Watching the media’s coverage of disasters is a lot like watching little kids play soccer. No one knows this better than Susan Kim, news editor for the Disaster News Network (DNN), a non-profit, online news service that covers—you guessed it—disasters. “The ball goes over here and everyone goes—aaaaahhhhhh!!!—running over there,” she says, for effect. As a result of the major media’s follow-the-pack mentality, high-profile calamities receive a disproportionate share of attention, and more than a few stories that deserve to be told fall through the cracks.
That’s where DNN comes in. Funded largely by a variety of faith-based disaster-response organizations, DNN provides disaster news to both the public and disaster-response community. “We tell the public the story, but we’re also the eyes and ears of the professional responders,” says Jim Skillington, president and founder of the four-year-old network. “And,” he notes, “we report the little disasters as well as the big ones.”
Case in point: In recent weeks, the news has been dominated by the Beltway Sniper saga, which unfolded a short drive down the interstate from DNN’s headquarters in Jessup, Maryland. But even with a major international story in its own backyard, DNN didn’t ignore other developments in the disaster world—a tornado in Corpus Christi, Texas, and an ongoing drought in the mid-Atlantic states, to name a few. “The week after 9-11 a tropical storm hit Florida and no one covered it,” says Kim. “We ran it as our lead story and ended up getting a lot of ‘thank-you’s’ from people in Florida because they felt forgotten.”
DNN also distinguishes itself by providing long-term coverage of disaster-response, with updates on stories long-since removed from the major media radar screen. “We’re the only news organization that reports a disaster from the day it happens until the day the last voluntary group leaves,” says Skillington matter-of-factly.
A Happy Accident
It’s hardly a stretch to describe DNN’s birth as an accident. In 1996 Skillington started the Village Life Company, a non-profit organization founded to create a social justice e-zine called Village Life. Each week the magazine explored a different social justice topic, and in the process discovered that news about disaster-response was hard to come by. “We attempted to report disaster-response, particularly from a faith-based perspective. But we had a terrible time doing that—we couldn’t get the information,” remembers Skillington. So when funding for Village Life ran out, Skillington began looking at why disaster-response—handled largely by religious organizations—wasn’t being covered.
Initially, Village Life hypothesized that the secular press was simply ignoring the disaster-response work of the faith community, but soon Skillington realized this theory was wrong. “It wasn’t that the secular press and the public had anything against the religious press. It was that the religious organizations weren’t telling the story in a way that they [the secular media] could use it,” he reports. With a small grant, Skillington started a pilot Web site at disasterresponse.net. The response? “The test was marvelously successful,” he says. “We had the notion that no one would know about us. But we were getting 20,000 page views a day.” In October 1998 the site was officially launched at disasternews.net, and the rest is, as they say, (disaster) history.
What Qualifies as a Disaster?
Ask the average person what qualifies as a disaster and he or she might mention earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, volcanoes, tornadoes or wildfires. But how does DNN evaluate which so-called disasters to cover? “That’s not an easy question, especially in light of 9-11,” says Kim. “The definition of disaster is more up-for-grabs now than it has ever been.”
In addition to natural disasters and mass casualty events like the terrorist attacks of 9-11, DNN must also consider incidents of public violence. Skillington says DNN reports on situations like the Beltway Sniper (as well as large-scale school or workplace shootings) because “you’ve got other people worried about their own personal safety because of this kind of crazy event.”
As far as more traditional natural disasters are concerned, “one of the best definitions [of a disaster] I’ve heard is [it’s] an incident where there has been damage that local people are not equipped to repair—when it reaches beyond what you can fix with your neighbor,” says Beth Shepherd, DNN’s director of client services.
While defining disaster may be a difficult question, Kim has no problem identifying the most challenging type of calamity to cover. “It’s hard to get people to care about drought,” she says. “Everybody wants drama and drought is a slow squeeze.”
