Hurricane Irma relief: time for travellers to help

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No matter where you are in the world, by now you’ve heard of the horrific damage wreaked by Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean in the past few days. The storm slammed into islands from Antigua all the way to Florida, leaving thousands homeless and without vital services like running water and electricity. The island of Barbuda is virtually uninhabitable. The streets of Havana are waist-deep in water. An international Hurricane Irma relief effort is under way.

This is a humanitarian crisis right on our doorstep. And for many North Americans — and Europeans too — there’s a personal side to the tragedy. The Caribbean is a popular vacation spot for northerners, and many of us have spent time in the places where Irma made landfall. For some, they’ve become a home away from home, a yearly winter retreat.

Now these places are in need, so it’s only fitting for the travellers who’ve enjoyed their hospitality in good assorted moneytimes to give them a hand in bad times. But how? There are some good ways to do it — and some not-so-good. Here’s a short primer on how to go about giving help.

The first rule is, give cash, not supplies. It may seem like a good idea to send clothes, blankets and other necessities to help the people on the islands. But according to an article in The New York Times, there’s often no practical way of distributing them to the people who need them. One aid worker describes seeing “warehouses filled with stuff that people give, just sitting there.”

So, the best way to help is to make a cash contribution. But the world is full of aid organizations, and not all are totally trustworthy. Even if they have good intentions, they may not be well enough organized to get the money where it’s going; much of the cash raised by the famous Live Aid concerts was unspent years later, or lost to corruption. As well, some organizations spend too much of the contributions to fund their own operations.

In order to do the most good, you need to contribute to an organization that’s considered trustworthy and has the resources to turn the money into food, shelter and reconstruction projects. Here are a few choices:

The Red Cross Probably the world’s best-known aid organization, the Red Cross is already acting to get aid to the islands that need it. As well, its American arm is working to help Florida victims of Hurricane Irma and those affected by Hurricane Harvey in Texas. The Red Cross has been criticized for mistakes in past relief efforts, but is generally well regarded. Canadians can give to the Canadian Red Cross, while U.S. residents can give to the American Red Cross.

Oxfam Oxfam’s website says it’s been working in the Caribbean for more than 30 years and has expert teams in the Hurricane_Irma_on_Sint_Maarten_(NL)_05 region, with local contacts to help get the resources where they’re needed. Oxfam is British-based, but has chapters around the world. You can contribute to its Canadian, American or British chapters, or go to the Oxfam.org website.

GlobalGiving This crowdfunding organization collects money for local relief organizations, and has been vetted by charity watchdogs such as Charity Navigator. GlobalGiving has a Hurricane Irma relief fund set up, with a dedicated page where you can contribute.

World Vision This religious organization is known for putting help on the ground in isolated regions, and has been working in the Third World for decades. It has been criticized for its administrative costs, but gets a passing grade on Charity Navigator’s site. World Vision has a dedicated page for Hurricane Irma relief donations.

Those are some of the better-known organizations involved with the Hurricane Irma relief effort. You may know of others that you trust: if so, give to them. And if you have skills and equipment that could be of use and you’re willing to travel to the Caribbean, consult your local police, fire department or an aid organization that’s organizing a help mission. But authorities advise against just showing up: you could end up adding to the confusion.

Travel is about enriching our lives by seeing new places and meeting new people. But it should also be about giving something back to those people. So when a disaster like Hurricane Irma happens, it’s time for travellers to do what they can to help.

Top photo Hurricanes Irma and Jose By NASA / SNPP / VIIRS [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Saint Maarten after Hurricane Irma By Ministery of Defense, Netherlands – Defensie met hulpgoederen naar Caribisch gebied, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62283042

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

4 Comments

  1. Thanks for the heads-up on helping, Paul. When we see the destruction sometimes all common sense goes out the window in a rush to help. I recently saw a news spot showing what happened to physical goods for typhoon victims that could not be delivered. Tons of clothes and other household items that cost thousands of dollars to ship, but could not be sorted or distributed, eventually were destroyed instead of being put to good use. Logistics is the key, the reputable aid orgs have that logistical edge. They need money to put it to use.

    • Too true, Roberta. giving to charity is a great thing, but you have to do it with your eyes open. Getting help to people in a disaster zone is tricky. Charities often have to negotiate a whole gauntlet of logistical problems, bureaucratic barriers and corrupt officials before the aid gets where it’s going. So giving to someone who’s already established in the area is a good idea.

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