are also an important part of helping your own community prepare for a future disaster. FYI, if you’re O-negative, you’re a universal donor, though all blood types are important to have on hand.

Major Flooding Ravages Eastern Kentucky After Heavy RainsMichael Swensen/Getty Images

Donate your skills or time

If you are trained in disaster response, mass-casualty EMS or search-and-rescue, or if you have a skill like construction or supply distribution, volunteer your skills and knowledge. You can contact your local emergency services, sheriff’s office and Red Cross to see if they are seeking volunteers. If you don’t have a particular skill, offer your time to help with clean up afterward. However, always call or check online first. Do not go as an individual volunteer to a disaster zone expecting to find ways to help. In reality, you will be adding one more person to the already strained infrastructure. This is especially important to consider if you’re looking to help after a strong hurricane or other natural disaster.

LV Senior man prepares for roadside emergency with survival items in his truck.fstop123/Getty Images

How to prepare for a natural disaster

One of the most helpful things you can do in a natural disaster is to prepare yourself ahead of time. Not only will these preventive measures protect you, but they will also limit damage in case disaster strikes.

The first step is to find out which disasters are most likely to affect you. For instance, do you live in the city with the highest hurricane risk? Then make an emergency preparedness plan for your house. This plan should be written out, and hard copies should be printed out and given to each person. Make sure to include details like what to do if the power goes out.

The second step entails stocking up on essential emergency items. These include:

  • A 72-hour emergency kit, stored in your garage in an easy-to-grab “go bag.”
  • Video and photos of your entire home, inside and out, as it currently is. Insurance companies may need this detailed information later.
  • Important documents gathered together in a portable, fire-safe lockbox.
  • At least a two- to three-day supply of drinking water.
  • At least a two- to three-week supply of pantry food.
  • A month’s supply of medications.
  • At least two weeks worth of food and medication for pets.
  • A way to cook that doesn’t use electricity, like a camp stove.
  • Backup chargers for electronics.
  • Written phone numbers and addresses for several loved ones who live close enough to drive to but far enough away to likely be out of your disaster zone.

You should also sign up for emergency-alert services in your area. If you use a cell phone, be sure to register the number with your home address. Feeling overwhelmed? This disaster preparedness app leads you step-by-step through what you need.

Sources:

Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen, BS, MS, has been covering health, fitness, parenting, and culture for many major outlets, both in print and online, for 15 years. She's the author of two books, co-host of the Self Help Obsession podcast, and also does freelance editing and ghostwriting. She has appeared in television news segments for CBS, FOX, and NBC.