For The Someday Book

Help That’s Helpful: Do’s and Don’ts After Disaster

Posted on: May 21, 2013

Oh, dear God, the Oklahoma tornadoes. Such heartbreak. Christ, have mercy.

On March 2, 2012, forecasters anticipated tornadoes in our area. My son’s school let out early, and when the sirens started up we all huddled in the unfinished basement. The air outside our windows was deadly still, but the internet broadcast from our local television station told us that a large tornado was on the ground just a few miles away. We waited underground in folding chairs, my husband reading a book and my young son playing a video game. I kept my eyes on the screen as reports began to come in about damage in small communities populated by beloved church members and friends.


Henryville High School, destroyed by March 2, 2012 tornado

Then the image changed: a school collapsed, no knowledge of how many students might be trapped inside. My stomach lurched, and I thought I might vomit. I silently ticked off a list of all the young people I knew inside that school, their young lives and fears flashing before me. I grabbed the laptop and slammed it shut—presumably to protect my son from frightening news, but probably also because I could feel the panic overtaking me. Since the storm, I have relived that terrifying moment awake and in dreams. As soon as the sirens stopped, I began to call for news, and passed several anxious hours with families waiting to hear if all were safe and well. Miraculously, no lives were lost at Henryville school that day, although children and adults did die in their homes as a result of the storm.

Today in Moore, Oklahoma, the story has a more grim ending. I know how traumatic the tornado was here, but I can only imagine how that distress is multiplied tonight in Oklahoma. My heart breaks for parents who have lost children, children who have lost parents, and a community gripped by shock and grief.

The recovery ahead will be measured in months and years, not days and hours. I have spent the last fourteen months working nearly every day on recovery efforts here in my community, a disaster much smaller in scale than tonight’s news from Moore and the surrounding areas. I am currently the chair of March 2 Recovery, the long-term recovery organization working to rebuild homes, address unmet needs and tend to the spiritual and emotional needs of our community. I’m not an expert, but I have learned some things worth sharing.

Sign outside Henryville, IN. Photo by Kylene Lloyd, The Courier-Journal

Sign outside Henryville, IN. Photo by Kylene Lloyd, The Courier-Journal

All compassionate people want to respond, to help, to do something in response to tragedy. This impulse is good, because the people of Moore, Oklahoma will require outside aid, volunteers and resources to help them in their recovery. However, many well-meaning people and organizations give “help” that is far less than helpful, and may actually be harmful to the recovery process. I went looking tonight for a list of “do’s and don’t’s” for how to help after a disaster, but I didn’t find any lists that were more specific than “send cash, not stuff.” So I made my own.

As one who has worked closely with tornado recovery efforts in the last 14 months, I would like to offer these DO’s and DON’T’s, so that you can help in ways that are the most helpful, and avoid the ways that are not.


DO NOT send “stuff,” unless you specifically know it is wanted, needed and has a clear destination. The avalanche of used clothing, toiletries, canned goods, furniture and household supplies that pours in after a disaster can become a “secondary disaster” for a community, as organizations are forced to set aside the actual needs of survivors in order to attend to the mountains of stuff arriving at their doorstep. People who have lost their homes won’t need household goods and furniture for many months, and don’t have anywhere to cook your can of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle.

DO NOT drive to the impacted area to help unless you are trained and credentialed by a recognized organization. Not only is the tornado debris field dangerous, the crowds of onlookers and unskilled volunteers get in the way of trained relief workers trying to do their work.

DO NOT say dumb things like “I know what you are going through,” because you don’t. Only if you’ve lost a child or lived through a disaster do you have some first-hand knowledge about what someone is feeling. Even then, be cautious. Not everyone will feel the same way you do. It’s doubly presumptuous to say you know what people are feeling if you’ve never even been in a similar situation.

DO NOT offer help in order to lessen your feelings of helplessness or make yourself feel better. Put aside your own needs and desires, and act only in the best interests of others. Don’t do what makes you feel better—do what best helps survivors.

DO NOT forget about this disaster as soon as another tragedy takes the headlines. Recovery will take a long time. Stick with it. The most helpful people are those who come long after the TV cameras are gone.

