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Renegade volunteers hinder disaster response

By Faith Peppers
University of Georgia

When disaster strikes neighbors, as it did to Georgia’s this month in Louisiana and Mississippi, people naturally want to rush to help. That’s not always the best idea, say disaster experts with the University of Georgia.

People who head into a disaster uninvited plague official emergency management teams in every disaster, said Don Hamilton, the homeland security coordinator for the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

“People should only respond under the appropriate authorities,” Hamilton said.

An official disaster response is designed to be well coordinated and carefully orchestrated. Having unassigned people and unplanned supplies flood into a disaster area can slow the process.

“In many cases, the problem is that individuals just show up and start working without being part of the emergency management agency’s coordinated effort,” Hamilton said. “This can result in a reduction in disaster relief, and even legal problems for those with the best of intentions. People love to show up with chainsaws and get to work, but that’s not always the best response.”

It’s one thing to go over and help someone you know remove debris from their yard, he said. But a person shouldn’t start randomly clearing trees that might be tangled in downed power lines.

Most people mean well, but some don’t. “In the worst cases,” Hamilton said, “we see groups use disaster to further an agenda such as animal rights, or to raise money falsely under the guise of disaster response.”

Training is a must, says Bill Thomas, an agriculture emergency specialist.

“One of the things that we found during (Hurricane) Katrina was that the volunteers did not come trained and prepared for the conditions that they had to work in. If they did not have their shots, have sleeping bags, tents, food, etc., then the incident management team had to look after those needs as well as the emergency.”

Also, people may do great rescue or disaster work near home, but in a different environment, they may not. For example, during Katrina, he said, the high heat and humidity and 15-hour work days took a toll on many.

Preplanning is key to successful recovery. Emergency management can’t preplan for unexpected guests.

“In a disaster, there may not be any motel rooms or restaurants open, and there may not be water or sanitation available,” Thomas said. “Basically, you only need the volunteers that you can support. There were situations in Katrina where people were trying to cook the meals of the day on a small grill for a large group of people.”

A team is typically requested, not individuals. A team can be more easily tracked by emergency managers. “Tracking individuals can be a major distraction,” Thomas said.

Training also keeps people focused on the mission. “One of the main goals in animal sheltering is to reunite the animals with their owners,” Thomas said. “Sometimes, people are willing to supply temporary shelters (foster homes) for animals but then they grow attached and didn't want to give them up. That is another distraction for emergency management to deal with.”

People should only volunteer as part of a group recognized and requested by emergency management authorities, Hamilton said. Those who want to give money or supplies should do it through well-known relief agencies like the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army or local churches.

(Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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