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15 Ways You Can Help After a Natural Disaster (Hint: It’s Rarely Donate Clothes)

The wrong donations end up costing charities precious dollars just to store leftovers—which is why clothing may not be the best use of your donation efforts. Learn how you can help families and communities in the most resource-wise ways with these ideas.

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Think of the children

“Children’s needs are important during disasters,” says Paul Grattan, Jr., a sergeant and 17-year veteran of the New York City Police Department who has disaster response-and-recovery experience. “As families impacted by a disaster try to shield their children from the effects, they seek to supply them with the entertainment, toys, snacks, juices, candies, and other treats and comfort items they are accustomed to, particularly in less-immediate post-disaster environments.” Turn your dollars into toys and entertainment options for kids of all ages. Shelters can accept these donations and distribute them appropriately.

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Stacked up tin or aluminum caned foods. View from above.Joey Laffort/Shutterstock

Host a food drive

You can start the process by organizing a food drive with local businesses or churches in your hometown, says Leah Benavente, philanthropic relations coordinator at Acts of Serve/Lippert Components, Inc. After the drive, package everything and prepare to deliver it to the larger organization who can take over delivery from there. “Ask your local food pantry for guidance. They have a network of people they can reach out to,” she says. “Also, keep an eye out for organizations that react to disasters like World Compassion Network, Team Rubicon, and Feed the Hungry. They will take donations and can give you guidance on what items are most needed.” Find out the one thing natural disaster survivors wish they had done differently to prepare.

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Don’t give bottled water—give cash for water filters

“We had to learn the hard way that gently used clothing and bottled water are not useful items to gather when trying to help,” Benavente says. That’s because shipping and storing bottled water is very expensive, according to the USAID Center for International Disaster Information. “Bottled water becomes costly and creates an issue when not asked for,” the group said in a statement. “It costs $350,000 to ship 100,000 liters of bottled water. For only around $300, aid groups can purchase a local water purification filter.”

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Donate cleaning supplies

Some homes are salvageable—with a good scrub. “Cleaning supplies like bleach, masks, gloves, and buckets are a standard need,” Benavente says. You can donate these items directly to shelters where volunteers can divvy up the supplies as people return to their homes. You can also join forces with a larger organization to collect supplies and deliver them once families have gotten over the shock of the storm and are looking to clean up and start over.

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Offer gift cards

If cash doesn’t feel like the best option for you or you’d like to help direct your giving efforts a bit, a gift card may be a great option. “These cards allow the donor some discretion to guide the recipient to certain stores, and therefore types of items,” Grattan says. “Likewise, cards that can be used at grocery stores allow the person in need to get perishable items they may need, like milk, which is not typically available in disaster relief donations which are designed to last longer.” Gift cards can also be reloaded for continual giving. Learn these 6 skills to survive any emergency.

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Shop from Amazon Wish Lists for direct giving

If you have a relationship with an organization, large or small, and want to help them immediately after a natural disaster, look for a wish list option. Amazon lets some organizations establish a site where they can input their immediate needs. This allows you to buy exactly what’s needed, and Amazon will ship it directly.  “Try and stick with established nonprofits and call the agency to verify the list is valid,” Benavente says. “When we wanted to help, we found the Amazon lists were a perfect way. You can help immediately in real time.”

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Donate your skills to your community

“If you are trained in disaster response, mass casualty EMS, or search and rescue, you can contact your local emergency services, sheriff’s office, and Red Cross to see if they are seeking volunteers,” says Peter Dudley, author and corporate responsibility expert. Let them know your capabilities and availability. They will follow up if and when they’re ready to deploy volunteers. “Do not go as an individual volunteer to a disaster zone expecting to find ways to help. In reality, you will only add one more person to the strained infrastructure,” Dudley says.

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Spend time caring for families and individuals at shelters

Time and comfort are the two most important things you can give free of charge, says Carole Lieberman, MD, a psychiatrist and author of Lions and Tigers and Terrorists, Oh My! How to Protect Your Child in a Time of Terror. “Spend time listening to the victims with a compassionate ear. Bring books, and read to the children.” If you’re not near the affected area, Lieberman says you can also help sponsor companies to bring therapy dogs, books, or food to shelters or communities.

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Open your home to displaced friends and family

If you can safely house or host friends and family members in the days after an event, it will be a much-welcomed bit of comfort, says Barbara Gaughen-Muller, a Santa Barbara, California, resident who has lived through many disasters. “Disasters bring the best out in many people who really want to help,” she says.

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Provide equipment for the situation

“The recent Thomas fire devoured 273,400 acres across the dry hills of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties,” Gaughen-Muller says. “The deadly smoke and two inches of ash were everywhere.” To stay in their homes, residents needed special masks, but stores soon ran out. Gaughen-Muller went to a Home Depot in a neighboring town to pick up masks and handed them out to people in need. Make sure you know these 9 tips to keep your pet safe during a natural disaster.

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Give blood

Disasters stress medical resources in communities and towns affected by the disaster. That includes supplies of blood. “Your blood is unlikely to be used in the disaster zone, but blood supplies have a shorter shelf life than most people think,” Dudley says. “Donations are always needed right in your own community year-round. This is part of helping your own community be prepared for a disaster.”

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Sell goods, don’t donate them

“Though they come from a generous place, [clothes] aren’t the best way to help people in need right away,” says Greta Gustafson, a media relations expert for the Red Cross. “If you are unable to leave your home to volunteer or don’t have the resources to make a financial donation, you can consider selling the items you were looking to donate on eBay Giving Works or another site and donate the proceeds to an established disaster relief organization serving the affected area, like the Red Cross.” You can also make donations throughout the year through charitable donation programs like AmazonSmile. Select the charity you’d like to support, and a percentage of eligible purchases will be donated. But make sure you know these scams to watch out for after natural disasters.

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Wait to donate after several months or even years

“Corporate donations pump millions in immediate relief funds into disaster areas. Those donations tend to focus on immediate relief like shelter, clean water, food, etc.,” Dudley says. “You can be more creative about your donations by setting aside money when you feel moved, and then after the immediate relief stabilizes, look for ways to support recovery.” Dudley suggests donating money directly to schools, child-care groups, mental health services, services that help the elderly and homebound, or organizations that help with job training. They will need help to recover their buildings, technology, and office supplies. If you aren’t sure which organizations to work with, Dudley recommends checking with the United Way. They are a good option in many communities because they fund all types of community needs throughout the year.

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Become a volunteer now for the future

“Aside from financial donations, volunteering is the best way to give,” Gustafson says. However, you have to begin this process long before any disaster hits. The Red Cross, and relief organizations like it, need to be able to call on a trained group of volunteers who can jump into action. They don’t have the resources to train during relief periods. Don’t miss these other creative ways to volunteer and make a difference.

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Give cash

For international disasters, the USAID Center for International Disaster Information strongly recommends donating cash. “When people donate material items to those affected by international disasters, the items themselves are costly to ship, and often times are not what is needed at that moment,” says a spokesperson for the relief organization. Cash puts fuel into the engine of large relief organizations who have an infrastructure in place to provide relief fast and efficiently. Just make sure you’re donating to an organization you can trust. “Identifying scams is not easy, especially with popular crowd-funding sites,” Grattan says. “Trust your instincts here, too. If it feels like something is amiss, it probably is.” Check out more powerful ways to give to charity without breaking the bank.