LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In the days after tornadoes swept through Western Kentucky this month, the immediate needs in storm-battered communities included things like water, food, and shelter.
But 10 days later, the dynamic on the ground has changed, said George Ruiz, founder of the Alabama-based disaster recovery nonprofit, Geaux Rescue. Ruiz has been in Fulton County for the past week, helping search for missing people and watching warehouses fill up.
“They’re bursting at the seams,” Ruiz said of the donation collection sites in the far Western Kentucky county. “I hate to say it, but a lot of it's going to go to waste.”
Ruiz said people who want to help at this point shouldn’t send food or water, items that he considers “band aids.” Instead, they should consider adopting a family in the area and helping them with more significant purchases that they need to make.
“Spend that money on a family and then you'll have a lifelong friend,” Ruiz said. He mentioned furniture and mattresses as the type of items that will be challenging for some people, especially low-income residents, to replace.
“If you're not going to bring water in the first couple days, then just don't,” he added.
Local organizations across Western Kentucky have been sharing similar messages in recent days.
Bremen Elementary School, which has served as a hub of relief activity in the town of nearly 300, asked people to stop sending donations Sunday. “We are so blessed by the outpouring of love and support from our community, state, and nation,” a Facebook post from the school said. “We currently have all the supplies to meet immediate needs in our area.”
Dawson Springs Independent Schools shared a similar message, saying they are no longer accepting donations as they organize and distribute what they already have.
The Graves County Office of Emergency Management on Sunday asked that donors limit themselves to several key items, including electric and propane heaters, extension cords, power strips, and tarps.
“It’s fixing to get really cold,” said Randy Skipper, Chief Operating Officer of U.S. Vet Connect, which is based in Benton, Kentucky. “Propane heaters and kerosene heaters are going to be one of the number one things needed to keep people warm.”
Skipper said the generosity toward Western Kentucky residents should continue, but if donors want to truly help they must talk to those on the ground before they show up with a loaded U-Haul.
“People still need supplies,” he said. “But one area may need more things one day, and what we’re trying to do is make sure people get what they need when they need it.”
Another way to help, Ruiz said, is to simply wait. “Get your phone out right now and set reminders for one month from today, three months from today, six months from today,” he said. “When that comes, get a hold of a community that was devastated and say, ‘What do you need now?’”
That’s not always necessary after natural disasters, Ruiz said, but he thinks it will be after this one. “As many hurricanes as I've been involved with, I've never seen destruction like this,” he said. “It's sad and overwhelming and some of these smaller communities may never recover.”