Has our nation ever seen a one-two punch quite like the natural disaster of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma?

Looking at the news coverage and online videos, you can get some sense of the magnitude of devastation. But only those who have lived in hurricane-prone areas and experienced these tropical monsters firsthand can comprehend how life-altering an effect it has on families.

My wife, Ellie, and I and our families know it too well. Growing up in south Louisiana and Mississippi, we experienced more than our share of major hurricanes with their relentless winds, battering storm surges, and drenching rains. We’ve seen from close-up the long process families and communities go through to put the pieces back together after a natural disaster.

You may live far from the most recent disaster zones. You may never have experienced what these people are going through. But those of us who have can tell you from personal experience that you can play a vital part of the recovery effort

Here are some ideas—some developed from experience and some offered by Kathy Koch, a former CNN correspondent who covered Hurricane Katrina and has since founded a national group called LeadersLink, which helps government officials pool their knowledge and resources to prepare for disaster events and the recovery efforts that follow. There are three main ways you can be the source of help and hope for so many who now have so little:

1. Pray and care.

Chances are that you have friends or family members who are directly affected by major storms. Immediately after a natural disaster, people experience overwhelming feelings of isolation. They think people have forgotten them. For victims of disasters to know that there are people outside caring and praying for them is a lifeline to hope.

Connect with these friends through social media—before and after the storm. Ask if there are practical things you can do for them and for their community. Ask how you can pray for them, and ask your friends to join you in prayer.

Specifically, pray for:

  • Protection for the life and health of these families and their pets.
  • The ability to contact and reunite with family members and neighbors who were scattered by the storm.
  • Immediate access to safe accommodations, drinking water, and sustaining food.
  • Long-term housing for those who have lost homes.
  • Good weather in the absence of amenities like electricity, air conditioning, etc.
  • Clear transportation routes for victims as well as rescuers.
  • Safety, endurance, and rest for rescuers, first responders, and medical personnel caring for victims (many of these heroes are disaster victims themselves).
  • Effective cooperation between local, state, and federal agencies.
  • Efficient coordination by nonprofit groups, volunteers, and local churches.

2. Give and share.

For those who have lost homes and possessions, the greatest initial need after a hurricane is food, water, and shelter. There are several Christian organizations like Samaritan’s Purse, Salvation Army, and the Southern Baptist Convention that are very good at coordinating relief efforts and getting people and supplies to the front lines quickly. Many people think about donating used clothing or other items. But collecting, shipping, and distributing those things takes a lot of time, effort, and expense. Unfortunately, many items go unused. So a donation to one of these organizations may be much more effective.

Exceptions are new underwear, socks, and diapers. Whether you’re a disaster victim or a responder, trying to get life back to normal requires working long hours in bad conditions. It’s a matter of hygiene and health safety to have a clean supply of these items.

Local churches and organizations are among the best at meeting the needs of people stricken by natural disasters. These locals know their area and the people, and they already have connections with decision makers, merchants, and others who can speed up the relief process. To learn about needs in an area hit by a hurricane, search on the web to find websites or social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for the following:

  • Radio and TV stations and newspapers.
  • Law enforcement, fire, and emergency management.
  • Town, city, county, and state government.
  • Churches, hospitals, and schools.

When you search, don’t forget the outlying areas affected by the disaster that may not be as prominently featured in the news but are just as hard hit. After Katrina, it was frustrating for me to see the enormous needs in communities like Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi, while the media was focusing almost exclusively on the devastation in New Orleans.

3. Go to the site of the natural disaster.

The greatest needs after a natural disaster begin after the initial rescue efforts wind down and media coverage moves on to the next thing. Cleaning up and rebuilding is the hardest part, not just physically but emotionally. Imagine seeing all your possessions in a pile of rubble or covered in mud from receding floodwaters. Or a pile of debris from tornado winds.  In most natural disasters, devastation is so unbelievable that home and business owners can’t even process where to start or whether it’s worth going on at all.

Often the biggest need is for outsiders to just go and help. So no matter your skill level, there will be something important for you to do. It could be mucking out a house, ripping out drywall, serving food, or running errands. Kathy Koch says that something as simple as carrying unsalvageable family treasures out of the house to a roadside rubble pile can greatly relieve some of the emotional trauma for the homeowner. There is almost always a way to serve the emotional and physical needs of those who are running on empty.

4. Join others.

If you know about construction, electrical, or plumbing work, your skills are invaluable for people who are rebuilding. But even if you’re unskilled, there’s plenty of work for someone with the heart to do so—like hanging drywall or painting walls.

Before you go, though, connect with an organization and have a pretty good idea about what you’ll be doing and that you’ll have a place to stay. There’s a lot going on in relief effort, and you can easily get in the way. You want to be part of the solution, not add to the problem.

One organization to consider is All Hands Volunteers. They help match willing volunteers with the most needy communities after natural disasters. Christian organizations like Eight Days of Hope also provide short-term volunteer opportunities in hard-hit areas.

As you prepare to go, take as much for yourself as you can. Not just your own personal needs, but work gear like tools, waders, work boots, a dust mask. And ask your hosting organization if there’s anything you can bring from the outside that would help them help others.

This may even be something you could do as a family. But be aware that young children are often a liability in situations like these where work is hard and exhausting and conditions are hazardous. In fact, many parents who are trying to recover their family home after a disaster choose to send their children to live with relatives for that reason until the conditions are more favorable.

5. Reflect God’s love.

However you can help—by praying, giving, or going—you are reflecting the love of God and serving Christ by serving “the least of these” (Matthew 25:31-46). Some of those you serve may already know Christ, but for many, your selfless sacrifice and gracious heart may be the closest they’ve come to a true follower of Christ.

Serve with your heart, and always be ready to give an answer for the hope that is in you (1 Peter 3:15-17). After all, the one thing most disaster victims need is hope. And there is no hope greater than the hope offered freely by Jesus Christ.

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