Lessons From Hurricane Harvey
We knew Hurricane Harvey was coming. The upside of hurricane trackers is that humans in their path are given time to prepare. We stock up on water, ice, food, gas, propane, batteries and flashlights. We board up our windows, sit back and wait. The downside, of course, is what comes next.
Harvey made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane at Rockport, Texas, near the Texas Gulf Coast on August 25, 2017, and then struck the Houston area some 200 miles north as a violent tropical storm. By the time Harvey had exhaled, the storm had dumped more than 60 inches of rain on the region over a six-day period. Despite an intricate waterway system in the U.S.’s fourth largest city (Houston is called the Bayou City), no one in the Houston area was really prepared for the floodwaters that followed.
Once the rain had stopped, more than 200,000 homes had been damaged or destroyed, hundreds of thousands of vehicles were flooded and almost 40,000 people were displaced, with many of them in temporary shelters across the area. At least 86 people in the area lost their lives to the storm.
Legions of shelters and donation facilities opened across the city. Truckloads of donated items including clothing, food, water and other necessities began arriving from all over the country. Volunteers sprang into action to bring comfort and care to those affected.
The promotional products industry, which always takes care of its own, was no exception. A call to action was initiated, and Peter Hirsch, president of Houston-based supplier Hirsch Gift, was one of the first to volunteer. As he did after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Hirsch coordinated the massive effort to receive and house industry donations in a loaned warehouse near his company’s facility.
Volunteers from the Houston Promotional Products Association (HPPA) also stepped in to help coordinate the more than 200 skids of donated promotional products that arrived over a two-week period to aid HPPA members and the Houston area community at large.
Powerful? Yes! But the problem, as with many efforts like this, was the sheer number of donated items that needed to be sorted and distributed, and the comparatively small numbers of volunteers available to do so. Hirsch likens it to a funnel. “So many items are being donated and hundreds of packages are being delivered to a site that has only a handful of volunteers—six to eight on any given day,” he says. Soon, the backlog of work becomes overwhelming.
As one of the volunteers, I saw it firsthand. Most of the boxes shipped to Houston for Harvey relief contained disparate items that required volunteers to unpack, sort, organize and repack them into other boxes. Every time we finished one shipment, another skid of donations arrived at the warehouse. It was then that we all looked at each other and said, “There has to be a better way!”
The aftermath of Harvey was not the first catastrophic event to affect our industry and our communities, nor will it be the last. So, how can we, as an industry, better respond the next time disaster strikes?
Let’s first look at a typical timeline of events that follows a disaster:
Days One And Two: Emotions are high. Evacuations are rampant. Shelters open across the area, the largest often being at convention centers and sports venues. These shelters will take all kinds of donations in order to clothe, feed and soothe the displaced disaster victims. Hundreds, if not thousands, of bags of donated clothing, bottled water, toiletries, etc., pour into the shelters.
Days Three Through Five: Shelters now begin to accept only specific items. Used clothing becomes less needed and new clothing is more desired because the initial sense of loss is lessened. Disaster victims are now looking for everyday essentials to bring a sense of normalcy to their routines.
Days Six Through 10: The shelters begin emptying as people return to their homes or make other long-term housing plans at hotels and rental homes, and the type of donations become even more detailed. People now need cleaning supplies, toiletries, personal hygiene items, diapers, school supplies, school uniforms, new clothing, underwear and shoes for all ages.
In the meantime, satellite donation centers at schools, churches, synagogues and veterans associations have opened. Organizers there are asking donors for the necessary items to help their communities. The larger shelters that attracted the most media attention in the aftermath of the storm are likely no longer needing donations, but the smaller centers are in desperate need with no way to get the word out.
It was at this point in the Hurricane Harvey relief efforts that Hirsch asked some of his employees to volunteer and seek out shelters that needed donations. HPPA volunteers networked within their communities to do the same.
Simultaneously, numerous industry volunteers were trying to manage the massive numbers of boxes containing donations that were pouring in. They were donated with good intentions, but the boxes contained too many different kinds of products to sort them efficiently, and most contained a mix of used clothing and new clothing with no listing of sizes or the intended gender.
