Friday, September 1, 2017

Helping Houston Heal

Especially here in the Gulf South, Americans spent the last week watching as Houston flooded, and, as Americans usually do in times of crisis, we now want to flood Houston and its neighbors with help.  As a resident of the New Orleans area who lived through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I feel qualified to give a little advice.

Don't Rush

I know it is heartbreaking to see people trudging through floodwaters with garbage bags full of possessions, or to see them sitting on cots in a shelter waiting for help.  I know you want to do something NOW but there are going to be a lot of needs in the days ahead.  Don't rush and give to anybody, any group that is collecting.  Find out who they are, what their experience is, and what they plan to do with the donation.  

There are groups that are good at disaster relief, and if you know the group to whom you plan to give is, then go ahead, but if you drop off supplies, money or old clothes to the brand new "Houston Help Society" you may be wasting your time/money or you may be causing as many problems as you are solving.  

Keep Things in Perspective

You've heard the old journalism adage:  "If it bleeds, it leads".  We've all seen the pictures of the roads that are underwater and the houses with water in them.  However, according to the Washington Post, only about 30% of Houston flooded.  The  Associated Press, reported that 10% of structures in Houston flooded and that about 40,000 were heavily damaged.  That sounds like a lot--and if it was your house that flooded, it is a lot to you.  However, Harris County, which includes Houston, is home to 4.5 million people, meaning that if each of those 40,000 homes housed four people, then 3.5% of Houston's population is effectively homeless.  90% of Houston's population will be cleaning yards this weekend and about 7% will be cleaning up minor flood damage.

Why does that make a difference?  Shouldn't we care as much about a few as many?  Yes, of course we should.  

What it means is that once the water goes back down and the roads are clear, the infrastructure will bounce back quickly.  The need for charities to bring in "stuff" from elsewhere is minimal.  Wal-Mart, Home Depot and HEB will be operating most, if not all of their stores within the amount of time you can collect goods and transport them to Houston. 

Give Money, not Stuff

As I read somewhere on Facebook, if you want to donate your old clothes to the hurricane victims, have a garage sale and then donate the proceeds.  Americans love to send stuff to people in distress but Houston does not need to be flooded with used clothing and stuffed animals.  

Even useful things like food and cleanup supplies can be a problem to store and distribute.  If this was like Katrina where everything for miles around flooded and it took months to get the water out or the power on and where a huge percent of the population had evaucated out of town with only a weekend's worth of shorts, t-shrts and flip-flops, then bringing in stuff from outside the area was helpful because stores were not open. As of September 1, Home Depot is only listing one store as closed.  No Houston Wal-Marts were closed. In short, I'm sure Wal-Mart's shipping and distribution system is more efficient than your friend from church loading a pick-up.  

The problem is that a lot of people (if 10% of structures flooded, that means about 10% of houses and 10% of the population, or about 450,000 people) now have substantial unexpected expenses. Many hourly workers have lost wages due to the city essentially being shut down for a week.  People are going to need to clean out flooded homes,  and replace flooring and furniture and  automobiles.  Many of these people do no have flood insurance and homeowner's insurance does not cover flood damage.  While the federal government may step in with some type of grant programs, the reality is that there will be uninsured losses.  

If you want to help people in Houston recover from Harvey, send money, or send gift cards to stores like Home Depot, Lowes or Wal-Mart.  Send the cards or donations to places like The Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, or other groups with experience in working the mass disasters.  While it may make you feel good to think that your old jeans are being worn by a Harvey victim, most Harvey victims will be able to take their jeans to the laundromat or a friend's house and wash them.  

Don't Forget to Pray

For the people who did flood it is may be heartbreaking to go through their home and throw away baby pictures, their grandmother's rugs or the box of family mementos.  Kids are going to be upset that their favorite stuffed animals have hit the trash and there are over 40,000 families whose lives will be totally disrupted for a long time.  Pray for them.  Pray for those who lost loved ones in that terrible storm and pray that those storms in the Atlantic fizzle out before they threaten land. 

*Part of Financially Savvy Saturdays on brokeGIRLrich.*


  1. Good ideas. Your right don't rush think on it for a little while but don't forget about it. Sometimes it's the little things that we don't think about that they need. What a tragedy to hit them.

  2. I didn't know it was only 10% of properties. It makes sense about money vs stuff. I heard this story that a lot of people are worried about rent--it's due, but they haven't been able to work and they have no place to live on the other side of the recurrent bill. I know that's the tip of the iceberg and I can't even imagine.

    1. Exactly. Unless you know someone who is there, you don't really know what any particular people need--and there could be people who seem perfect fine--nothing they owned flooded--who are in crisis because of a week of missed work. Girl Scouts teaches a process of Discover--find an issue that interests you, Connect--connect with people who deal with that issue and know what is really needed and Take Action--use the knowledge you've used to make a difference.

  3. We have adopted a school. I love the idea of Walmart Gift cards!!!! Teachers will get what they want and Walmart is great about having that type of stuff. Some teachers are donating their Scholastic book points to teachers in flooded school. One school is a staging area. They are Begging for people NOT to bring them used clothes of any kind. They are seeking new underwear- but again- those can be purchased with a Walmart gift card.

  4. This is really helpful, especially hearing it from someone who has seen what they are going through. I have a friend who's house just barely escaped flooding. Maybe I can just mail a gift card to her and she can distribute it to someone in need. And prayer, of course, is the best thing.

  5. Good advice, especially on the money not stuff. If you're giving money to a charity, you can check them out on sites like Charity Navigator to make sure they're legit and that they spend the bulk of their donations on the services they provide. Also check around to see if you can find a company (or your own employer) to give a matching donation and double the impact of your contribution.