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A Disasterologist's Take on Effective Volunteering

Part 2: Interview with disasterologist Samantha Montano on disaster volunteers.

Samantha Montano, used with permission
Source: Samantha Montano, used with permission

Volunteers are a critical part of disaster response. Thousands of people offer their time, resources and abilities to help others in one of the most difficult times of their lives.

In part two of a two-part interview with Dr. Samantha Montano, we find out more about volunteering best practices, how volunteers fit into the disaster management structure and how volunteering encourages learning.

Dr. Samantha Montano has a B.S. in psychology from Loyola University New Orleans and a Ph.D. in emergency management from North Dakota State University. She specializes in nonprofit and volunteer involvement in disasters and does public engagement work related to the relationship between emergency management and climate change. Her forthcoming book about disasters and climate change will be published by Park Row Books in summer 2021.

JA: I’ve heard some experts say “find a cause to volunteer and stay with it” versus jumping from one volunteer opportunity to the next. What is your take?

SM: There is certainly an argument to be made that it’s more effective to have volunteers acquire a depth of knowledge and skills related to a single cause. Every time a new volunteer shows up, the organization must invest time in training and education. However, I think disaster volunteerism is a unique situation.

There are many volunteers that consider disaster volunteerism their “cause.” The folks I'm thinking of are those who volunteer with organizations like the Red Cross or Salvation Army, those who travel from disaster to disaster. They’ve built up a cadre of valuable disaster-specific knowledge and skills. At the same time, there are many people who find themselves volunteering in the middle of a disaster without any prior experience or training.

Volunteerism begins before trained volunteers can arrive in the impacted community. It’s the survivors of the disaster themselves that become the first volunteers on-scene. They are doing vital, life-saving work. In a disaster, you’re actually more likely to be rescued by a family member or neighbor than you are by any trained rescue personnel. Their efforts can be just as valuable as trained volunteers, and sometimes even more valuable!

JA: Sometimes it feels like there are mixed messages about volunteering amidst disasters. On one hand, you have those that say, “We need people to volunteer and help.” On the other hand, it’s common to hear others say, “Volunteers can be the second disaster, and that their presence adds to the chaos.” Can you help explain this phenomenon?

SM: This is a point of much debate in emergency management. Our emergency management system was created with the expectation that nonprofits (and volunteers) would be a vital part of addressing needs that the government doesn’t address and individuals can’t meet on their own. During the response to a disaster, volunteers help with evacuations, search and rescue, medical aid, donation handouts, shelter operations, and more.

At the same time, having people show up in the middle of a disaster to volunteer can quickly become a logistical nightmare. A study done after 9/11 found that 40,000 spontaneous volunteers converged on downtown Manhattan. In 2005, the Red Cross alone reported they had 220,000 volunteers helping during Katrina and Rita. Since 2005, the number of people who have volunteered with the recovery efforts along the Gulf Coast is easily over one million. When there are this many people volunteering, you have to create a system to coordinate their efforts.

JA: I’m curious if you have ideas on how we can navigate the volunteer catch-22 you just unpacked for us?

SM: We need people to volunteer during and after disasters, but we need to find a way to make those efforts effective. There is a lot we could do related to education and awareness about effective volunteering and messaging from media during disasters.

In addition to adjusting the stream of volunteers coming into a community, there are also approaches we can take to meet volunteer needs once they arrive. Some communities can become quickly overwhelmed by the number of people who show up with questions like:

  • Where will they stay?
  • What will they eat?
  • How will they get around?
  • Who will they work with?
  • Do they know what needs to be done?
  • Do they have the resources to do that work?

We know volunteers are going to show up to major disasters, so we can plan ahead to make sure communities are ready for them. We can create plans for coordinating spontaneous volunteers, and we can plan to open Volunteer Reception Centers, set up partnerships with local community groups, and more.

JA: What’s been the biggest takeaway you’ve had from studying volunteers?

SM: One overlooked outcome of volunteering is an increased understanding among volunteers about disasters and emergency management. A few years ago, I interviewed volunteers building houses in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans on the 10-year anniversary of Katrina and the levee failure. The volunteers were college students that had been quite young when Katrina happened and they were not from Louisiana. Yet, they were able to identify the reason they were there. They also identified the reason for so many needs in the community, which was was rooted in government failure and racial injustice.

There are so many misperceptions about disasters that these first-hand experiences could help correct. It shows that disaster volunteerism can be an avenue for disaster education and further advocacy work related to making our approach to emergency management, generally, more effective and just.

JA: What are you working on these days related to volunteerism?

SM: We have relatively little research on disaster volunteers considering how critical they are to our overall approach to emergency management. The research we have done has largely focused on volunteers during response, so my current research is looking into the other phases of the disaster life cycle—recovery, mitigation and preparedness. This work can provide us a more holistic understanding of disaster volunteerism and eventually lead to more effective volunteerism.

Read part 1 of our interview with Dr. Samantha Montano.


Twitter: @samLmontano