DO NOT try to theologize disaster away, or say that God did or didn’t do something. God didn’t need more angels, or have any kind of master plan that involved dead children. God didn’t save the children at one school only to harm the children at another one. That’s not how God works. Let God be God, and don’t assign your own motives to the Creator of heaven and earth.


DO: Donate money. But not just today. While organizations like Red Cross and Salvation Army do amazing work feeding and sheltering people in the immediate aftermath, they do not rebuild homes or communities. Local leaders and faith-based organizations pick up the work of long-term recovery, and they will need major dollars for construction, case management, survivor support and more. Sure, send $10 via text message today, but wait to mail a check for $100 or $1,000, and send it to groups involved in long-term recovery efforts. Be careful to give to reputable, established organizations only. No matter what your faith or cause, there’s a group for you.

DO: Volunteer. But not today, or even in the next month or two. Thousands of people pour in to help in the first few weeks, but the work of rebuilding will last for a year or two. Volunteers, especially those with construction skills, will be needed far more urgently 9-24 months from now to help people get home again.

DO: Listen to anyone who needs to tell their story, no matter how many times they need to tell it. Survivors, first responders, clergy and helpers of all types will relive this experience over and over again. It helps to tell and retell it to patient, non-judgmental listeners. Make room for whatever people are feeling—sadness, anger (at appropriate or inappropriate people or institutions), grief, fear, anxiety, even laughter.

An example of messages of encouragement: 1,000 paper cranes that travel to places healing from violence, currently at the Old South Church in Boston, the site of the marathon bombings. Click picture for full story.

An example of messages of encouragement: 1,000 paper cranes that travel to places healing from violence, currently at the Old South Church in Boston, the site of the marathon bombings. Click picture for full story.

DO: Remind others that God is present even in the midst of destruction. Speak of God’s love that overcomes all barriers, even death. Give people room to have their own relationships with God, even if they’re having a big family fight with God right now.

DO: Send messages of love and concern. Whether it’s e-mail, texts, Facebook posts, tweets, letters, cards, notes, banners or children’s drawings, your words can be a source of great encouragement. Send them to local churches through your denomination. Mail them to the fire station or hospital or police station to encourage the helpers who are working 24-7 to aid their community. Share messages with people in the affected area who share your profession, whether it be insurance agents, funeral directors, electricians, servers or retail workers. Indicate that you do not expect a response, but merely send your love and prayers. It will be appreciated.

DO: Pray. It seems like such a small thing, but it matters. We could feel the prayers from around the world bearing us up and giving us strength.

There you have it. That’s what I’ve learned in the last year about life after a disaster—how your help can be most helpful. I’m sure I’ve left things out, and will count on you to add them in the comments section.

This is my small way of helping, through communication about what’s actually helpful. My heartfelt prayers are with the people of Oklahoma, now and in the long months to come.

69 Responses to "Help That’s Helpful: Do’s and Don’ts After Disaster"

Well said. I have forwarded the message.

Reblogged this on Cenizas, Estelas y Senderos and commented:
My spouse is an avid watcher of all things news. I believe he could watch the news non-stop for 24 hours, given a chance. Last night after less than half an hour watching Brian Williams my skin was crawling and I jumped up, went to church to do some work and then to Office Depot to pick up some things I needed for the week. The news continues to stream through my house this morning and I’ll head for work in a bit but today’s one of those long days that will go until 8:30 this evening so I am not in a hurry. It helped to read a post from yet another woman pastor, this one who lives in Indiana. I will set my sight on the work I can do here and now.

I love love love this! I am sharing it everywhere, Share it with your local news stations, friends. I know of 2 people that were already planning the trucks full of ‘stuff’!!

Thanks, Judy! Tell your friends that their hearts are in the right place, but that other kinds of help would be more appreciated!

If you’ve got stuff to send, donate it locally to places and people that need it: that chicken noodle soup and household supplies can go to your local food pantry, furniture to Goodwill and Habitat ReStores, clothes to a local thrift shop, toiletries to a homeless shelter. Then send a note of encouragement to folks suffering at a distance that you did this in their honor!

Great idea, Cynthia!

Very well said. We are March 2 survivors in Nabb. I wish everyone had this message then and now. Sometimes it feels like we are still trying to recover from the recovery.

