What To Take With You on a Disaster Relief Trip

Thinking of helping out after Hurricane Michael? Here’s what to bring.

But when hurricanes came, her family home on a barrier island outside Gulf Breeze, Fla., was in the worst place imaginable. Nothing stood between it and Ivan, a Category 3 storm that smashed the Florida panhandle in 2004. After it passed through, there was no high-water mark on the first floor of her house because the storm surge had reached the second.

The people of the Florida panhandle are facing similar peril today as Hurricane Michael bears down on them as a Category 4 storm. The damage is already widespread. If you’re thinking about helping out with the cleanup after Michael—or any storm, for that matter—we applaud you. Here’s what you need to know:

Before traveling to an area hit by a hurricane, check out the websites of local charities, authorities, or the Red Cross to make sure you’re welcome, and to find out what supplies people need most.

Also double-check that roads are passable and you have a vehicle that’s up to the trip. When we tried to reach my friend Jenna’s home, the police would only let you across the bridge to Pensacola Beach with a driver’s license that had a local address on it. Jenna had that, and the officer was apologetic about what he assumed (correctly) was the disastrous state of her home.

Once that’s settled, make sure you bring these items:

Sunblock: In a hurricane, houses lose their roofs and trees lose leaves and branches. That means no shade. Like NO shade. Helping pick up Pensacola Beach was the only time in my life I’ve actually blistered from sunburn. Wear the highest SPF sunscreen you’ve got, and bring some for everyone else, too.

Battery-operated fans/a hat: It is going to be hot. There will not be air conditioning. One of my favorite memories from helping after Ivan is that someone had the good sense to crack open a fire hydrant so people could cool off while dragging parts of people’s homes into piles. But it would have been nice to have one of those little spray fans.

Tools: A shovel, a decent knife, tarps to protect remaining possessions from rain, plastic baggies for small memorabilia, and some contractor bags would all be helpful. Bring a flashlight if you plan to be there after dark.

Close-toed shoes and work gloves: There was glass everywhere. Everywhere.

Easy-to-eat food and lots of water: I think we had some energy bars stashed in the glove box, but we hadn’t thought to bring a full day’s worth of ready-to-eat food. Once we reached the disaster zone, stores were boarded up, and even if you’ve brought cans to donate, there’s honestly not much you can do with them in the immediate aftermath of a huge hurricane. Good luck even finding a can opener. We lucked out and found a Red Cross truck that fed us some (pretty tasty) ravioli, but you shouldn’t count on that.

A spare can of gas/a spare tire: An angel from Eglin Air Force Base saved us from sleeping in the woods outside Interstate 10, but you may not be so lucky.

Cash: When power is out for an extended period, the economy reverts to cash. Make sure you have some, because if you need something and you actually manage to find it, you’ll want to be able to pay for it.

After Ivan, we parked in Jenna’s driveway and walked from house to house, asking people if we could help them pick up debris and put it in trash bags, or shovel out sand, or look for items that could be salvageable and cover them with tarps. It was a sad day, but I was glad to be helping.

On the way home, we passed gas station after gas station with homemade “No Gas” signs before we panicked and pulled over outside Eglin Air Force Base to ask the security staff if they could help us find one. They directed us to the last gas station in the area with fuel, which we paid for with the last of the cash we dug out of our pockets, the glove box, and the back seat. We returned to Tallahassee sunburned, thirsty and starving. We had wanted to help, but we were young and inexperienced and could easily have ended up needing saving ourselves. So we all learned things from Ivan the terrible: When Jenna’s family rebuilt, they put their new house on stilts. (They’ll be getting hit by Michael too, and we’re all crossing our fingers.) And now I know you can’t go to a disaster zone empty-handed.

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