Hitting Close To Home
At the moment, DNN focuses on covering U.S. disasters, in part because most of its writers are U.S.-based and because its funders are largely domestic organizations. “I think our coverage is about 80/20 [domestic/international], but if a large international disaster happens I don’t ignore it,” says Kim. The network relies on a cadre of freelance writers around the United States as well as a handful of overseas contributors.
According to Kim, it’s relatively easy to find journalists who are interested in reporting for DNN. “Everyone wants to write about disasters,” she notes. But even though DNN is a faith-based organization Kim and Skillington stress that they are simply looking for good journalists, not people with a cause. “What we are is an objective source of news. We run quickly away from folks who say, ‘I’ve been called by God to come write for you,’” says Skillington. “I think you can be faith-based and still be credible without being off the extreme end of rationality,” continues Kim.
SUV’s: Spontaneous Unwanted Volunteers
On the surface, it would seem that any well-meaning contribution to a disaster-response organization would have a positive impact, but it turns out that eliciting an appropriate response is a major issue. “There are two big problems in this country with people responding,” notes Skillington. One concerns uninvited volunteers, who Kim refers to as SUV’s—‘spontaneous unwanted volunteers.’
“It’s a big issue and what we try to do is provide education that it’s not really appropriate to come [to a disaster scene] when you see it on the news. It’s appropriate in two or three months when you’re not seeing it on the news,” says Skillington. To illustrate his point he highlights the gulf coast of Texas, which has been flooded several times in the past year. “There's a terrible problem in Houston right now, which had the misfortune of getting flooded right after 9-11. They’ve had a terrible time with funding and volunteers because nobody paid attention to them,” he continues.
The second problem is unsolicited donations. “The first thing that comes to a disaster site is used clothing and shoes,” says Kim. “After Hurricane Floyd I went to this tiny rural town of 250 people in North Carolina that got 1,500 pairs of shoes. These little old lady volunteers were lining them up by rows in a warehouse—enough for the whole town plus three other towns that size. I don’t know what they did with them,” she says.
Of course, the problem of unsolicited donations reached unprecedented levels in New York City following the World Trade Center attacks. “One of the best stories I heard was the 300,000 pounds of dog food they received for the search dogs,” says Shepherd. “All of them were on special diets and couldn’t eat any of this food. They just finished distributing it around the United States,” she continues.
Kim has a World Trade Center story of her own: “One responder in New York City told me that they received a truckload of 4,000 used teddy bears and then a truckload of women’s underwear. They received both on the same day, so I said, ‘Just set up a booth and ask people if they want a teddy or a teddy,’” she quips.
Of course, it’s a tricky issue to deal with well-intentioned people who don’t realize that they aren’t really being helpful. “It’s hard to tell someone with the disaster adrenaline pumping in their veins to stay home,” laments Kim. “But wait and see which organizations are responding. Don’t show up at the scene and don’t send clothing. This sounds very negative, but it’s hard to combat the want-to-help.”
How To Help
The above-mentioned problems beg the question: How do you help when you see a disaster on television or read about one in the newspaper? “The very best thing to do is to give money,” says Skillington. “A lot of people don’t want to hear that, but the best thing they can do is give money to an organization that is responding.”
However, he emphasizes that it’s critical to be educated about giving. “It’s important to give money to an organization directly rather than giving to an 800-number for a disaster,” maintains Skillington. “And give to an organization that has a very low overhead cost for operating. [DNN maintains a list of low-overhead organizations on its Web site] I know that people want to give money for specific disasters, but what’s even more helpful is to say, ‘This money can be used in my name for the next disaster.’ Because that helps them to respond quickly and more effectively,” he continues.
And if you still prefer to volunteer? “Remember what you saw on the news a year ago. If you really want to respond to a disaster call up six months to a year later and then offer to volunteer because they will need you then,” says Kim.
