Clothing in the Time of Natural Disaster
The summer of 2021 was the season of natural disasters -- a season with one in three Americans living in a county affected by a weather disaster. It followed 2020, a year of extremes as coined by the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) due to a record number of weather and climate catastrophes. During these fires and storms, many people fled their homes with little more than the clothes on their back and nothing else to wear. While there are a plethora of needs facing those displaced by natural disaster, one is most critical -- the immediate need for clothing, and it is too often ignored by relief organizations like the Red Cross and FEMA when it comes to disaster preparedness and response.
After a natural disaster, altruistic volunteers with assumptions about how to address the need for clothing often leap into action. But not all of those actions lead to meaningful help. For example, after Hurricane Ida in Westchester County where I live, social media lit up with calls for clothing donations, and those calls reverberated over and over. The initial targeted drive was organized to serve a specific community, which was helpful. But subsequent drives often proved chaotic, lacking parameters about what was needed and where donation drop-off centers were for clothing. This lack of organization is not unique in times of disaster, and no one in emergency services stepped in to educate or help improve the situation. Instead, they remained silent.
"Providing clothing should not be ignored just because it's complicated, especially in times of emergency. In particular, it denies the uninsured and those living in poverty access to a basic need."
I run a clothing bank for children and teens. Over the last 12 years, I've developed a strategy for both accepting and distributing clothing to those in need. I joined a meeting of our local Community Organizations Active in a Disaster (COAD) a week after Ida's wrath. Representatives from various relief and government offices were on the call, sharing how they were responding; responses that mostly took the form of housing, cleaning supplies, access to funding, and food. When I queried these lead agencies about clothing, their first responses were: silence. After some time, a man said, "clothing is a messy business." He was referring to the challenging logistics involved with managing and sorting through donated clothing. He added "cash is king," indicating that gift cards and financial donations were the solution. That's not entirely untrue, but gift cards offer only a partial solution -- relief agencies don't use donated cash to purchase clothing for victims.
"The key to incorporating clothing needs into disaster preparedness is planning ahead. That means recognizing necessity, thinking in advance about how to address it, offering clear messaging, and blueprinting distribution."
Providing clothing should not be ignored just because it's complicated, especially in times of emergency. In particular, it denies the uninsured and those living in poverty access to a basic need. But, the man on the call that day wasn't wrong: clothing donations are a messy business. It's not just the quality, quantity, and sizes -- it's how people donate. While the donor's intent may be positive, the end user isn't always front and center. Often, the thought is, "if someone has nothing, then this would be fine," or maybe someone "might want this even though I don't."
NowThis: How To Recycle Old Clothes, May 25, 2019.
The key to incorporating clothing needs into disaster preparedness is planning ahead. That means recognizing necessity, thinking in advance about how to address it, offering clear messaging, and blueprinting distribution. Emergency operations teams can employ direct language to the media and on websites such as "donate clean, seasonally appropriate clothing that respects the dignity of the recipients" and "clothing needs to be in clean, wearable condition ready for immediate distribution." Include regional and seasonal guidance and tips, such as requesting only closed toe shoes, or core items -- like socks and underwear in all sizes -- that must be new. Specify what is not wanted even if it's obvious. Presume that inappropriate items will be donated and inventory may exceed demand, and pre-identify partners such as fabric recyclers who will take these items.
"With largely unchecked climate change, intense (and intensifying) weather events are here to stay. Planning needs to be as thorough as possible."
In some communities, there are clothing banks like mine which are skilled at handling used clothing. Federal, state, county, and nonprofits like the Red Cross should learn about local organizations specializing in used clothing and develop natural disaster response plans in partnership with them. Additionally, an annual grant from private funders or federal or state governments to cover storage space would position organizations to be poised and ready in time of need. If we work together in advance, we may be able to build inventories and manage donation flows to ensure we are ready in the immediate aftermath of a catastrophic event.
With largely unchecked climate change, intense (and intensifying) weather events are here to stay. Planning needs to be as thorough as possible. After a disaster, the losses are multiple. Shelter from the storm isn't only over someone's head -- it's also on their back.