When a crisis strikes, we as an industry can be better prepared to assist those affected by having a well-constructed plan in place. Hirsch used the following two-part plan to marshal industry volunteers and donations following Hurricane Katrina and again in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
Part One: Make A Plan
1. A successful collection and distribution operation requires leadership from a supplier or distributor company that has available warehouse space. It is also essential that the company be geographically located as close as possible to where help is needed most. The company’s warehouse must be accessible to large semi-tractor trailers and box trucks and should also have access to a forklift or similar equipment to help unload and move pallets. Multiple handcarts/dollies are essential, too.
2. Appoint volunteer coordinators who can identify shelters and organizations who need donations, and cross reference these needs with available donations. The coordinators are also needed to manage volunteers.
3. Recruit local volunteers to help unload trucks, and sort, organize, repack and distribute donations. Volunteer drivers, especially those with trailers, are also needed to drop off donations at the identified shelters and organizations.
4. Market the need for volunteers and donations through PPAI, ASI, and all industry service providers that will carry the message to members/subscribers. Social media plays a huge part in spreading the word about what is needed. In the appeal, be sure to include a physical address for the supplier/distributor’s warehouse and an email address.
Part Two: Guidelines For Donations
“Our industry is very generous and well-meaning,” says Hirsch, “but donations need to adhere to the list of requested items. This is not an opportunity to clear out old samples in your office unless each item is clearly thought out.”
This applies to clearing out your clothes closets at home, too. Used clothing is only acceptable when it is received within a day or two after disaster strikes. After that, evacuees are looking to regain a sense of dignity in light of all they may have lost.
A few tips about donations:
1. Sort your donations. Keep like items boxed together. For example, do not mix cleaning supplies with toiletries. Box new clothing according to size, gender and life stage (adult, child, baby). When donating apparel samples, refrain from including any apparel with grommets on them. Grommets are usually centered in the upper back area of the garment to purposely keep people from wearing samples.
2. Do not pack new clothing with used clothing. A lot of time was spent sorting new clothing from used clothing. Most of the used clothing was not used for hurricane victims, but instead was donated to a local organization that offered it to individuals who were being released from social programs to get them started on a new path in life.
3. Label and list. List every item or group of items on the outside of every box and place a packing list inside.
4. Check food expiration dates. Outdated food and baby formula cannot be distributed. Do not donate food products in glass jars or bottles.
5. Order donations online. Many who donated to the Hurricane Harvey relief ordered necessities from large online merchants and had them delivered directly to the warehouse. In most instances, they saved time, and often the shipping costs were free.
6. Notify the warehouse in advance of a shipment. Send an email to the donation coordinator or key contact listing what you are donating along with tracking information so they know what to expect. It helps the operation move more efficiently.
When crisis strikes, our industry can be better prepared to assist those affected when we have a solid plan in place.
THE MOST REQUESTED DONATIONS
Imagine that you lost everything you owned in a disaster and arrived at a shelter with only the clothes you were wearing and, if you were lucky, a small bag of personal items. What items would be most important to you? Below is a list of necessities most requested after a devastating event based on my personal experience:
1 Personal items:
- Full-size soap, shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrushes, mouthwash, etc. Do not donate the sample-size products collected from hotels as the amount in those bottles is not sufficient.
- Feminine products and adult incontinence items
- Baby diapers, wipes, full-size baby shampoo and lotion, diaper rash balm, over-the-counter baby medications, powdered baby formula, etc.
- Toilet paper, paper towels, hand sanitizer
- First aid kits, bandages, wound spray, hydrocortisone cream, triple antibiotic ointment
- Over-the-counter medicine: acetaminophen, ibuprofen, antihistamine, decongestant, cough syrup
- Mosquito repellant
2 Blankets and pillows. Throws are also great as they can be folded into a blanket or a pillow or used as a place to lie down.
3 Towels, hand towels, wash cloths
4 Cleaning supplies: disinfectant wipes/sprays, cleaning rags, brooms, mops, buckets. Bleach was one of the most requested cleaning supplies because of the overwhelming amount of mold and mildew that occurred after the flooding.
5 Flashlights and batteries of all sizes
6 Power banks to charge smartphones
7 Duct tape, tools, generators, etc.
8 Non-perishable food items and can openers
9 Bottled water
10 School supplies and children’s activity items such as coloring books, crayons, markers, and puzzles
11 New clothing, school uniforms, new shoes, pajamas, new socks, new underwear, new bras, etc.
12 Insulated and plastic beverage containers
13 Pet supplies including food and food bowls, dog/cat beds, etc.
Kim Reinecker, MAS, is regional manager, southwest for supplier Starline and lives in Houston, Texas.