Amen, Kim! We’re still dealing with “stuff” we received that needs a home.

I like this article but why discourage empathy so much..? If you cannot fathom how one person could have empathy for another without having been through the exact same scenario they have, you have much to learn about true empathy and the ability of humans to share each others feelings in a deep way.

Laura, you’re right to point that out. I should have been more clear. I was thinking of empathy as having your emotions match someone else’s, as opposed to sympathy, when you feel compassion for someone else. I have changed that sentence accordingly.

There have been numerous (too many) tragedies in the past two years alone. Places like Joplin, Sandy Hook, Hurricane Sandy, the list goes on and on. Don’t be like pop corn and pop up when things hit the news and your heart. Too many times we’ll think about, pray, and give $20 at that moment and a week, a month, a year or two later we completely forget them. Rather, how about you find that tragedy that is close to your home or heart. Determine to be that steady, consistent, solid, foundational tool willing to be used. Put aside one weekend each month and do what ever is needed, and or, put aside a portion of your budget that will go to that need. We hate seeing tragedies like this but these things can become our opportunities if we decide to focus on them and stick with them.

I’m glad this list was shared – it is a practical, realistic list that reminds us that the people effected are real, average people trying to do our best. With each disaster there is such a rush to contribute, and then a tapering off. It’s the months down the road as people re-construct homes and businesses that help is needed for.

Great information, well put.

So sad for everyone. Thanks for sharing these helpful tips!

This is an absolutely great article. A lot of people don’t even think; they see something happen, get emotional and do the first thing they can think of to help. Everything you said makes perfect sense. Thank you for the article 🙂

I agree with people needing to stick with the community long after the disaster leaves the media.. Ask the people of Hurricane Katrina how the 9th ward is doing?
Disasters are horrific and the sense of community that ensues needs to remain part of our lives..thanks for sharing your ideas!

Thanks for the advice on this. Living not far from Moore myself, I feel like there’s something I can do, but like you said, they have plenty of people helping now, it might be better to wait…and pray.

Wow!!! a most excellent blog post and the ideas and tips are spot on!!! congratulations on being freshly pressed and enjoy the day. I really loved your “let God be God” part. we definitely try to interfere with God’s own plans sometimes

Thank you so much for this post. I live in an area hit by Sandy. Some towns literally had piles of donated clothing sitting on street corners because there was no safe, not-underwater structure in which to store them.

i agree on the help but do it not just today but throughout till the community has found a new ground to feel home. very well put thoughts. you are doing a great job – bless you and all the others who are lending a hand and heart.
sending my prayers. all the best!

Right you are. We have a saying here: well meant is not well done. Your list helps to turn well meaning into well doing.

Do not loot. That is the lowest of lows!

Really good advice!

[…] via Help That’s Helpful: Do’s and Don’ts After Disaster. […]

Sorry you had to go through this. But just curious?’d that “Christ Have Mercy” prayer work out? Maybe he only has mercy for you……not the families who will be burying their children this week. (This comment has been edited to remove personal insults, name-calling and profanity. Anti-religious trolls will be allowed to demonstrate their opinions and close-mindedness, but not to mount personal attacks against me or other commenters on this thread. Other comments that spew self-righteous vitriol have been removed. This post is not an argument for or against God, it is about my experience in the best ways to show compassion after a disaster. That includes helping people deal with the spiritual crises that arise. –JMK)

“The simplest acts of kindness are by far more powerful then a thousand heads bowing in prayer.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

I love your concrete advice, because I think many people actually dont know how they can contribute in the best way. Most people want to give, but it helps to know how to best do it:)

You give some very good advice here. You somewhat undermine it, however, by your response above.. (see 23… “Anti-religious trolls…..” ) What’s that? It’s a free country and people are entitled to their opinions. When you post something in a public forum especially with religious opinions/statements you are bound to get comments like that. Aren’t you attacking back by calling them an “anti-religious troll”? Maybe it’s just an eye for an eye, eh?

Thanks, Anita. Dissent and disagreement is always welcome, including respectful, engaged comments like yours.

