What to Know About Volunteering After a Natural Disaster

Tacloban City Sign, by Alison Baskerville


GoAbroad Founder, Troy Peden, offers firsthand advice about volunteering in the aftermath of a natural disaster. His advice will help those hoping to help do it safely and responsibly.


1. You witnessed the full cycle of a natural disaster: the preparation, actual storm, immediate aftermath, and now the need for help and rebuilding. What was your role in all of this?

I happened to be there in the right/wrong place. We helped out where we could like most people would do in the same situation. We had the unique advantage of having some resources, including a vehicle, that was not damaged during the typhoon. We had access to food, water, fuel, and cash which allowed us to do quite a bit to help in the immediate aftermath.

Each day we set out from our campus with a short list of things that needed to be done (distribute food to a village, locate a missing person, get someone to a relief clinic, etc). Throughout the day we would find more tasks, sometimes we would simply stop and pick someone up along the road and transport them or we would assist soldiers. We would arrive back to our place at the end of a long day, sleep, and do it all again the next day.

We were very fortunate to have several people on site who were motivated to help. Elsa Thomasma, my colleague and the driving force behind the typhoon shelter at Cangumbang village, and Sophie Maucourt, a volunteer from France, kept me motivated everyday and worked tirelessly without a complaint. Sophie arrived from Paris almost immediately after the typhoon, she was the only volunteer query I accepted in the first weeks because I had worked with her before and knew she was a hard worker with an incredible attitude. She had volunteered in the Philippines and India before. Elsa was in Tacloban during the storm and refused to leave every time I begged her to go. It wasn’t until weeks after the typhoon under pressure from her family that she decided to take a break. She didn’t stay away long and is still there.


Debris Remains in Tacloban, Philippines

2. Many people want to go to the location as soon as they hear about the disaster. Why is this problematic?

A United Nations staff member told me that they sometimes refer to the early volunteers as SUVs (Spontaneous Uninvited Volunteers). There were many volunteers in the early days with very specific skills who did some incredible things. Mammoth Medical Missions from California arrived within days, set up a makeshift clinic at the mayor’s office in the town of Tanauan and carried out countless operations, amputations, and other thankless but critical needs. Another group called Team Rubicon made up of war veterans were on the ground within days and immediately helping.

I also witnessed volunteers who came with great intentions, but had very specific agendas and needs. Those volunteers were sometimes a drain on local resources as they had specific housing needs or certain things they wanted to do. If you do volunteer in a disaster area, you should bring with you everything you need so that no local critical relief supplies are used for you. In our case, that would be mosquito netting, power bars, sleeping bag, candles, etc. Volunteer should come with the attitude that they are ready to do what is needed not what they want to do. Sometimes doctors build field latrines and sometimes engineers carry stretchers.


3. Volunteering vs. volunteering after a disaster are both challenging, but also incredibly different. What are three things that someone looking to volunteer in the wake of a natural disaster needs to know?

  • Be ready to do anything and everything.

A typical non-disaster volunteer placement allows people to choose a placement in their field. Disaster relief requires an all hands attitude.

  • It’s Not Flashy.

Media coverage of disasters is full of images of children be pulled from rubble and firemen carrying pets from burning buildings. The “assisting survivors from immediate danger” trauma phase lasts for a couple weeks at most. The drudgery of rebuilding a community takes a long time and is what most volunteers are engaged in. At times, volunteers will be working in settings where they forget there was a disaster as the rubble has been removed, but the rebuilding goes on for months or even years.

  • Know Your Limits.

In the immediate weeks after a disaster, you need to think about your mental health. Days are long and hard, living conditions are uncomfortable, and you witness things that are unspeakably tragic. Every volunteer should be ready to take a couple days off every two or three weeks to recharge and reflect. I am in contact with journalists who are still processing what they experienced; many of the volunteers I encountered became burned out quickly.


Makeshift Supply Tent After Typhoon Haiyan

4. What are the typical volunteer living situations like right now in Tacloban City, Philippines?

The volunteers are living much like they did prior to the storm. They are typically staying in homestays. There are small differences, many of the families still do not have electricity or running water. Internet is limited, electrical brownouts are more common even where electricity is available.


5. I’ve heard that no matter who you are, or what you’ve been through, everyone reaches a breaking point when volunteering in a situation like post-Typhoon Haiyan. Did this happen to you? Can it be avoided?

Yes, it happened to me. I consider myself a bit of a calloused Midwesterner. I learned most of my attitudes about feelings and emotions from my high school football coach. In the aftermath of the storm, there was no time to consider what we were seeing or hearing, you just had to roll up your sleeves and do whatever needed to be done. The first time I was out of Tacloban for more than a day (after a month) I think it all hit me.

