This week, I have the rare fortune to be attending Disaster Forum, a conference for emergency preparedness and response professionals.

I know that many, many people are moved to give when disaster strikes, like the recent events in Japan, Hurricane Katrina, the Southeast Asian Tsunami, etc.  Being here surrounded by the people who specialize in these kinds of events has got me thinking about what the best thing is for the average person to do when emergencies happen.

The most popular and intuitive option, of course, is to give money for relief as quickly as possible after major emergencies occur.  This can be difficult, as in the heat of the moment it’s very difficult to pick the right charity, for a number of reasons. 

But the complexity of giving smart to relief efforts isn’t really the reason it’s not my favourite option.  The truth of the matter is, there’s a better way.  Check it out:

Here are some stats on the Japan crisis of March 2011:

  • Magnitude of earthquake:  9.0
  • Population density of Japan: 336 people per square kilometre
  • Number of deaths: 14,949

Contrasted with the Haiti earthquake that occured about a year earlier:

  • Magnitude of earthquake: 7.0
  • Population density of Haiti: 292 people per square kilometre
  • Number of deaths: 316,000

To me, that is a mind blowing contrast.  Haiti had a milder quake, no accompanying tsunami, lower population density, and well over twenty-one TIMES the deaths!  That is so appalling as to be nearly incredible.

But no amount of disaster relief would have made a bit of difference to these numbers.  This was a foregone conclusion before the slightest vibration was felt.  Why?

Because of preparedness.  Being ready for a disaster always, in every case, without a single exception, saves more lives than relief efforts.  I’m not saying there should be no relief efforts; far from it.  What I am saying is that when a disaster happens and you feel compelled to do something, rather than giving to one of many relief efforts of dubious effectiveness, consider the following:

  • The most effective disaster response happens at the local level, so find out from your local authorities about the plan for your area, and how you can best prepare to do your part if the worst happens close to your home.
  • There are charities that work on emergency preparedness, both locally and internationally.  The ones I’m familiar with can use both funds and volunteers.  Consider supporting them, so that they’ll be ready when the time comes.
  • Support public funding of preparedness infrastructure and activities.  Although an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, the prevention is always a harder political sell.
  • If you do feel compelled to give to relief efforts, try to choose an organization that had a presence in the affected area prior to the event, so that they have the necessary local knowledge and relationships to be truly helpful.  Also consider not restricting your gift to that particular disaster.  That way, the professionals can choose to use it where it’s needed most according to their expert opinion.

So there you have it, folks – preparedness is really where it’s at when it comes to saving victims of disaster,  You might say that this approach saves many of them before they ever become victims.