Dear Harvey: Love, Irene

Texas National Guardsmen assist residents affected by flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey onto a military vehicle.

People want to help. It’s only natural. The footage coming out of the floodier parts of Texas is downright apocalyptic. It hurts the mind to look at it. One wants to do something.

In disasters, there is helpful help, and then there is all the other stuff people do in a well-intentioned spasm of conscience. When planning one’s charitable activities in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, it is wise to consider the importance of not creating a lot of extra work for people deep in the bowels of the relief and first response effort, who have been running on fumes since day two and are probably beginning to hallucinate from lack of sleep. Before you start mailing cans of beans to Houston, let me tell you a few hard-earned lessons I learned back in 2011 from a complete bastard named Irene.


Don’t send stuff

For a couple of days after Irene hit the Catskills, people needed clothes. For weeks, well-meaning people kept sending them — truckloads of old sweaters, funky shoes, mothballed coats, stuffed animals, even prom dresses. Volunteer organizer Dorothy Maffei, who spent an entire year sorting, organizing, and mostly getting rid of the deluge of secondhand clothes in Margaretville, called it “the tsunami after the flood.” Far from helping, the clothes drive actually cost the local flood relief effort — both in money, spent renting needless storage space, and in time, spent by increasingly burned-out volunteers. People used flood relief as an excuse to dump old clothes and unwanted canned goods, and sometimes got belligerent when told their “help” wasn’t needed.

The Salvation Army, an organization whose whole funding model depends on clothes donation, gets right to the point on its website: “It is extremely rare that used clothing, furniture and motor vehicles are needed during a disaster response.” Even more immediately useful things, like food and cleanup equipment, can become a huge burden to communities already facing overwhelming logistical challenges.

What we could really use, in times of disaster, is a system whereby people can transfer some sort of universally accepted promissory note to a flood relief organization, and then they can trade it for food or water or boats or insulin or whatever the heck else they need.

Oh wait: we have that. It’s called “money.”

Local matters

The Red Cross is working right now to get people displaced by Harvey sheltered, fed and clothed. Millions of dollars are pouring in from all over the country to help them get that job done. But by the time the real rebuilding gets underway, they’ll be long gone. The people doing the grinding job of long-term relief and recovery will be the ones who were there all along: local food banks, nonprofits, hospitals, churches, community centers, animal shelters. Donating to small local groups takes more research, and you have to keep an eye out for scammers, but in the long run, that’s who will be doing the work.

We saw this in the Catskills too, after Irene. The Red Cross response lasted a month or so. The long tail of the recovery effort is still spooling out, six years later.

A good place to start, if you’re looking for local organizations to donate to, is by reading local papers in the disaster zone. Most national reporters are going to be cribbing from locals anyway, so you might as well go straight to a good source of local know-how. The Texas Tribune has a good list of local relief organizations and their needs. If you have a friend in the area, ask them who in their neighborhood is doing good work on the ground.

When looking for local relief efforts to support, here’s something to consider: Houston is getting a lot of press, and deservedly so, but a lot of smaller towns and cities got whomped badly as well. Rockport. Corpus Christi. Port Aransas. Remember that places with more native home-grown media outlets will naturally tend to get more attention from the national press, no matter how damaged surrounding communities are, simply because they’re bigger and because they have a larger megaphone.

Don’t be a jerk

Remember what Texas senator Ted Cruz was up to in 2013? Right after Sandy all but obliterated the New Jersey coast? Right…he was out there on daytime television railing against a federal aid package mostly aimed at New York and New Jersey, threatening to deep-six the bill unless it was offset by spending cuts elsewhere in the budget. The aid bill ended up passing, no thanks to Cruz — or his fellow Texas Senator John Cornyn, or 34 other Republican Senators, 179 Republican Congressman, and one lone House Democrat, all of whom voted “no” on Sandy aid.

Let’s be better than that. Call your reps and tell them to fund Harvey relief, when the time comes for Congress to act. It’s not Texans’ fault their senators are assholes.

Well, maybe it is a bit. They did vote for them.

It’s going to be a long haul

Long, long after the water recedes and the national media spotlight moves on to shinier objects, the people of Greater Houston and the Buffalo Bayou watershed are still going to be piecing their lives and their communities back together. It will be years before the average Houstonian can look at a raincloud without feeling a touch of PTSD. I’m sure we can all relate.

Lissa Harris is the former editor of the Watershed Post. She lives in Margaretville with her wife and daughter. Send her Catskills news tips at

Donations for Harvey victims

Here are a couple of ways that are not scams to donate to the victims of Hurricane Harvey:

United Way:

The Red Cross:

The Salvation Army: Donate by phone by calling 1-800-SAL-ARMY

Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund, set up by the city of Houston:

WAMC, Northeast Public Radio,, or call 1-800-323-9262.