2017 Disaster Relief Volunteer Work—Hurricane Recovery, with Refugees, & More

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GoAbroad gives you up-to-date information that affects every disaster response volunteer

In times of crisis, it is only natural that individuals feel a surge of generosity and desire to help however possible. It’s no surprise that Google search results flood with increased searches like “disaster response volunteer,” “Syrian refugee volunteer,” or “hurricane relief volunteer opportunities.” The impulse to give is real when you see others suffering. Becoming a disaster response volunteer is the natural manifestation of that gush of kindness. 

But—is it the best way to spend your resources, like your time and money? How can we ensure that we are responsibly and effectively putting ourselves out there as a disaster relief volunteer? 

That’s what we’re here to support. We know you’ve got your heart at the ready, but we want to make sure your brain and body can catch up too. That’s why we’ve put together this list of ways for you to get involved with disaster relief volunteer work, including everything you need to know to make the decision that’s best for you.

Hurricane view from above

Jump into the eye of the storm and become a hurricane relief volunteer

Are my skills needed? Is now a good time to volunteer?

Disaster relief volunteer programs are essential to helping destroyed communities get back on their feet; however, it is imperative that in the immediate aftermath of disaster, primarily skilled volunteers make their way to the disaster zone to provide help. Specifically, medical volunteers are often needed to account for the increased workload in hospitals, clinics, and amongst other survivors.

If you also have technical skills, engineering skills, or construction skills, your knowledge can be put to good use as various infrastructures are rebuilt. Disaster relief volunteers can often fill the need for both extra hands and knowledge gaps.

For those of us who simply want to help and give back, but are relatively unskilled (i.e. have only picked up a hammer once or twice in their life, etc.), we generally recommend that you hold tight to your impulse of compassion but don’t act on it just yet. 

As GoAbroad rock star Erin Oppenheim put it,

Experts typically recommend giving funds to groups working on the ground and advise against traveling there to help. Instead, sincerely weigh the benefit of that $300 to $1,000 plane ticket as a potential donation (or for a donation amount of equal or lesser value). However, for those skilled individuals who have the time to offer their service, volunteer contributions to disaster relief in Haiti can be helpful and fruitful.”

Understanding your overall contributions to the actual project—helping individuals in sometimes severe desolation—will help you assess whether or not now is the time to physically volunteer in the disaster zone. 

Do I need disaster relief volunteer training?

Regardless of your skills (even if they are, for example, medical), you should absolutely seek training in emergency assistance in disaster operations prior to seeking disaster relief volunteer work.

These courses typically cost between $75-$200 and run at various times throughout the year. Heavy hitters in the world of disaster response volunteer management often conduct the courses, such as Crisis Response International (CRI), the American Red Cross, and the Salvation Army. You’ll need to search for disaster relief volunteer training opportunities based on your geographic location.

Courses cover a variety of topics beyond basic first aid and CPR training, such as incident management, food service, emotional and spiritual care. You can even find disaster relief volunteer training sessions at differing levels—we generally recommend starting with the beginner course and continuing your education based on your experiences actually doing the disaster relief volunteer work.

storm on the coast

Disaster relief volunteer programs can connect you with meaningful projects in struggling cities

Where can you become a disaster relief volunteer? 

Nowhere is exempt from the potential of natural disasters. When you sit down and start thinking harder where you’d like to volunteer in disaster relief, consider this:

Find disaster relief volunteer work at home

Many countries fall prey to Mother Nature or political crisis at one point or another—does that currently include your fellow countrymen? Instead of seeking international disaster relief volunteer opportunities, it might be worthwhile to see how you can give back around the corner as a volunteer in natural disaster relief in your homeland. Extending a friendly hand to neighbors who are suffering (even if they’re thousands of miles away) can be a rewarding and impactful experience. Who knows—you might be the one in need in the future.