Here’s my general thoughts about comments here. Being called names, receiving personal insults and ugly slurs comes with putting anything out in public. I can’t and wouldn’t stop their speech–but I also won’t give people a forum here when their only purpose is to be nasty. This blog is mine, like my own home. I can’t stop you from hating it or shouting ugly things from the street, or from your blog site. But I’m not inviting you in to my living room if you are only showing up to shout insults at me.

There is no excuse for bad behaviour. I am respectfully suggesting that in a disaster, it should not be assumed that everyone needing comfort/assistance is a believer in God. I am an atheist. I respect your beliefs, and I hope that you will consider that if you or another religious figures offered prayers, etc. on my behalf in the wake of a disaster…. it would only make me …angry. I hope this does not offend you. I am only stating how I would feel and I’m guessing many others who are not believers in God. I really thought that the term “anti-religious troll” was a bit too strong. We are not the devil. We love our fellow man. Thank you for your consideration in this.

Well said, and an excellent point. Respecting people’s own theology includes respect for those who are atheist, and do not want God to be blamed or credited for anything after a disaster.

When I led the Spiritual & Emotional Recovery Team here, I insisted that all our documents include wording that we were here to help “people of all faiths and people of no faith” heal after the trauma, in whatever way they needed.

When I wrote the original post, it was aimed at my normal audience of a few dozen friends and clergy colleagues. I didn’t imagine it would have 10,000 views already!

Most atheists are lovely people, with great compassion and commitment to the world. Guys like the one I called an “anti-religious troll” give the rest a bad name by coming on blogs like this one and mounting attacks on anyone who claims religious belief, just because they express religious belief.

Well, OK, now I understand! It is a dilemma when the post was meant for a select few and gets FP’d. Congratulations on that, by the way. I think the “problem” for me was it seemed like a terrific title — how do we help those in crisis… what do we say to them. There was no inkling of religion until near the bottom. I’m sorry you suffered abuse from some people… they probably were extremely surprised by the religious content at the bottom as was I. But, really it is extremely important to know what to do and say at times like these.

One last comment to add: There are plenty of Christians who do the same thing–“religious trolls” who go around calling people names because they don’t express religious belief. They are no better.

I apologize that my earlier comments were harsh and ill-mannered. No excuse for bad manners. However, in your response you say “I can’t and won’t stop their speech” right after you edit and delete comments you find harsh, contrary, and offensive. In doing so, you have unwittingly underscored my entire problem with so-called Christians such as yourself….you are full of hypocrisy and the contrast between what you say and what you actually do is glaring!
I actually do believe in God…very this isn’t an atheist rant. I just happen to believe that God is a pompous, sociopathic, cruel, sadistic bastard who is in it for Himself. That’s my faith and you can edit me away accordingly.
By the way, your analogy that your blog is like your house is a false analogy. If your forum were private, that might hold a bit of water. But you can’t put it our for public consumption, then cry foul because people react strongly to your religious views. You do yourself a great disservice in readership when you decide “how you house is to be decorated”… eliminating all trace of differing points of view…regardless of the language or tone of that dissent. So in the long run…you only hurt yourself. Viewers can see that your blog is not a welcome, open room for discussion, but rather, a carefully sculpted piece of dishonesty and crap. Sorry that this offends…you may now hit the delete button.

No need to edit anything here. What I deleted were personal, mean-spirited attacks on me and other commenters–there is none of that above. Welcome back.


Good day!

I nominated you for the Liebster Award… 🙂

Please check

God bless! 🙂

Reblogged this on Michelle L. Torigian and commented:
My friend at For The Someday Book was featured on the Freshly Pressed. I highly encourage you to read this post.

This article was wonderfully written and very informative! I have family down in Oklahoma, and I’m definitely praying for them and all their friends. Thanks so much!

This is beautiful and wise. I am reblogging it.

[…] Please read this post. A true and honest way to look at how we can help in Oklahoma, from someone who is there. Help That’s Helpful: Do’s and Don’ts After Disaster. […]

[…] Help That’s Helpful: Do’s and Don’ts After Disaster. […]

This is great! very very helpful!

Thank you for putting out information the world sorely needs to hear. In honor of the victims, I would like to put forth an article I wrote. It’s not about the tornado, but about grief and loss in general. I hope you enjoy it.

