Before you get in your truck and head to Oklahoma…

The tornado sirens haven’t been silent for long in Oklahoma.  The rescue workers that didn’t need rescuing are just starting a shift that will last for weeks.  The families aren’t all together yet—and many never will be.  The dust hasn’t settled and the numbers aren’t known.  Those things will take a long, long time.

Our hearts hurt to see the destruction and hear the news stories and, for many of us, our instinct is to go help…right now.  Please don’t.  Not yet.

In late April of 2011, the northern part of Mississippi and portions of Alabama were hit by multiple F-4 and F-5 tornadoes.  The devastation was monumental.  I was asked by my church leaders to head north to a church on the edge of the most damaged area and help them organize all of the volunteers and resources that were pouring into our state trying to help.  I said “yes” and headed north every day for weeks.  Here are just a few of the things I learned throughout this process:

  • Southern Baptists are a big-hearted people who don’t always listen well.  I am one, so I can say this with absolute certainty.  We are not alone in this trait–the same thing can be said of every single other faith group and civic group!–so I’m spelling out the following as clearly as I can.
  • If you are not able to COMPLETELY take care of every single detail of your own personal safety, care, provision and survival, then STAY HOME right now.  I can’t stress this one enough!  These people just lost their security, their homes and so much more than you can imagine.  The last thing they need is a massive influx of people who show up saying, “We’re here to help you!  Show us where we can sleep and when are we going to get fed?!”  Many of them are going to have to locate those services for themselves over the next few weeks.  Having the available resources actually BE available for those in the area who desperately need them is critical.
  • FEMA must go see the sites before people can get approved for financial aid after these areas have been declared as ‘disaster areas.’  Take photos as soon as possible, but DO NOT totally clear lots without documentation.  Doing so will only reduce the amount of aid available to those homeowners without insurance.
  • The people on the ground are going to be grieving, shocked and tired and they’re STILL going to know more about what they need than the truck loads of people who arrive to assist them.  Please listen carefully to what they have to say.  If you’re asked to stay out of an area, please honor that request…even if it does look like something you could do without too much trouble.  They know best.
  • Do not clean out your closets and send clothing you no longer want to wear.  There will be plenty of clothing there within the next few days.  After that, they have to take up valuable storage space to sort through things that, often times, should have been discarded before it made the long journey out west.
  • If you want to send money to assist those affected, please do so through reputable groups.  Unfortunately, these types of disasters bring out the jackels who prey on those who want to help as much as they do on those who so desperately need the assistance intended for them.
  • Please know that there is a difference between types of disaster relief.  Skills needed for flood and hurricanes are simply not the same after tornado/wind events.  Be flexible and don’t insist that you or your group can help when you’re told “please, not now” or just “no.”  Tying up limited phone lines hunting for a place to ‘take your group on a mission/rescue trip’ helps no one there at this time.  There will more opportunities later.  I promise.
  • Make contact with a local church or civic group and follow THEIR guidelines if you want to be of assistance.  They will know what resources they have, those resources they are in need of and what others have already volunteered.  THEY WILL NOT KNOW ALL OF THAT WITHIN THE NEXT 12 HOURS.  Give them a chance to breathe and then be ready to send what they ask for ASAP.
  • This isn’t going to be over for a long time.  There will still be time to help.  Those volunteers who are on the ground right now can’t stay indefinitely.  They will need to return to jobs and families and you WILL get an opportunity to help if you really want to do so.  Trust me, waiting can be more helpful than you can imagine.

I know this isn’t what some of you want to hear or read.  It doesn’t make it any less accurate.  PLEASE take these points seriously.  If you truly want to help those in need, do it in a way that actually helps them.

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