International disaster relief volunteer opportunities 

Yes, you can absolutely volunteer in disaster relief abroad. This can be an incredible opportunity to support humanitarian aid efforts for countries and societies that aren’t as wealthy or don’t have the means to rebound quickly. Do keep in mind that air travel to crisis destinations could put an additional strain on resources that would otherwise be allocated towards supplies like food and water. 

International relief volunteer opportunities are often best coordinated by disaster relief volunteer organizations or local nonprofits.

Types of disaster relief volunteer programs

Disaster relief volunteer programs can look a variety of ways—not only are their different program foci (such as natural disaster or food insecurity), there are also different roles that individuals can play as a disaster relief volunteer. Read on to learn the differences.

Volunteer in Natural Disaster Relief

Natural disaster relief is the most common form of disaster relief volunteer opportunities. Natural disasters can be served up in a variety of ways, but the most common types of 

  • Hurricane relief volunteer programs help victims of hurricanes rebuild homes, streets, water systems, power systems, etc. Volunteers are also needed to help maintain some normalcy in others’ lives, such as running classrooms or after school programs.
  • Tornado relief volunteer opportunities might not sound too common, but there are plenty of programs out there that work with unexpectedly homeless people on account of tornadoes.

Other ways to volunteer in natural disaster relief often arise after earthquakes, typhoons, disease outbreaks, etc. Under the scope of natural disaster volunteer relief, you can find both emergency management volunteer opportunities or join a disaster action team.

Political Crisis or Refugee Volunteering

Not all disasters are due to nature’s fury—in fact, political turmoil or economic upheaval can likewise lead to mass disaster situations. That’s why there are plenty of ways for you to volunteer with refugees. Organizations that help refugees are always in need of more hands to support ongoing admin of managing intake and supporting families through the traumatic time. Notably, there are currently many opportunities to work as a Syrian refugee volunteer or volunteer at a Syrian refugee camp. Volunteering with refugees takes a lot of heart-work and compassion, as oftentimes the tasks are simple but the emotional toll great.

Emergency Management Volunteer Opportunities

There are many opportunities to join your local Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) through FEMA in the U.S. These volunteers are the first on deck to coordinate the entire emergency response, including management of resources such as supplies and help. Essentially, emergency management volunteer opportunities exist for folks who want to develop plans to help citizens and communities cope in the face of hazards and natural disasters. Like puppeteers, but with more effective outcomes.

Disaster Response Volunteer Work

Disaster response volunteer work can look a lot of ways—you might spend the morning distributing food, you might be working with a team to secure temporary shelters, or generally providing comfort to families amidst crisis. Disaster action teams are typically supervised by emergency managers and do the work immediately necessary at the time of volunteering.

kids with school supplies, like chalk

Aid can look a lot of ways when you volunteer in disaster relief abroad

Disaster relief volunteer organizations: Good guys or bad?

Disaster relief volunteer organizations are the experts in providing support and services immediately following any crisis—typhoons, famine, asylum seekers, and more. These folks should be your go-to resource for information on the current status, as well as for information organizations or initiatives to donate your money to (if you’d like to participate financially).

Unfortunately, the sad truth is that not all disaster relief volunteer organizations are trustworthy. Yes, there are creeps out there who seize the opportunity to make a quick buck off the generosity of others’ compassion. They’re called “charity frauds” and they’re pure evil! That’s why it’s important that you, would-be volunteer in disaster relief or would-be donator to disaster relief funds, do due diligence in sizing up disaster relief volunteer organizations.

Here’s what to look for in trustworthy disaster relief volunteer organizations. You should not be afraid to inquire where your funds are directly going, or which project they will be distributed to. If you have a specific preference of how to spend your money, be sure to indicate it well in advance as well as follow up with the organization to confirm its spending. Ensure the organization’s track record shows confidence from past donators as to where funds are allocated or spent—this can be done easily by searching “<org name> reviews” quick on Google, or by referencing their social media channels. DO NOT give funds solicited by email or phone, especially without first seeking and reviewing the organization’s website.

