The 180

'There was so much stuff': the 'second disaster' of unwanted donations

It's a term known in emergency management as 'the second disaster', the piles of unwanted items well-intentioned people donate in the wake of a disaster like the fire in Fort McMurray. The 180's Kathryn Marlow wades into the pros and cons of donations after disasters.
In some situations, donations of goods are specifically requested by aid agencies, or families amidst disaster. But when unsolicited goods are sent, they can do more harm than good. (CBC)

It's called "the second disaster" in emergency management circles —  when kind-hearted outsiders send so much "help" to a disaster zone that it gets in the way. 

Stories of overwhelming contributions of goods and volunteers are legion. In the world of emergency management, they are called 'the second disaster' because of the disruption they bring.- "

Unwanted donations of physical goods can divert important resources as people on the ground must deal with them -- sort and store, for example.

In addition, the goods, while sent with good intentions, may not be helpful. In the worst cases, it's second-hand junk that ends up in a landfill instead of someone's home. But even new, clean, materials may not be helpful. And, in some cases, when goods are sent, it means money is not — but money is what most people and organizations need. 

When we provide goods, wonderful as the impulse is, it often results in either a mismatch, or a surplus of goods that can't really be used...and also creates a large logistical problem that then is added in to the other logistical problems of an emergency management response, at a time when their resources are already stretched.- Robin Cox, Disaster and Emergency Management, Royal Roads University

Too much stuff 

As Fort McMurray residents spend their second week away from home, Canadians are filling trucks full of stuff to help. 

When Nicola Ramsey hears those stories, she thinks: "Please don't." 

Ramsey lives in Slave Lake, Alberta, which dealt with a devastating wildfire in 2011. The community received truckloads of donations from across the Canada. Those truckloads included bags of old underwear, half-empty bags of dog food, and other things that had to be thrown out. 

Homes burn in Slave Lake, Alberta, in 2011. (Lesser Slave Regional Fire Service)

"They threw away more than they ever put out for distribution," says Ramsey. Eventually, after storing all the donated things in a local company's warehouse, the community had to round up volunteers, hire a shipping company, and send it all to Calgary where it was shipped overseas.

It's not uncommon for goods donated during disasters to get shipped elsewhere, says Robin Cox. 

She's the head of Disaster and Emergency Management program at Royal Roads University

"When we provide goods, wonderful as the impulse is, it often results in either a mismatch, or a surplus of goods that can't really be used, and end up in a thrift store, for example, which has happened in many disasters." 

We ended up with probably 200 grad gowns, beautiful dresses, and they just hung there in the school...those kind of things we just feel bad about.- Nicola Ramsey, Slave Lake resident

It's not just used goods that causes problems 

While it's easy to understand that people may not want someone's old underwear, or T-shirts with holes in them, it's not just a matter of not wanting junk. 

These dresses have been gathered to send to Fort McMurray grads. Dresses collected for Slave Lake grads in 2011 went mostly unused. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)

Ramsey points out that many of the Fort McMurray evacuees still have homes they will eventually return to; those who don't, have nowhere to put donated items right now. And when they do, they'll likely want to put new stuff in their new homes, things they've picked themselves — and not your old futon. 

And while the thoughts really are lovely, Ramsey was saddened by some of the things that were sent and never used. Because the fire happened towards of the end of the school year, people donated prom dresses for the girls of Slave Lake. 

"We ended up with probably 200 grad gowns, beautiful dresses, and they just hung there in the school. The girls didn't come to get them, there were maybe two dresses used, because the girls either had their dresses, or they wanted their own dress so they went out and bought a new dress...So those kind of things we just feel bad about."

Unexpected social consequences of unsolicited donations 

Cox, the professor in Disaster and Emergency Management, works in the psychosocial side of disaster relief. She knows that unsolicited donations can have a negative impact on that side of things too. 

For example, she remembers working in the British Columbia Interior after the McLure Fire in 2003

People donated all sorts of things for children, like backpacks and school supplies. While that sounds like a positive, in some cases it put parents it a tough spot.

Some children received gifts that were much nicer than their parents would be able to afford, even before the fire: "So they were sort of put in a position of not feeling as though they were providing adequately for their children, not able to compare with those donations, or follow up in a similar fashion once those donations had finished."

There are more immediate social effects too. If you were out of your home, and had the choice of going out and choosing your own socks and underwear and replacement jeans, or being handed some that someone else had chosen, which would you prefer? 

Goods collected to send to the people of Fort McMurray. (Courtesy East Coasters for Fort McMurray )

Cox points out that being evacuated takes a toll on mental health, so empowerment can be key. When you're living in limbo, displaced from home and without your normal routine, you're better off going out and making those personal shopping choices for yourself. 

Money, from both government and agencies like the Red Cross, can help with that. Boxes of other people's used stuff can't.