Aiding Harvey’s victimsTo aid flood victims, forget goods. Send money

Published 1 September 2017

Harvard experts offer advice on how best to help. “There is a natural inclination for generous people to send supplies of all sorts,” says Arnold Howitt, co-founder and co-director of the Program on Crisis Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. “We don’t know exactly what displaced people need, and the task of unpacking, sorting, and routing various items that randomly arrive in the disaster area is usually well beyond the constrained capabilities of the aid providers on the scene.”

As Texas and Louisiana residents continued to reel from the devastating effects of Hurricane Harvey, many people elsewhere have felt the urge to send clothing, diapers, or canned goods to help.

Hold the diapers, Harvard experts suggest. Instead, send money.

“Food or clothing rarely get to the right people,” agreed Michael VanRooyen, director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, who has worked as an emergency physician in more than thirty countries struck by war and natural disasters. “They rarely help, and often clog up the relief pipeline and create an economic downstream effect as well.”

On Harvard’s campus, the College’s Texas natives were organizing a candlelight vigil on the steps of Memorial Church for Friday at 8 p.m. to show solidarity with Harvey’s victims and to raise funds to help them.

Trey Sexton, co-president of the Texas Club of Harvard College, said students whose families are affected will speak at the event, and others will read statements from those trapped in Houston. The vigil will be followed by a fundraising reception, where computers will be set up to accept donations.

“We did not want to sit back and do nothing,” Sexton said, adding that the students’ response was an effort “to be conscious of what is going on, to learn how to help, and to take a moment to send thoughts and prayers to those affected.”

In Texas, Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital had four staff members working with a federal disaster team on Thursday, and expected to deploy ten more shortly.

“The effects wrought by Hurricane Harvey have been devastating and our thoughts and prayers go out to those in Texas and Louisiana, as well as their concerned friends and loved ones elsewhere,” said Harvard President Drew Faust. “In the face of this tragedy, I am heartened by the response of volunteers in the affected areas, by the many organizations committed to providing assistance, and by the outpouring of support from members of the Harvard community eager to do what they can to help individuals with the long and arduous process of rebuilding their lives and their communities.”

The most effective relief is to donate to organizations working on the ground because they know what is needed, recommend Arnold Howitt and Herman B. “Dutch” Leonard, founders and co-directors of the Program on Crisis Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), in an interview posted on the School’s website.