The 9-11 Effect
According to Skillington giving to charity is now as important as ever. “I think it’s well established that while there are problems with the disbursement, the dollar amount that was given to the survivors [of 9-11] will more than take care of every man, woman and child that was a significant other of a person that was killed,” he says. But much of that money would have otherwise ended up in the hands of small, low profile charity groups. “So much money was given in response to 9-11 that now money is not going into charities. There are a lot of soup kitchens and food closets that have no normal donations,” elaborates Skillington.
Making matters even worse are the so-called “silent” disasters caused by the 9-11 attacks. Countless people—especially in New York and Washington—have been affected due to loss of job and livelihood. Meanwhile, the environmental and technological damage quietly continues to take its toll. “An awful lot of people have upper-respiratory problems now—the 9-11 cough,” reminds Skillington.
Another major post-September 11 issue in lower Manhattan concerned imposters—people who bluffed their way into the World Trade Center cleanup site. “Everybody wanted to be in New York City,” remembers Kim. “People would have ten badges and they would just start flashing until one worked,” she says. Of course, the media is partly to blame for this behavior. “Everybody saw the coverage about, say, the guy from Iowa whose friend was a firefighter, and he jumped in his pickup truck to come and clear rubble for a week. He might have cleared some great rubble, but it encourages other people to do that when these people are lauded by the media,” continues Kim.
Then there are the imposters who are motivated by power, or simply want to make a buck. Earlier this year an authoritative Army captain named William Clark (aka Billy Clark) took charge at a barge-versus-bridge disaster scene in Webbers Falls, Oklahoma, where a section of I-40 plunged into the Arkansas River, killing 14 people. For two days Clark directed police officers and telephone company employees before authorities became suspicious. Before he could be apprehended he disappeared, but he was later arrested in Canada and indicted in Oklahoma on charges of impersonating a federal officer and illegal possession of a firearm.
Back in the 1980s, a lawyer named John William Irish didn’t do the legal profession any favors when he began showing up at disaster sites (including the 1987 crash of a Northwest Airlines plane in Detroit) in priest collar and full dress, counseling victims’ families and soliciting business at the same time. He was defrocked, so to speak, when a relative of a plane crash victim quizzed him on church sacraments.
“We’re sympathizing with those imposters that are well-intentioned and sort of smiling ruefully at the ones that are there for whatever misguided intentions, but there are some that have evil intent,” notes Shepherd. “A man showed up to help at the [WTC] triage site in New Jersey, but he was a recently convicted rapist and his intent was to find another victim in the hospital. It was lucky they identified him,” she says.
The Future Of Disaster-Response
While disaster responders are paying more attention to security these days, they are also working hard to improve their response to the next disaster. Naturally, 9-11 has played a large role in this self-improvement evaluation.
“What we’re seeing is that things are changing in disaster-response organizations so you begin to know who is going to respond to what specialty within the next mass casualty event. There has been a real attempt in the disaster-response community to begin to learn from 9-11,” says Skillington. “And to put people in place who will be there next time.”
According to Shepherd two of the big issues currently being addressed are communication between response groups and security credentials. But 9-11 also brought up the issue—and it’s a sensitive one—about people’s egos getting in the way of doing their jobs. “When something is as blatant a news story [as 9-11], people who were assigned to less crucial areas wanted to be in the center of things [simply] because they wanted to be in the center of things. So that’s something that’s being talked about gently but it’s being talked about,” reports Shepherd.
Meanwhile, in its own quiet way DNN is also playing a direct role. “We write issue-oriented white papers for the disaster-response community on specific subjects,” says Skillington. To date, those subjects have included spiritual care and public violence. “Will the public see the white papers? No. Will the public be impacted by our white papers? We hope so,” he says.
Ironically, in order to be better prepared for the future, disaster responders need to look at the world from a somewhat fatalistic standpoint. “They are all about doing a better job with the next one because they know there will be a next one,” says Shepherd. It may not be a terrorist act, but there’s going to be a disaster. [It’s] ‘Wherever we’re needed we’re going to be and we’re going to do a better job next time.'”