They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And the saying — or some variation of it — is often true. Newtown was already in a living hell after the Dec. 14, 2012, massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Unfortunately, well wishers who wanted to help the town heal made its agony even worse.
The words of Newtown First Selectwoman Pat Llodra, who spoke before the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission last week, confirmed the sentiments of so many disaster-relief specialists, fundraising professionals, and family therapists.
For obvious reasons, small towns are ill-equipped to deal with disasters and what follows. Even large cities, such as New York on 9/11, struggle mightily when catastrophe strikes. So Newtown’s ability to cope during the mass shooting and in the immediate aftermath were to be expected.
But unbeknownst to the layman, a larger logistical problem awaited. No, I’m not talking so much about grief counseling or about the gaping hole left in a family whose six-year-old has been executed by a mad gunman.
After tragedy strikes, good people want to step forward and help. Most have no idea how to go about doing it, but they know they want to make a difference. Cash seems too impersonal, so they want to send items. This contributes to what relief workers call the “disaster after the disaster.”
The logistics of sending, receiving, and distributing the donated items are often problematic. And the donor’s choice of items to send aren’t necessarily responsive to the most pressing needs demanded by the disaster.
For every Walmart sending truckloads of badly needed bottled water to hurricane victims, there’s thousands of individual donors trying to send blankets to earthquake victims in tropical Haiti or still more who want to travel to the scene to offer their personal or professional services.
Furthermore, sending items is often a poor use of resources. Transporting and distributing a simple can of donated food, for example can cost $15 to $25. So ask yourself: Is there a better way to give after a disaster? The answer is quite simple, if less satisfying: cash.
An unrestricted cash gift allows relief agencies to marshal scarce resources, determine the greatest need, obtain goods and services locally and allocate them where needed. This is simple common sense, but too often donors either don’t consider it or they mistakenly think their case of chicken soup will get there faster and help more people than a check for $100.
Consider the donations that came pouring in to wealthy Newtown after the massacre: 65,000 stuffed teddy bears, hundreds of backpacks, books, sneakers, candles and other gifts — most of which were simply unneeded and were either thrown away or given away to the deserving outside of Newtown.
Dozens of mental health professionals descended on the town to offer their services, but overwhelmed town officials had no way of vetting their credentials. Town Hall received more than 200,000 pieces of mail and was getting about 6,000 phone calls a week after the shooting. Four town department heads and their staffs worked full-time to deal with these issues.
The normal business of town government all but ground to a halt and was in danger of collapse. Things got so bad that General Electric, which employs about 150 Newtown residents, sent four executives over to town hall to help with the logistics of organizing and allocating the generosity.
In Newtown’s case, there were problems even with cash gifts. A total of 77 organizations collected more than $28 million with about $13 million yet to be distributed, angering some of the families who wondered why the remaining funds were being held and leaving what Selectman Llodra called “a permanent fracture in the community.”
The situation was reminiscent of a close-nit family coping well with the death of a patriarch, only to argue hurtfully over how the money was divided in his last will and testament.
It looks like the problem was that cash wasn’t really the main obstacle to dealing effectively with the Sandy Hook tragedy. It was the sheer size of the afflicted who needed help coping with the violent loss of loved ones as the holidays were approaching. It was the pervasive and sometimes intrusive presence of a news media that insisted on hanging around for weeks on end covering funerals, trespassing on survivors’ property, and interviewing the gunman’s barber, among other transgressions.
Perhaps the best thing that came out of the Newtown affair is Llodra’s suggestion that the state, independent of the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, conduct a full review of her town’s response to the shootings. And to that I would add: a concerted effort to educate donors that good intentions can make things worse.
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