Don’t Forget to Help Tornado Survivors Amidst COVID-19

COVID-19 is dominating headlines but Tennessee needs our attention, too.

Posted Mar 04, 2020

Photo by Utsav Srestha on Unsplash
We have to look beyond the coronavirus headlines if we are going to help TN tornado survivors.
Source: Photo by Utsav Srestha on Unsplash

On Tuesday, a tornado ravaged Tennessee with numerous injured and at least 24 dead. Many of us who feel helpless as we watch the damage on our television screens will want to help. If we truly want to help, it is important to know what not to do when providing disaster assistance. Following are six common disaster relief mishaps to avoid. 

  1. Don’t set out to be a hero. While the impulse to help is a good one, some can be tempted to get involved for the wrong reasons. When we respond because we want to be heroes, our actions are more likely to harm than to help. Those who have a hero complex are helping for the purpose of meeting their own needs, and not the needs of others. Some who are driven by the adrenaline rush want to “get in on the action.” Others, who might have good intentions, want to be known as do-gooders. And others, who are themselves distraught by the disaster, may engage as a way to soothe their own negative feelings. If any of these sound like you, pause before engaging. The antidote to harmful heroism is humility. Because the humble helper is other-oriented, she pays attention to notice what survivors most need.
  2. Don’t be a spontaneous unaffiliated volunteer (SUV). In my work among survivors, some of the most harmful responses I’ve seen have been from SUV’s: spontaneous unaffiliated volunteers. These helpers show up, uninvited by any organized reputable organization, and can actually contribute to the chaos. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, one local leader taught our team, “Volunteers were one of the biggest blessings after Katrina, and volunteers were one of the biggest curses after Katrina.” This is because unaffiliated volunteers can thwart the work of trained responders, divert resources from survivors, and further tax strained local infrastructure. To be truly helpful, volunteer and give through established relief groups, ministries, and community organizations. 
  3. Don’t use platitudes. Because many of us are naturally uncomfortable with unanswered questions, it can be tempting to offer survivors trite platitudes to answer questions that have no easy answers. The hurt caused by the tornadoes in Tennessee this week, taking the lives of numerous individuals, can cause us to ask questions like, “Where was God in all of this?” Sadly, many have been guilty of wielding trite phrases and sound bites, or “bumper sticker theology,” that lack depth and meaning. Survivors benefit when helpers refuse to offer trite platitudes. What’s most useful to those who are suffering than shallow “answers” is to journey alongside them. Make room for those who’ve experienced disasters to seek real answers. Whether you have the capacity to stay present to survivors for 10 years or 10 minutes, you can make room for their questions without offering easy answers. 
  4. Don’t donate unsolicited goods. While it feels good to show up with “stuff” you think people might need, this form of assistance can become more about you than it is about what survivors most need. Don’t assume that you know what survivors need. A helpful rule of thumb is that “Aid happens where need meets resources.” So it’s better to leave room for those who’ve weathered the tornadoes in the southeast to name what will most help them. Then, respond accordingly. If your help is going to make a lasting and effective difference, it needs to match up with what the actual needs on the ground are, both right now and in the future. 
  5. Don’t romanticize suffering. Sometimes people of faith can be tempted to romanticize suffering. And while the Christian faith has a trove of teachings that help people understand and respond to human suffering, we can often misapply these in the wake of disaster. We romanticize suffering when we have a fixed idea of what the blessing of adversity looks like. When we frame the situation as if tragedy must always lead to immediate and significant personal growth, our well-intended rubric actually can evoke guilt, shame, and self-doubt if someone’s process looks different than the one we’ve zeroed in on. As a result, survivors may be subject to victim blaming, judgment, or having their faith questioned. Growth takes time. 
  6. Don’t forget to help tornado survivors amidst the coronavirus headlines. Presently, the headlines are being dominated by stories about the coronavirus. Studies have shown a direct correlation between media coverage and donor giving. What that means is that news coverage moves on to the next big story, financial giving diminishes. Research has demonstrated that the early phase of disaster response is when the most robust giving occurs. But the impact of this week’s tornadoes means that the time it takes for communities to recover will last long beyond the headlines. Donations will most likely dry up although there’s still more work to be done for survivors to flourish again. Communities in Tennessee also need our attention, media coverage, and our donations now, but will continue to need ongoing help throughout the recovery process.