Hurricane Katrina hit the southern coastline of the U.S. and all but decimated the city of New Orleans and surrounding areas.  Everyone scrambled to respond in order to save lives and still, as a society, we were not fast enough.  The outpouring of thousands of volunteers willing to assist was heartwarming.  Mobilizing those hundreds of thousands of volunteers was a challenge.
When it comes to planning for the unknown disaster, the number one priority for every disaster relief organization, disaster volunteer, community, business or family is the same.  BE PREPARED!
With little to no warning, disasters can strike quickly.  Whether it be a natural or environmental disaster, a pandemic, or a break-down of authority, the disruption of the functioning community or society are the same.  The very definition of disaster is enough to cause each of us nightmares.  

  • defines it as a calamitous event, especially one occurring suddenly and causing great loss of life, damage or hardship.
  • defines it as a serious disruption of the functioning of a community or society involving widespread human, material, economic and environmental losses and impacts, which exceeds the ability of the affected community or society to cope using its own resources.

How prepared our government, nonprofit organizations, volunteers, businesses or families are, prior to the onset of the disaster, is directly proportionate to our ability to respond in a timely manner to limit the loss of life and impact to our communities.  We must plan for and anticipate all possible contingencies and to do this we must rely on the expertise of our government, disaster response nonprofits and experts.  We must examine what we could do better and push each other to fill the known gaps.  There are hundreds of resources online that can assist you in evaluating your preparedness as a community, family, business, volunteer or a nonprofit.  A few that I find valuable both professionally and personally are:

     Make a Plan  
              American Red Cross: Make a Disaster Preparedness Plan   
              Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Make a Plan
              FEMA: Plan and Prepare         
              U.S. Small Business Administration: Emergency Preparedness
              Department of Homeland Security: Plan and Prepare for Disasters    
One glaring gap that became evident during the natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina was the inability to process the vast number of volunteers and mobilize them across the country.  As was true then and is still true today, there is no industry standard for the screening of disaster volunteers.  Tens of thousands of volunteers stood on the sideline waiting for their chosen nonprofit to clear them so they could travel to the disaster zone.  So what was the hold up?
We didn’t have a pool of pre-screened, trained and ready to deploy volunteers from which our largest or any disaster response organizations could draw from.  Instead, they were doing their best to screen, train and deploy eligible volunteers with staffs equipped to process hundreds or thousands, not hundreds of thousands.  Not only did we not have the needed volunteers ready for deployment but our resources were strained without the necessary contingency plans in place to assist in a mobilization of this size.
It is our responsibility to come together within the disaster response community and set standards for screening of disaster volunteers.  If we do not undertake this initiative, we will be unable to build our pool of disaster volunteers so we can be prepared the next time we have a large scale mobilization.  We must ask ourselves these questions: 

  • Can my current volunteer screening workflow support a significantly increased volume – do I have a contingency plan in place with trained staff?
  • Do I have the resources ready for a sustained recruitment drive and can I accommodate significantly increased volumes literally overnight?
  • Can my organization financially support a large scale mobilization and sustained relief effort?

If your answers to any of the above were no, then isn’t it the responsible thing to do to come to the table together and standardize? Do you have thoughts on how we can work together?  I would be very interested in hearing your ideas and welcome your responses to my blog! 

Email us at using the subject line: Disaster. Let’s start the conversation.

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