Two weeks ago, Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti hard, devastating the southern end of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
It's hard to look at the photos coming out of Haiti and not be moved to action. But if you're thinking now is the time to hop on a plane and get involved in disaster relief work, groups working on the ground have one piece of advice: pump the brakes.
"Volunteers without the support of an organization are all gasoline, no car," says Juanita Rilling, director of USAID's Center for International Disaster Information. "That's not helping anyone."
Hurting, rather than helping
If you show up in Haiti without the backing of a volunteer organization, you run the risk of making things worse for those you're trying to help.
"Volunteer organizations plan to bring what they need to do their work," says Patricia McIlreavy, vice president of humanitarian policy and practice at InterAction, a nonprofit consortium with member groups working in Haiti. "If you go down there without food or water, you're going to be taking those resources away from Haitians who need that food and water much more desperately than you do."
There are health and safety concerns like cholera, language barriers and — in urgent disaster relief scenarios like this — no time to train newbies or find work for stray volunteers. McIlreavy says those who show up without the proper preparation can hinder the relief efforts.
There are groups that have opportunities for untrained volunteers. Like All Hands, a nonprofit organization that brings volunteers to help with natural disaster clean-up. The group has seen nearly 800 applications from all over the world since the hurricane. But even though they take volunteers with a wide array of skills and experience levels, the group still proceeds very slowly.
"We want to make sure we don't stress these communities further," says Erik Dyson, executive director of All Hands. "We have to balance the desire of people to help with the needs of the community. We want you to come help, but we want you to come in a responsible, thoughtful, organized way."
That means giving priority to volunteers with language skills and experience working in Haiti or other post-disaster relief situations, at least at the beginning.
All Hands is preparing to bring its first group of 15 to 20 volunteers to Haiti in the next week. Gary Pitts, director of international response, has been on the ground since the hurricane, assessing the situation and setting up operations for volunteers once they arrive.
"We always ensure that our volunteers are safe and taken care of, but we also aim to work in areas that have the greatest need — meaning that we too have to live in and adapt to the conditions created by the hurricane," Pitts wrote in an email.
Volunteers will be living under basic conditions, staying in a hotel that was damaged during the hurricane as the owner repairs it. Dyson says they should be prepared to be effectively camping, sleeping on the floor in sleeping bags.
The group tries to ensure that any improvements they make on behalf of the volunteers are also brought to the community they're serving. So as All Hands repairs water infrastructure to protect volunteers from cholera, they'll also be reopening water treatment facilities that serve the region.
Haitians helping Haitians
In general, foreign volunteers may find themselves less in-demand than in past disasters in Haiti. After the 2010 earthquake, a lot of organizations working in the country focused on training citizens to take over the recovery.
Project Medishare, a health organization based in Port-au-Prince, had a steady flow of doctors and nurses volunteering after the earthquake. But they've spent the last six years training Haitians to run the hospital. Even as they work in southern Haiti on hurricane relief, the group will only need a handful of volunteers for a few weeks before turning operations back to local staff.
"We've been inundated with people saying they want to come help, but honestly, we have what we need on the ground right now," says Renee Lewis, executive director of Project Medishare. "We're always reassessing and the situation could change, but we're preparing to scale back to our local staff as soon as possible."
So what can you do?
Before you get on a plane, or donate a pile of old clothes, ask the experts what Haiti really needs right now. Rilling says donations of clothes, food and toys can get in the way of emergency deliveries that organizations have coordinated and often just pile up unused.
Across the board, all the groups interviewed for this story said the same thing: after a disaster, the thing Haiti needs most is cold, hard cash.
"All the good that you want to do can be done with cash donations," says Rilling. "These groups are your hands and feet, working where you want to work. Even just $5 to an organization that you trust will do so much more good than you going out there and being another body to take care of."
If you're still convinced that you want to help on the ground, moving rubble and building houses, there are opportunities out there.
"Go to Denham Springs, Louisiana," says Dyson. "We've been doing disaster recovery work there since the floods this summer, and we've seen volunteer numbers drop off as it has dropped out of the news. If you want to help tomorrow, we can't get you to Haiti. But we can get you helping somewhere."