I am not sure these donations are money wisely spent. With the same kind of $$, you’ll have a far greater impact somewhere else than in the United States:
And about the prayers: wouldn’t it have made much more sense to pray against tornadoes BEFORE?
Good luck!

Well done! nice post very informative.

Well written; and refreshing to see someone talk about the right way to help! And the right way to envision God in the aftermath.

Thanks for your insightful words.

Thanks for your post. I’ve been working at a distribution center in Norman, and there is a lot of extra and unnecessary work created when we have to sift through, say, toys and create a pile for garbage items (broken, dirty, incomplete), Goodwill items (heavily used), and items that we can actually use. THEN, we can get on to sorting the good stuff into their own categories by age and type and such. Whew! It’s been the longest week ever. I look forward to doing more when I come back to OKC in the fall.

And congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

Maggie, thank you for this message, and especially for your hard work this last week. Are you working for/with Adventist Community Services? They did an amazing job here helping us cope with stuff. The school supplies! Oh, so many school supplies!

Prayers for your strength and renewed energy for work.

Honestly, thank you. Some of these things listed above would not have occurred to me. I will do my best to truly help when help is needed and in a correct(er) way.

Hello. When I saw this on Freshly Pressed, I actually thought it was written for those who have endured a catastrophe and was a little surprised to see that it was designed for people in surrounding/distant communities who feel compelled to assist in some capacity.

Titling issues aside, I was struck point the third “Don’t”. I felt this was the strongest piece of advice, having endured several hurricanes in my life (two of which directly hit my hometown). In spite of those experiences, I can’t claim to completely understand how victims of other sorts of catastrophes feel. This even applies to hurricanes that take place in other parts of the country, as a Floridian perspective on hurricanes is going to be wildly different from that of someone in the Carolinas or further north. The point is I found that point to be very thought-provoking and something I wish more people would consider at times like these.

Thank you for an intelligent post on a difficult topic. I share your concern about the long-term effects of natural disasters.

How do we bring help to afflicted areas six months or a year after tragedy? If enough of us ask the question, perhaps someone will figure out the answer.

I just started a blog called “Hurricane Sandy–The Emotional Aftermath” ( It’s my hope to foster emotional resilience among those affected by providing whatever useful information I can find.

Reblogged this on eisakouo and commented:
As a pastor myself I have participated in numerous mission trips and relief drives of all sorts. Most people I know are truly compassion at heart and want to help. But there are ways to help people and then there are “better” ways to truly help people. This blog simply offers a better way… looking at the longer view (or bigger picture) of what people really need after a disaster. Pass it along if it ministers to you.

This is a great list. I like how you gave the do’s and don’ts, very balanced and realistic. I hope I never have to live through something like the Moore Oklahoma event. Very scary stuff, makes me realize my life isn’t so hard.

[…] Mills-Knutsen outlines some well thought out and practical Do’s and Don’ts for helping after a Disaster on her blog, For the Someday Book. I found myself nodding in agreement as I read. Of particular […]

This is very well written. Being a survivor of the Joplin Tornado I know exactly what you mean. Come find more of my journey @

[…] Help That’s Helpful: Do’s and Don’ts After Disaster. […]

[…] Help That’s Helpful: Do’s and Don’ts After Disaster ( […]

This is such an awesome post and I am glad I found it. I remember how frustrated I felt after the fire when some people would just drop off their junk or convince me to take their unwanted items, thinking it would help. My basement is now full, two years later of stuff that I have donate back.

[…] For the Someday Book, Help That’s Helpful: Do’s and Don’ts After Disaster […]

[…] How to Help After a Disaster […]

[…] How to Help After a Disaster […]

ReachGlobal Crisis Response is still hosting volunteer teams in New Orleans, Haiti, New Jersey, and Staten Island. They also have a church connection in Oklahoma who they have been helping with a response. Their blog is and you can sign up to help at I strongly recommend them.

My Name is Carol wadsworth
i feel that God should be respected and it is always good to help people in need no Matter who they are and show that you care we do Here in pa
with Prayer and respect and we do feel good about our selves from all of us here in pa Prayerfuly
Carol wadsworth

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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