Hurricane season has begun with a roar. The West is threatened by wildfires. Arizona is blanketed in a heat wave. Rains overwhelmed unmaintained dams in Michigan. At the same time, we are living through a combined health, political, economic, racial, and climate crisis.
The U.S. disaster management system is strained. Disaster management experts have questioned the ability of the government to respond to these and future disasters, but they are only one part of the response system. Volunteers, mutual aid networks, and the nonprofit sector are equally important when it comes. to disaster response. The pandemic threatens to stretch them thin, leaving communities that experience additional disasters without enough help at a time when need has never been greater.
Contrary to Hollywood’s depiction of disasters, research shows that people overwhelmingly respond in pro-social, altruistic ways. When disaster strikes, help emerges from within the affected community and converges from surrounding communities. Disaster researchers have documented this phenomenon for decades, describing the influx of help as a “mass assault” for how significant the flow of people and resources can be, even to the point of overwhelming the community. It is not just a few people. Forty-thousand people spontaneously converged on Ground Zero following 9/11 and more than a million people volunteered along the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina hit the region hard and caused levee failure in New Orleans.
After disasters, an eclectic mix of national disaster nonprofits, foundations, local organizations, grassroots groups, and mutual aid networks work to meet the needs of survivors. Collectively, volunteers help—and often lead—a variety of relief efforts, including shelters, search and rescue, medical assistance, distributing donations, clearing debris, and rebuilding.
Volunteers are on the last flight in before a storm and the first flight in after. They arrive wearing cargo pants and steel-toed boots and set up their operations to help those in need. Local volunteers—often survivors of the disaster themselves—turn churches into shelters and parking lots into donation distribution sites.
Since the pandemic began, several disasters have unfolded around the country. In each community a similar scenario seems to arise that differs from the traditional “mass assault.” There has still been an immediate local response as people spontaneously volunteer and local organizations help, but there are notably fewer volunteers and sometimes not enough.
Greg Forrester, the president of National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, told the New York Times that he expects disaster volunteer numbers to decline by 50%. When the Times asked how disaster nonprofits can meet the needs of survivors with so few volunteers he said, “[y]ou won’t.” The Federal Emergency Management Agency recognizes the issue, too, writing in its guidance for the 2020 hurricane season that alternative shelter staffing options should be considered as volunteers may be unavailable.
Volunteerism is built into the U.S. approach to disaster management. For example, the recovery system expects individuals to use their own resources such as savings and insurance first while limiting government assistance through FEMA and Small Business Administration assistance and loans. Those sources of financial support are inevitably inadequate for many survivors, though. The nonprofit sector, often fueled by volunteers, tries to fill the gap. When the formal nonprofit sector fails to meet those needs, survivors and other volunteers rely on mutual aid.
Today, 45.7 million Americans have filed for unemployment, government aid is not enough, and disaster nonprofits are unable to keep up with every community. This suggests there may be a growing reliance on mutual aid. Grassroots, mutual aid, and other types of informal efforts have always been part of the response to disasters, especially in marginalized communities that the government system fails to help. Aritst and journalist Molly Crabapple referred to this phenomenon in post-Maria Puerto Rico as DIY disaster relief.
Even before the pandemic, the intensity of disasters has taken a toll on volunteers. I first heard an executive director of a national disaster nonprofit use the term “volunteer fatigue” in 2016 during the Tax Day Flood in Texas. Houston and surrounding areas had just flooded for the second time in less than a year (a sign of climate change and development decisions).
At first, it seemed like the usual volunteer pattern had emerged. Volunteers came to help for the immediate response and stayed through the early days of the recovery. As local volunteers needed to return to work, out-of-state volunteers came to take their place. They donned hazmat suits and respirators and tore through mold-covered sheetrock as the Texas summer heat rose over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 degrees Celsius). Around kitchen tables, locals worked on long-term plans to break the cycle of floods.
Yet, something seemed off.
While there were volunteers, they had not arrived with the force that the previous disaster research would lead us to expect. There is always a slowdown in volunteering as communities shift from response to recovery, but in Texas, organizations were scrambling to find volunteers much earlier than they had needed to in the past. It was far from a “mass assault.”
Disaster nonprofits and local emergency managers theorized that Texas had experienced so many floods in such a short time that people could not keep volunteering with the same vigor as in previous disasters. But it turns out it wasn’t just Texas. Disaster fatigue was a national problem.
That same summer, a no-name, massive rainstorm left Louisiana flooded so severely that it required the largest mobilization of aid since Sandy. By the fall, Hurricane Matthew had flooded the East Coast. Recoveries from other disasters were still underway in many states including Michigan, West Virginia, and New Jersey. Key disaster organizations seemed overwhelmed by the number of disasters and were put in a position to choose which communities to help and which would be on their own.
The volunteer fatigue dating back to 2016 hasn’t seemed to let up. In the past four years, the U.S. has had one multibillion-dollar disaster after another, and volunteers have struggled to keep pace. Hurricanes like Harvey, Irma, Maria, Florence, Michael, and Dorian have devastated communities up and down the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts. Wildfires have broken records and consumed towns throughout the West, hitting California particularly hard. Dozens of smaller disasters happened across the country. Each disaster brought new communities in need of recovery help and threw thousands of survivors into this complex, already insufficient web of disaster relief and continued the disaster fatigue.
Then the pandemic came, activating every emergency management agency in the country simultaneously for the first time ever. Shockwaves have rippled across disaster nonprofits. Some activated quickly to help with the pandemic response while others paused operations because they could not do their work safely. Recovery in communities hit by recent disasters came to a halt as volunteers had to return home. In North Carolina, some survivors struggled with stay-at-home orders as their homes had not yet been rebuilt two years after Hurricane Florence. Local groups like food pantries rushed to meet the dramatic effects of the economic crisis. Individuals re-activated, re-tooled, or created new mutual aid networks across the country to organize grocery delivery for elderly neighbors and help displaced college students.
The disasters the U.S. has faced so far during this pandemic have been relatively small in size and geographically confined. While that in no way diminishes the pain and destruction they have caused, it is an important distinction from a management perspective. They have required a smaller scale response compared to events the size of a Harvey or Maria. So, there are still unknowns about what will happen when a big disaster inevitably hits.
Volunteers now face the risk of becoming sick themselves or transmitting coronavirus to those they are trying to help. The pandemic also raises a host of logistical challenges like whether to fly volunteers into the affected community. Organizations need to figure out how to care for sick volunteers, particularly in communities where their health care infrastructure has been destroyed in the disaster. If volunteers don’t come though, communities may be forced to manage complicated responses and long-term recoveries on their own. These issues may not be insurmountable, but they do complicate volunteer efforts.
There is, perhaps, some good news. In the aftermath of disasters, organizations and local aid groups may come together to collaborate or coordinate their efforts. To the extent these relationships have formed during the response to the pandemic they could be in a particularly flexible position to be able to shift gears to other disasters. In fact, this theory is supported by the emergence of mutual aid efforts related to the protests against police violence. At the very least, these groups already have a system in a place for dispersing aid and connections to funding support.
The responses to the pandemic and the protests suggest people will still come to each other’s aid, even when it is inconvenient and unsafe to do so, but there is also evidence that the force of help we rely on in times of disaster may not be as powerful as we need.
While part of this problem is unique to the pandemic, much of it is not. As the climate crisis accelerates and the risk of weather disasters increases, there will be more people and communities in need. This problem is here to stay, and we need a plan for how to help disaster survivors across the country.
Samantha Montano is an assistant professor of emergency management and disaster science at University of Nebraska Omaha. She has a doctoral degree in emergency management and writes at Disaster-ology.