Katrina Gives me a Change of Plans



Over this year, some people have asked me, “Why do you seek to work for an international organization when there are so many problems that need to be solved inside the US?” It is a good question, and until Hurricane Katrina, my answer was, “I choose to work overseas because the US has enough good people, who can’t leave their families and work overseas, and who time and again give their time inside the US.”

Clearly, it doesn’t make sense for me to stick to the game plan and apply to Doctors Without Borders right now; the need for relief work inside the country is too great right now to justify applying to work outside it.

Next Wednesday, I will say goodbye to San Pedro la Laguna and travel to Guatemala City. I will meet the director of Planeta en Línea there. After seeing him and taking in the Guatemala vs. USA World Cup qualifying game (my last entertainment for a while) I will head toward Cancun to catch a flight home to the US. I should arrive in Oakland before 9/15. When I arrive there I will contact my chapter of the American Red Cross, where I was trained in January, and sign up to be sent to the relief operation. I will likely arrive in a wave of volunteers timed to relieve the first wave, who is scheduled to work three weeks. I will work at least three weeks with Red Cross, and probably longer.

What Can I Do?

If you are reading this right now and are asking yourself how you can help, I have to respond like all the experts on TV do. Find an organization that you trust to spend your money wisely and give them money. Cold hard cash. Give a bit now, give a bit later when you can afford it again and when the headlines have moved back to Michael Jackson.

I know it feels better to give time and posessions than it does to give money. Giving of your time is useful, but nothing is more useful than money. The reason is that money moves at the speed of light to the disaster. There are no logisitical nightmares in trying to move money. All money works equally well (as opposed to some foods, which might be inappropriate in the community they reach), it doesn’t need to be cleaned first (like clothes do), and it isn’t the wrong kind (like building materials can be).

Unless you happened to have put in the time beforehand to get the training you need to know how to be helpful, money is the only way you can help. If you hate that answer as much as I did the first time I heard it, then use it as motivation to go down to your Red Cross chapter (or another organization you trust more than the Red Cross, I don’t care) and get the training you need before the next hurricane.

If you are hell-bent on giving your time (in addition to money), there will be a huge backlog of paperwork to do to keep up with the donations that are arriving right now. It’s no fun, and not much of an adventure, but organizations will need ofice workers in droves soon too.

A Tough Decision

This has been a tough decision. About the same time Hurricane Katrina hit, I discovered a volunteering opportunity in New York with MSF that would have been a perfect chance to turn in my application and score some brownie points. Even that opportunity was going to require me to leave Guatemala early, interrupting both my Spanish studies and the term I committed to here.

I started talking with the director about it, and he gave me “permission” to leave early. But as the scale of the effects of Katrina on the US grew, I was unsure of the right thing to do. I literally had a half a sleepless night pondering it, and anyone who knows how well I normally sleep should understand how much trouble I was having thinking it over.

But the deciding factor was the question I mentioned above. The question boils down to a moral one. I believe I have a responsibility to my local and national community before the wider international community. Normally that responsibility is offset by the relatively small scale of the problems in the United States, and by the energy of my fellow citizens to attack them. But right now, for (hopefully) this one time, that balance is thrown out of whack. The problems the people in the south are facing are so severe that my international plans had to go on hold.


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