The Second Disaster: Students Donating After Disasters Bring More Harm Than Good


(Picture from CBS News)

By Donovan Harris

People want to help in the wake of natural disasters but there may be problems.

They donate various items such as clothes, shoes and water in order to make the lives of others better. Donors may assume that their donations will immediately take care of the needy but that is simply not true.

It is a dangerous assumption. It leads to what many experts on the subject of material convergence during disasters have coined the “second disaster.”

Though well-intentioned, there is no place to store unneeded donations or any way for donations to be distributed to the people after a major disaster, according to experts. This creates a logistical nightmare for agencies such as FEMA and the Red Cross doing work on the ground.

There are images of winter coats stacked in Honduran warehouses in the dead of summer after Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Prom dresses, stuffed animals and thousands of cases of bottled water filled warehouses after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 with no way to be distributed to the people.

(Clothes on a basketball court after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Source:

CBS News)

“I can guarantee you that none of the items that people are sending will actually make it to the people,” said Dr. Sarah DeYoung, professor in the College of Public Health.

She took a strong stance against student groups collecting material donations for victims of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Maria and especially student groups collecting infant formula.

DeYoung specializes in infant feeding during emergencies (IYCFE) and traveled to Dallas to meet with Hurricane Harvey evacuees from the Beaumont-Port Arthur area to conduct research on this topic.

“We know that breastfeeding is safer in an emergency because of the lack of access to clean water and protects the infant from infection and contamination,” DeYoung said.

“The biggest problem with infant formula is that if you have a massive, untargeted and unsolicited distribution, several things will happen. The people who are distributing the infant formula aren’t trained in infant feeding. Are they going to check the expiration date? Will they check to see if the infant formula requires water? Too much water can lead to water intoxication and too little water can cause gastrointestinal issues which can kill an infant.”

DeYoung said that if people want to donate to disaster victims, monetary donations are best.

“It’s far more efficient to give cash donations because then groups on the ground can take a proper inventory of the things they need and buy things that are culturally appropriate so you also don’t undermine the

local economy,” DeYoung said.

Georgia Tech student leader Darryl Terry had a different opinion on this issue than DeYoung.

“We should do anything we can to help a community in need. No matter what naysayers think. Even one item may help someone, why shouldn’t we help?” he said.

“We believe that we should help in any way possible. In the future, we may be able to help monetarily but for right now, we want to help those who are in need in the best way we know how.”

DeYoung said she will be meeting with leaders in the Office of Student Affairs in hopes to create a set of more effective and safe guidelines surrounding student donation drives at the University of Georgia.

Important Donation Contacts:

American Red Cross: To donate, visit or call 1-800-RED-CROSS.

The Salvation Army: Visit or call 1-800-725-2769

Fondos Unidos:

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