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Help! Is Someone There? The Role of Relief Organizations in Disaster Recovery

May 21, 1881. Washington D.C. Clara Barton and several close acquaintances meet together to form the American Red Cross. Later, in 1905 the Red Cross is given a charter by the United States Congress with a mission of “giving relief to and serving as a medium of communication between members of the American armed forces and their families and providing national and international disaster relief and mitigation”. This factoid might propagate the misconception that the Red Cross is a functional arm of the United States Government. While it is true that the President of the United States sits as the honorary Chairman of the Red Cross and appoints eight governors of the national organization, they receive no funding or other resources from federal or local government. The Red Cross functions solely on private contributions and volunteers.


The Red Cross (and its sister organization The Red Crescent Society) is arguably the most internationally recognized disaster relief organization in the world. In fact, ask your friends and coworkers what organization they would call upon during a time of disaster for assistance. I’ll bet you the boss’s salary that one of the top two answers will be the Red Cross. The other one you’ll hear? FEMA. (only betting the boss’s salary on the Red Cross though)


This begs the question: Is our hope of relief during disastrous circumstances well placed? You won’t read a negative word here about the Red Cross. The organization provides a tremendous service in our own local communities, across the nation, and certainly around the world. They are, however, ultimately limited by the donations they receive and the degree of volunteer response. The Red Cross would be the first to admit that their resources are anything but limitless.


In 2004 a massive tsunami in the Indian Ocean took over 230,000 lives throughout Southeast Asia in one of the most devastating disasters in modern history. In 2010, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland spewed an ash cloud larger than all of Europe and wreaked havoc on international air travel for weeks. As of October, 2019, meteorological disasters just in the United States have led to losses exceeding $1 billion.


Year after year, these emergency-laden events continue to unfold. History proves that calamities ebb and flow like the tides, but they inevitably continue.


Much has been published about the New Madrid Fault Zone in the south central United States and the massive destruction that would occur over a minimum five state region should a large earthquake emanate from that fault zone. The devastation of such an event is probably beyond our comprehension. There is no doubt that organizations such as FEMA or the Red Cross and dozens of other like-minded organizations would struggle to mitigate the aftermath of such a catastrophe. In reality, it would all come down to the individual.


But doesn’t it always? Emergency sustainment on any large scale can only produce measurable success if the essential foundation blocks are already in place. Individual, personal emergency preparation are those foundation blocks. The Federal Emergency Management Agency clearly states “FEMA’s mission is to support our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain, and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate all hazards.” (Italics added)


FEMA has outlined in detail the Whole of Community concept in a document they produced back in 2011. This concept emphasizes the need to shift from a “government-centric” approach in disaster sustainment to utilizing communities (defined as large as a town or neighborhood and as minute as an individual family).


We simply cannot rely upon organizations, government or private sector, to sustain us during calamity. History preaches such. Common sense validates the evidence. Even the government itself now emphasizes the point.


And yet, so many of us have decided to do exactly that by choosing to not individually prepare ourselves, our families, and our “community” (workplace, church group, etc). Regardless of our political or social views, how can we argue that we are not fast becoming a wholly dependent nation. Disagree? What’s in your freezer? What’s in your refrigerator? What’s on your pantry shelves? Right now. How long could you last if the grocery store that you visit multiple times during the month from this very moment on no longer had anything on their shelves to sell you? Could you survive three months? A month? How about a week?


No matter how organized, effective and well-funded FEMA may eventually become; regardless of the future generosity of contributors and volunteers at the Red Cross; our ultimate survival in the face of any real significant disaster will fall solely on our own shoulders. Are we prepared for such responsibility?


Of course it can be overwhelming, but we can’t let that fact immobilize us! Don’t forget the method for eating the proverbial elephant… one bite at a time. (not sure who wants to eat an elephant as I hear they’re a bit on the tough side, but the metaphor is applicable).

So start small. But… just start. This approach works whether you are a “community” of one or have many people in a family or any organization for which you are responsible.


  • First begin with the basic essentials. Secure 72 hours of drinkable water for you, your family, or your group. You can live 72 hours without food. 72 hours without water, however, and you are going to have a serious medical condition on your hands pretty quickly.

  • Then add 72 hours worth of food.

  • Next add accommodation for sanitation needs, medical supplies, emergency equipment, sheltering materials, emergency lighting.


Once you’ve built out your initial preparedness supplies, expand it beyond 72 hours – again starting with life-saving needs first.


Certainly we express gratitude for the tremendous support during disastrous times from such great organizations as the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the United Way, as well as dozens of faith-based organizations such as Catholic Charities USA, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Baptist World Aid. We also acknowledge that we live in a country which cares enough about its citizens to create and strives to improve an organization such as FEMA to help the country in time of great need.


But none of it works without us. The individual. We are the essential foundation blocks to disaster survival and recovery. So let’s begin.


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