As the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey continues to take its toll, with as much as 11 trillion gallons of water having fallen in the Houston area since Friday and with more rain predicted, people from around the country are looking for ways to help those affected by the storm. While individuals may be moved to travel to the area to volunteer, that would be ill advised, explains National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster President and CEO Gregory A. Forrester. NVOAD is an association of organizations that mitigate and alleviate the impact of disasters, providing effective delivery services to disaster-stricken communities. Its members are all 501(c)(3) nonprofits comprising local and nationally known organizations, including American Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, Feeding America and the Salvation Army.
"Whenever volunteers show up, we also have to care for the volunteers as well as the survivors and so we have to time it very carefully and coordinate it very well so that we're actually being more helpful to the community than add harm to the community," Forrester explains to Rolling Stone. "So right now we're really in the efforts of taking care of survivors under areas of limited resources due to access points and highways being closed and everything else. So we have to be very cautious in how we integrate volunteers into the recovery efforts."
In the early days following a natural disaster, monetary donations are often best versus contributing material goods or volunteering. It's not only a matter of safety, but it's also a matter of logistics. "The problem right now is even getting supplies and people into the area," Forrester says. "There are so many highways that are closed. They are anticipating another 12- to 18-inches of rain in the area today, so the health and welfare of the people, but also the fact that the supplies can't make it there, and even if they did, there's nowhere to put it. That's another reason why we say cash is best because there's no place to put anything that's donated."
While Forrester doesn't advise heading to the area on your own, there are ways to provide assistance beyond cash. There are some organizations calling for local volunteers right now (see list below), and non-local volunteers can pitch in within their own communities. NVOAD organizations assemble and distribute standardized kits as part of their relief efforts, and more will be needed.
"We call these hygiene or comfort kits," Forrester explains. "Also, cleanup buckets that are used with very specific supplies we know are utilized within the cleanup zone. We know we are already going to utilize every one of those that we currently have in our inventory and we're going to need a lot more. And so on a local level they can actually go and volunteer to assemble those specific kits."
Forrester recommends checking with local churches, as most have active disaster programs that will be assembling such kits. NVOAD's membership includes several faith-based organizations that "represent every faith walk that there is in the United States," he says, in addition to the secular organizations in their membership.
"I would encourage [any volunteers] even if they're not faith-related, we're all in this together at this point," he says. "And don't anticipate that anybody is going to try and push faith on you anyways, even if you do go and volunteer at the local church to assist with putting together the care kits that are going to be needed … It's about helping."
Forrester says that the need for volunteers beyond those locally based will be growing in the coming weeks. NVOAD has created an online volunteer form, which NVOAD and AmeriCorps will use to tap volunteers as the needs grow in the area.
"If they're from outside the area, we're asking please don't deploy. Fill out our form and there will be an opportunity at some point that we'll pair you up with an organization that you'll then be able to serve within the area during the recovery side," he says.
Those hoping to physically volunteer in the near future can also sign up for training now with organizations such as American Red Cross in order to be ready for deployment when the need arises during the long recovery process. "We don't just send in volunteers to actually do the cleanup work without some kind of guidance, and so getting affiliated with one of the local volunteer agencies that are established, that have a program, is really crucial for [volunteers] before they go ahead and deploy," he says.
"The anticipation is some of these areas will be under water for several weeks. And so the amount of staff that's going to be needed, number of volunteers that are going to be needed for both shelters and also ongoing response is going to be huge immediately for the next several months," Forrester continues. "But really for a long-term recovery, we're looking at a 12-to-15-year recovery period for rebuilding within that area already, just based on what our current numbers are."
Below are several ways to donate, locally volunteer and sign up for future volunteering and training.
Food Banks Seeking Donations: Houston Food Bank, the nation's largest, has been inaccessible due to flood waters. Central Texas Food Bank and San Antonio Food Bank have been assisting in relief efforts. San Antonio Food Bank is seeking volunteers and also requesting nonperishable food, water, baby food, diapers, flashlights and batteries, hygiene items and cleaning supplies. Clothing donations of new and unused men's and women's tops, pants, socks, undergarments are also welcome.
Greater Houston Community Foundation is collecting donations for the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund established by Mayor Sylvester Turner.
The Salvation Army, which is deploying emergency response teams in the area.
South Texas Blood & Tissue Center is seeking blood donors in the Texas area.
Texas Search and Rescue, a professionally-trained volunteer organization that assists in rescue efforts.
Trusted World is collecting goods in Dallas, including new underwear and socks, non-perishable food, toiletries, feminine hygiene products and baby diapers, wipes and formula.
United Way provides links to donate to specific locations in need.
Organizations Seeking Volunteers on a Local Level
American Red Cross is seeking local volunteers and others may also register for future volunteering.
Convoy of Hope is seeking volunteers that are located within two hours of the affected area.
Houston Food Bank will send notice to potential volunteers that text DisasterVol to 51555 once the Food Bank is accessible.
Trusted World is seeking Dallas-area volunteers.
Register to Volunteer
National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster in conjunction with AmeriCorps will reach out to those who register as the need arises.
Houston rapper Bun B called Hurricane Harvey "worse than everyone thought" and urged those with boats to help out stranded residents. Watch here.