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Revisiting Relief VolunTourism
Hurricanes Dolly, Gustav, Hanna, and Ike claimed nearly 800 lives in the Caribbean, Central America, and U.S.
mainland in 2008, and damage estimates exceed $50 billion (USD) according to Wikipedia. This may be an appropriate time, therefore, to review the lessons that were learned from the Asian Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina.
On 11 September 2007, I interviewed Stephen Richer, former Executive Director of the GulfCoast Convention & Visitors Bureau; Mary Beth Romig, Director, Communications & Public Relations at the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau; and Ben Brigham, Founder of Destination Recovery Services. Each of them provided answers to numerous questions and I have selected three of their answers to feature in this issue's 3 Q's.
1) When would you want to see volunteers coming down as a convention & visitors bureau (CVB)?
"Well, I think you need them with different skillsets from Day One. Obviously we needed those wonderful Red Cross volunteers and those other groups that have the formal training to be on the ground in such harsh conditions where you don't have potable water or electricity because there is a time and place for everything. And I daresay that right after the hurricane (Katrina) struck that it was really not the place where a group of young kids from a church in Michigan to come down and try to help, because in the immediate, immediate aftermath there were health concerns that were prevalent here in New Orleans. When you think about it, in the neighborhood I used to live in had water, still, a couple of feet deep three weeks after the hurricane. So, there is a time and a place for everything.
I think that what I wish, in hindsight, and boy isn't that worth a million dollars, but what we didn't have on the ground, because no one could have anticipated it, was really a central clearinghouse, or office, or organization that was, I wouldn't say mandated by the city, but that had any kind of structure to it that you could call up and say, 'I'd like to help, where can I go?' People just found themselves here and in some cases they called here, they called City Hall, but I can tell you that City Hall, I sat next to a gal that works for City Hall at a meeting over a year later and she said, 'I still don't know where to send these calls that I'm getting.' So, it would be great if you had some central body that everyone knew, or the word got out, that that's where you call, that's where you can be put in touch with various organizations or where you can apply your skillsets to helping people recover.
And in some cases we still don't have that here in New Orleans; I don't know about the Gulf Coast region, but I, at the CVB, work with groups and corporations who are coming to New Orleans for meetings and I get the occasional call from just the average person who says, 'I'd like to spend a few days helping out.' Then there's Cox Cable that has put together there own guiding website; and then there's the Lt. Governor's Office that has a very strong statewide organized body now, but we didn't have that in the early days. And that would have helped; and I tell you what would have also helped, too, is having some kind of organized effort to say 'Thank You' as well. And we don't necessarily have that still in place and I wish we did. I wish we could make every single volunteer some kind of ambassador, they are in spirit, but physically, even if it's something as simple as a nice certificate that said, 'Thanks for being a helping hand.' The letter-to-the-editor idea is fantastic; we don't even have that in place, at least my office doesn't, but in working with groups and corporations we deal with it in a different way." Mary Beth Romig, Director, Communications & Public Relations, New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau
What message(s) should be conveyed to potential 'Relief VolunTourists'?
"But to look at it over the long period of time, I think there's three issues, depending upon the time sequence of the event. The first one is: What is it you're going to do? The second one is: What do you need to bring with you in terms of helping the people who have been impacted? And the third one is: What can you expect in terms of how you are going to be accommodated?
So if you start at the very beginning, we needed immediate help and supplies. You should have brought water, bleach, mops - all kinds of basic necessities - toothpaste, diapers, and a lot of people were smart and just drove down here, gathered things up from wherever they were - and drove in here and handed it out to whoever they could. You need to anticipate you are going to do very rudimentary things along the lines of helping people find shelter, or talking to them, or mucking out there houses, getting things that are salvageable in some way in a position where they aren't going to be destroyed from immediate impact. And then you have to plan sleeping in church pews and all kinds of very rudimentary places because there's not going to be any accommodations.
Over a period of time it changes into rebuilding buildings and putting parks back together, and staying in tent villages or even in hotels that have reopened and you don't have to bring as many things with you because the supplies are here and the stores have reopened. But during that time, you can find out and it's really very easy to figure out what's needed because you just have to follow the Media and there's so much you can get off the internet about what's going on in each of the individually impacted areas.
So those are the three things: what should you bring? where am I going to stay? what kinds of things are needed workwise and skillset-wise at this particular time. We've still got five to ten years of help we could use. People are certainly welcome to come here; there are still fifty thousand people living in FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) trailers, a lot of stuff has to be rebuilt and cleaned out, and I know that that's case throughout our region and we certainly hope no one has to go through what we've gone through ever, anywhere." Stephen Richer, Former Executive Director, Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau
3) How is the internet going to help VolunTourism evolve in being able to address some of these natural and non-natural disasters around the world?
Well, it really has transformed the way that people are able to get and exchange information. What we saw in Thailand was that the blogs actually ended up being one of the most reliable sources of information in terms of where people could go volunteer. And I think probably two of the most successful examples over there were both on Phi Phi Island. One was the Phi Phi Tsunami Dive Camp and that one was just all over the internet initially. People were putting posts about: 'where can I go volunteer? I understand there's some dive camp on Phi Phi Island that I can go volunteer for.' And they really recruited a small army just basically using blogs and there web page that they set up.
And I think just the instantaneous nature of communication exchanges that the internet has made possible really makes it a valuable tool in terms of getting the information out there: Where are they taking volunteers? What do you need to bring with you? And what should you expect when you land on the ground? Benjamin Brigham, Founder, Destination Recovery Services
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