Disasters bring out the good, the bad, and the ugly
April 13, 2023
When the March 31 tornadoes swept across the Midwest, one of my first thoughts was of a small animal shelter in Mayfield, Kentucky.
In December 2021, I traveled to Mayfield to cover the tornado that devastated the small town, and from the moment we arrived until we were driving away from the wreckage, I was blown away by the abundance of generosity pouring into the town.
Every few feet, someone would stop me and my crew to ask if we wanted water or a hot meal or any other necessities ranging from tools to blankets. Even after we politely declined and said we were only there as journalists and weren’t in need of anything, we were often told something to the effect of, “Well journalists have to eat too,” with a shoulder shrug and a smile.
As we walked through the streets that were broken and littered with debris, I couldn’t help but think about how truly beautiful people can be. I was in awe. Every street corner had someone cooking free meals, every road had a truck handing out supply bins and every person we passed seemed to somehow still wear a smile.
These were the best of people.
But then we walked into the animal shelter, where I wanted to cover a hopeful story of pet owners being reunited with their pets after the storm and was instead confronted with an ugly truth that often follows natural disasters: where there are generous people, there will also be unscrupulous people.
As soon as we walked in and introduced ourselves, the volunteers immediately tensed. They needed to see our identification, so we gave them our cards, our social media accounts and then called our faculty managing editor to confirm we were who we claimed to be. This wasn’t the first time we needed to show where we were from, but this was a new kind of panic.
“Scammers,” they said.
I hadn’t even considered the possibility before, but people had come to their shelter pretending to be reporters, taking pictures of the building, posting it on social media, asking for monetary donations and then taking all the money for themselves.
That money was given by generous people wanting to help out a small animal shelter, but the shelter never saw a dime of it. It went directly into the pockets of people wanting to make a quick dollar off of someone’s generosity.
So when I went to Wynne, Arkansas this month to cover the storm damage from the latest tornado outbreak, speaking to someone about how to avoid scammers was at the top of my list, and the Convoy of Hope Response Team senior director of U.S. disaster, Eric Gordon, was able to give information about the subject.
One of the easiest ways for people across the country to donate to tornado victims is through monetary donations, but it is often difficult to determine which places are making a genuine impact on the communities you are wanting to donate to.
“You can always look at a web presence,” Gordon said. “I know anybody can fake a website but there are some ratings that, like, Charity Navigator, you can go… and search some of these organizations.”
At charitynavigator.org, charities are rated on a four star scale as well as given a score out of 100 based on four different criteria: 50% impact and results, 32.5% accountability and finance, 10% culture and community, and 7.5% leadership and adaptability.
If you have a charity already in mind, you can search for it on the site and see its rating. One of the disaster relief organizations that we found in Wynne, as well as in Mayfield, was Operation BBQ Relief, a nonprofit food service that profides hot meals for communities impacted by emergencies like natural disasters. Operation BBQ Relief has a four star rating and a 100% score on Charity Navigator.
On the other hand, if you want to donate to disaster relief but don’t know who exactly to donate to, one of the features of Charity Navigator is its “Where To Give Now” section, where it lists current local, as well as global relief causes. If you click on “Tornadoes in the Midwest and South,” you will find 14 different organizations helping tornado relief efforts, including Convoy of Hope with a four star rating and 99% score.
“I would look at both the monetary donation and also the resource donation, supply donation,” Gordon said. “Who are they working with on the ground there in an impacted area?”
Many relief organizations work through local organizations, such as churches. This is a good way of knowing if the organization you’re donating to is actually working locally to help the people affected by disasters because they are working with those local connections. In this way, too, they are able to have a better understanding of what supplies the community needs.
If you’re wanting to donate material items, there are many different needs a community may have, but a few of the most needed items included water, food and tarps.
“Clothes is not as big of a deal,” Gordon said. “Everybody wants to bring their clothes and that’s great, but a lot of times, clothes isn’t as big of a deal as they think it is. So, you think about if you were out of your home, your whole roof blown off your home, what would you need? At that point, hygiene items, things to pack your stuff up in, cleaning supplies to clean anything that was dirty and things like that.”
Convoy of Hope was working with the Wynne First Assembly of God to provide tarps, tote boxes, contractor bags and cleaning supplies that the church has been able to distribute to the community.
“We’ll begin debris removal and chainsaw operations later on this afternoon to help homeowners get their yards cleaned up, get things like that done,” Gordon said. “Our goal is to help the community get back to normalcy as quickly as possible.”
While there are people who are willing and ready to take advantage of your generosity, there are also an abundance of people who want to serve the community, and using tools like Charity Navigator can help you find genuine, helpful organizations.
“One of the greatest things is neighbors helping neighbors,” Gordon said. “What an opportunity. I think, just be wise. Make sure that you’re connecting with the right people at the right time and also be understanding that in a disaster scenario, things change rapidly.”
Editor’s Note: To donate to the tornado relief efforts, go to charitynavigator.org where you can donate to different organizations directly through the site.