I didn’t have problems with the corpses as we lived and worked among them for weeks.

The challenging part for me was hearing firsthand the unspeakable tragedies – people who lost every single family member, children who witnessed horrific scenes, a father who lost grip of his child in the water, or survivors who clung to trees while their family members were swept away. These people will live with these few hours of this storm and the resulting pain for the rest of their lives. I have had a difficult time finding the moral in these stories, imagining the relief for these people or figuring out the positive ending that might come with a disaster story in a Hollywood film.


6. What is a healthy and useful amount of time to volunteer?

I think in the first couple months after a disaster, volunteers should limit themselves to two to three weeks depending on the intensity of their role. In the case of the Philippines now, I believe volunteers can come as long as they like, many have come for six months or more.


7. Volunteers are there to help others, but they also need to take care of themselves. What is the most important thing to remember?

As I mentioned volunteers should take a day or two off every few weeks to rest and recharge. I also think initial volunteers should be prepared for re-entry culture shock. Continuing with fundraising or communicating your story with people after your volunteer experience is a good way to stay connected with your project after you return home. Being at ground zero is a bit like visiting Auschwitz or the Killing Fields of Cambodia, it’s going to be depressing and it will leave you somber for a bit, but there is some benefit in witnessing and understanding the tragedy. Witnessing these things is what helps us prepare for future disasters.


8. What are the best and worst aspects of volunteering after a disaster?

It’s hard for me to say that there is a “best” thing. I guess I would say that volunteers can bring a moment of relief to victims and they can help them on the road to recovery which feels good. Volunteers can face incredible challenges and they may experience some satisfaction in meeting those challenges. There is opportunity for innovation in addressing issues. We have connected with Architects for Humanity and they have some very interesting ideas on how to improve survival in future typhoons.


Child in Tacloban City, PH


9. Some see rebuilding a developing nation after some sort of natural disaster as controversial. It raises issues about the quality of rebuilding, making things better than they were, preparing the area for next time, corrupt governments, and more. Did you witness this?

I was definitely conflicted about many things I saw and experienced with the relief efforts. Listening to relief operatives talk about the financial aspects and people as units or clients was a bit strange, but I also understand that is the way it works. I was with some international relief individuals in a community and one of the people became obsessed with building a handrail on the staircase in the community center because it posed a danger to the children. While I agree it wasn’t ideal, a glance up from the staircase revealed that the kids were living in stagnant water full of animal corpses, with dengue fever occurring in the area, many had not eaten in days, and most were focused on getting a tarp to keep them dry from the constant rains. Often the relief agents were unaware of the pre-disaster culture or conditions which handicapped them in assisting with the relief.

While there were definitely plenty of opportunists taking advantage of the local situation I also witnessed many individuals, politicians included, going beyond the call of duty and giving their time and resources wholly to the effort.


Volunteer Bandages a Small Boy

10. Another controversial issue is that many people are concerned about giving so much aid to another country when the U.S. has its own problems. What’s your view on this?

Over the years, I have fielded this question many times and I still haven’t formulated a great answer. My feeling is if you want to donate to a U.S. charity do so, if you want to donate to an international relief organization then do that. The most important difference for me is the impact the donation will have. Having worked with nonprofits in the U.S., I believe there are rare cases where the lack of donations was a matter of life and death. In the case of the Philippines, in the first months, every penny we had bought food and water. We literally would buy thousands of cans of tuna in northern Samar to deliver to Leyte (separate islands), with the last cans being paid for with remaining change one-by-one. Some people didn’t eat when we ran out of money. The situation is obviously different now, but basic shelter for a family can cost a couple thousand U.S. dollars.


11. What are the best ways to help without leaving home?

I know that many of these international relief organizations are huge operations and people may not feel like their donations are being utilized on the ground. If that is your concern, I suggest contributing to a smaller foundation or NGO where the use of your funds will be very immediate and obvious.

People are still a long way from recovery. Hundreds of thousands of people are living under tarps or in tents. Most areas still do not have electricity. Many of our colleagues and friends have contracted dengue fever or other ailments related to the conditions. People are just starting to understand the need for counseling assistance and psychological health needs. There is plenty to be done. I would urge readers who are up for the challenge to join a relief operation like our sister organization Volunteer of the Visayans, a group like All Hands Volunteers, or one of the dozens of other NGOs on the ground. If volunteering in post disaster conditions is not a good fit, I urge the readers to donate and keep the victims in their thoughts.

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