When you see pictures in the news after a disaster like Hurricane Sandy, many of the images show people lined up to receive food, shelter or medical care. While our eyes naturally focus on the victims, today we’re taking a few minutes to focus on the people helping them, many of whom are volunteers. In honor of National Volunteer Week, we spoke with Mike Yoder, president of the Georgia Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD), about the role that volunteers play before and after a disaster.
Ready Georgia: Why are volunteers important after an emergency?
In the state of Georgia, every disaster is coordinated by the county’s Emergency Management Agency (EMA), and they can be supported by the state and federal levels, depending on the severity of the situation. But EMAs only have so many people to do the work. In addition, it can take time for state and federal resources to become available. Volunteers fill that gap by providing people and resources to help with a variety of tasks immediately after a disaster.
Ready Georgia: What does Georgia VOAD do?
Georgia VOAD is made up of about 25 faith-based and volunteer organizations that work together to help with whatever need there may be. That includes everyone from The Salvation Army and the American Red Cross to groups like Catholic Charities Atlanta and Georgia Baptist Disaster Relief.
After a disaster, we coordinate with state agencies to find out what the need is and which organizations are best equipped to fill that need. We and our partner organizations can provide trained people, resources and funds for relief efforts. We’re not firefighters or EMTs, but we do have volunteers who are trained to support them.
For example, after a disaster, there are typically many people who want to volunteer and help. The EMA can ask our groups to come and set up volunteer reception areas to organize those volunteers and make sure they are sent where they are most needed. Without organization, the response wouldn’t be nearly as effective. Same thing with water, food and other supplies. We have people trained to keep track of the supplies and distribute them properly.
Ready Georgia: How important is it for volunteers to be trained in advance?
It’s very important. Disaster areas can be dangerous, and we want volunteers and victims to be safe, so having people ready in advance who know what to do is crucial. VOAD and our partner organizations have volunteers trained in a variety of skills, whether it’s crowd control, administration, construction or spiritual/mental care. Many groups issue cards to show that people have been trained or certified, and many perform background checks as well. Whatever emergency situation is out there, we have people that can fit the bill.
Ready Georgia: How much of a difference does it make when people are prepared?
It makes a tremendous difference. For example, if they have a three-day supply of water or food, then that’s something we don’t have to worry about immediately, and we can focus our efforts elsewhere. The more people who are prepared for situations like this, the easier it is for everyone to get things back on track. That’s true of businesses, too. I know Ready Georgia has a business continuity guide that can help businesses get prepared.
There’s really just a lot of hurting people in each of these situations, and each of them have their own stories, and they need to be helped. That’s what this whole system is about. We’re dedicated to helping them from right after a disaster hits until two years later when the last piece of sheet rock is hammered in place.
Many people are interested in helping after disasters, but it’s even more helpful if you are trained and prepared in advance. If you would like to get involved in an organization that helps your community respond to emergencies, like a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), visit our Local Emergency Management Links page. You can also find out more information about the organizations Mike mentioned at the Georgia VOAD website.