How to help after hurricane or tornado

The Baltimore Sun

When disaster strikes -- a hurricane, wildfire, tornado or flood -- well-meaning individuals often want to do help but don't know how. Should they send clothes? Money? Food? Should they just show up, hammer in hand, willing to work?

Disaster News Network, a nonprofit Internet publication based in Columbia, has the answers.

DNN provides detailed information about disaster recovery efforts, mostly in the United States, with information about what is needed and how people can help.

The site also posts about 10 original articles and photos each week of recent disasters and relief efforts. James Skillington, executive director of Village Life Co., which owns DNN, said the network's focus is on disaster recovery efforts from the faith-based community.

"Once you get past the initial response, it's the faith-based community that provides long-term support," he said. "Part of our goal is to help people respond in an appropriate manner."

"I always tell people we report on community- and faith-based response to disasters," said Heather Moyer, who has been a staff writer for DNN for three years. "We do a lot more long-term follow-up, so people know what the needs are."

Skillington, an ordained Methodist minister, said Village Life was started in 1996 by an interfaith group in the Baltimore area as the "first social justice e-zine on the Web." It reported on issues such as teen pregnancy, assisted suicide and racial inequality, and "it also reported how the faith community was responding to disasters," he said.

The focus shifted in 1997 to disasters and the responses of the faith-based community. The company began in a small office in Oella, then moved to Jessup before settling in Columbia about three years ago, Skillington said.

Skillington noted that the Internet made connecting to a wide audience easier than in the past. DNN gives faith-based organizations a venue to ask for help, as well as an outlet for their often inspiring stories. And it helps disaster-recovery groups communicate with each other, he said.

Technology also allows editor P.J. Heller, who lives in California, to do most of his work from the other side of the country, though he travels to Columbia when necessary, he said.

Heller noted that Hurricane Katrina changed the public perception of disasters, helping people realize that the problems don't go away when the mainstream news media moves on to the next story. DNN continues to report on disasters until the last volunteer goes home, said Skillington.

The company is funded through disaster response organizations and has a board of directors representing faith organizations around the country, he said. "The news, while it is faith-based, is factual," Skillington said. "We provide education to the public, and we lift up the volunteers," he said.

The network does not typically cover wars or violent incidents. Recent articles were about tornadoes in Oklahoma, flooding in Haiti and college students volunteering on the hurricane-damaged Gulf Coast over spring break.

"A disaster for our purposes is a situation that requires outside intervention, aid from the outside," said Skillington. Both 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina put DNN workers in overdrive, posting as many as nine new articles a day in the immediate aftermath.

Village Life also recently introduced DNN radio, an audio Web site that offers podcasts from disaster-response organizations.

The Disaster Volunteers portion of DNN features a database of continuing relief efforts, with information about how to help. That section also has several articles about how not to help.

One article, "The Trouble with Trousers," notes that clothing donations are often more of a burden than a help because sorting and distributing clothes takes so much effort, and because clothing can take up space needed for more important supplies, such as food and water.

"People who really want to help need to find out what is actually needed and how to send it," the article notes. "The Salvation Army, the American Red Cross and other relief agencies usually ask for specific items. If an item hasn't been requested, say disaster response officials, don't send it."

DNN highlights good work and success stories, as well as continuing needs. Moyer, who writes a blog about recovery efforts in addition to news articles, said she enjoys hearing from volunteers who "become addicted" to helping.

Disaster News Network is at 9195C Red Branch Road, Columbia. 410-884-7350.

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