Reliable disaster relief volunteer organizations

If you would like to donate financial gifts or supplies in the wake of disaster, these international organizations are tried-and-true:

  • Samaritan's Purse 
  • Catholic Charities 
  • Operation Blessing 
  • Salvation Army 
  • United Methodist Committee on Relief 
  • Episcopal Relief and Development 
  • The Red Cross 
  • World Vision

Remember: in a time of great need—typically the first few weeks following a disaster—it can oftentimes be MORE beneficial for you to donate money to organizations with their boots on the ground than to pack your bags and travel there yourself.

2017 Disasters

Hurricanes and tropical storms

Hurricane Harvey, Texas and Louisiana, USA—September 2017. This Category 4 Atlantic hurricane that lead to more than 40 inches of rainfall and lead to severe flooding, notably in Houston. Hundreds of thousands of homes were besieged, and 30,000+ individuals were displaced.

Hurricane Irma, the Caribbean—September 2017. Residents of Cape Verde, Barbuda, Saint Barthelemy, Saint Martin, the Virgin Islands, Greater Antilles, Turks and Caicos Islands, The Bahamas, and the Eastern United States (especially Florida) were greeted with an unwelcome category 5 hurricane in mid-September 2017. 

  • Help.
  • Give.

Hurricane Maria, the Caribbean—September 2017. This hurricane has been described as “the tenth-most intense Atlantic hurricane on record, the worst natural disaster in Dominica in its recorded history, and the strongest hurricane to make landfall in Puerto Rico since 1928.” 

  • Help.
  • Give.

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Earthquakes

Chiapas, Mexico—September 7, 2017. Magnitude 8.1 earthquake shook Mexico to its core, trembling buildings all the way in the capital. It also prompted a tsunami more than five feet above sea level. More than 60 people lost their lives during this natural disaster.

Central Mexico—September 19, 2017. This 7.1 earthquake caused 40+ buildings to collapse and killed 370 people across Puebla, Morelos, and the greater Ciudad de México area.

person looking at a map

Find a place in need and become a disaster response volunteer. Just go!

Droughts

Somalian drought of 2017. Somalia is in a deep, on going state of food insecurity, facing food shortages and undrinkable water for more than half of its population. More than 100 people have died from the famine.

  • Help.
  • Donate.

Floods

China—June 2017. More than eight provinces in the red crescent were impacted by rising waters in some of its major lakes and river systems, notably Yangtze River, Zhujiang River, Dongting Lake, and Poyang Lake. Nearly 20,000 houses were destroyed.

South Asia—August 2017. Widespread monsoon flooding and landslides affected more than 41 million people across Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, and India. Long term food security in the region is a concern due to ruined farmlands.

  • Help.
  • Give.

Tornadoes and severe storms

United States—January 2017. With 16 deaths, it’s no surprise that the tornado that engulfed the US’ Southeast has been named the deadliest January day for tornadoes in 48 years.

Wildfires

Chile—January 2017. The worst wildfires in Chile’s history ravaged the country for two straight days, killing 11 and displacing thousands.

Portugal—June 2017. Four wildfires rapid-fire erupted in Central Portugal in the summer of 2017, killing 64 and injuring more than 200 people.

Northern California, USA—October 2017. Tubbs Fire erupted unexpectedly and is feared to destroy 20,000+ acres of land in Sonoma and Napa counties in California. Multiple fatalities are expected.*

  • Donate.
  • Help.

*GoAbroad will continue to update our information as more becomes available.

Volunteer in disaster relief abroad or at home—your help is needed

person helping another

Helping one another is essential to our collective human experience

Sacrificing your time to contribute to causes much greater than can even be fathomed by outsiders is worthwhile. Provided you have a pulse on the situation and have taken stock of what you can actually give with your current skills set, we salute intrepid individuals off to do disaster relief volunteer work.

Editorial note: GoAbroad will continue to update this article as more crises arise. 😰  Check back for further updates.

Get involved—Find disaster relief volunteer programs now

Topic:  Before You Go