Disaster Relief Volunteer Organizations and Programs: Help Your Community

Last Updated: April 26, 2023

As I read through the news of Hurricane Harvey, it isn’t the stories of families who lost everything which stands out to me.  Yes – these stories are tragic but the scale of the disaster is so large that it is hard to comprehend so much suffering.

What does stand out (and admittedly often brings tears to my eyes) are all the stories of HEROES.

There was the midwife who rode on an inflatable swan to deliver a patient’s baby.

The people who just want to “save some lives.”

“Mattress Mack” said to hell with profits.  He opened his furniture store as a shelter for 400 people and even put his moving trucks into action picking up people.


And this humorous story of a jet ski rescue.

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The Cajun Navy – a group of volunteer boat owners who got together after Katrina – headed to Texas to help rescue victims.

And this man who carried out a mother with her infant.


And then there is my personal favorite hurricane story: the unlikely hero Zachary Dearing. When he arrived at an elementary school which was supposed to be a shelter, he found that there were absolutely no supplies or anyone in charge.

He quickly took the lead and organized teams to raid classrooms for supplies.  He got volunteers to do headcounts at 30-minute intervals, paying particular attention to the most vulnerable victims. Amazingly, he got everyone to pool their food and water.

EVERYONE was fed.  If Dearing isn’t a perfect example of mental strength, then I don’t know what is!

These hurricane heroes mobilized to support victims.  Without their selfless work, the scale of suffering would have been much worse.

So forgive me for being emotional, but these hero stories give me faith in mankind!

I like to believe that I too would be able to step up to the task and offer help to those in need.  The truth is that even this takes prepping!  Here are some steps you can take so that you will be able to rise to the occasion.

1. Practice Mental Preparedness

You’ll notice that all of the Hurricane Harvey heroes had one thing in common: they remained cool under pressure.

As Coyote Communications, a consulting company for mission-based organizations points out, disaster volunteers must be prepared for highly-stressful situations.  The work is often physically demanding.  Shifts last 16+ hours.  Basic needs like going to the bathroom have to be kept to a minimum.  The working conditions – like tents with bucket latrines – have to be endured.

Contrary to common belief, mental strength isn’t something you either have or don’t.  You can build mental strength using various exercises and techniques.  This is something I believe ALL people should practice.  Even if you never volunteer, it is better to be one of the calm and collected victims rather than the ones freaking out.

Read: Mental Training Techniques

2.  Learn First Aid

A lot of people assume that they will always be able to call 911 in a disaster and get help.  This is far from the truth.  Even if emergency medics can get to you, those first few moments after an injury could be deadly if you don’t know the proper first aid steps to take.

I’ve compiled a list of essential first aid skills everyone should know.  Start with these and you’ll already be much more valuable in an emergency situation.


3. Get Your Family Prepped First

You can’t help others until you’ve helped yourself.  Before you look into volunteer opportunities, make sure you are prepared for disasters.

4. Don’t Go Freelance with Disaster Volunteering

I’m a bit torn on saying this.  There were a lot of heroes during Hurricane Harvey who worked completely freelance – they saw a need, got their boats or monster trucks, and started saving lives.

However, most people aren’t equipped to be freelance disaster volunteers.

As EMS1 points out, volunteers often end up being a part of the problem.  Instead of helping, the volunteers end up causing congestion and disorganization.  During 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, for example, a lot of resources and time were lost just trying to clear away the well-meaning volunteers.

Currently, the State of Texas has asked volunteers not to self-deploy because they will create a further burden for first responders.

So, only freelance if you are:

  • Already in the disaster zone
  • Have sufficient training and resources to help (such as a boat)
  • Won’t be getting in the way of first responders

Otherwise, volunteer as part of an organized disaster response organization.

5. Disaster Volunteer and Training Opportunities

Rather than trying to set off on your own to be a disaster volunteer, you are better off joining an existing organization.

Here are just some of the organizations I know about which provide disaster training and volunteer opportunities.  Please let us know in the comments if you’ve worked with any of them or know of other organizations!

  • American Red Cross: Here’s a great place to start. The Red Cross has training centers around the country and mobilizes volunteers during disasters.
  • National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD): This organization works to deliver volunteer services during disasters. While they don’t mobilize volunteers themselves, they have a coalition of over 50 organizations throughout the country. Through them, you can find the best volunteer opportunities where your skills are needed.
  • United Way: Though they mostly focus on community services, the United Way does offer some disaster response training. Their volunteer programs are a great way to learn leadership skills.
  • Medical Reserve Corps: MRC chapters organize health care professionals to provide assistance during emergencies as well as ongoing public health needs.
  • Community Emergency Response Team (CERT): Run by FEMA, there are more than 2,700 CERT chapters around the USA. Members receive training in disaster response skills like fire safety, search and rescue, and leadership.
  • Corporation for National and Community Service: Join AmericCorps or SeniorCorps and you’ll be able to make a difference in community projects as well as disaster services.
  • Rescue Global: I don’t know as much about this disaster volunteer organization. Their volunteers are divided into categories, including virtual teams (like coders), HQ support, and operational teams.  This might be a great place to start if you don’t have traditional search-and-rescue skills.
  • All for Good: They offer various volunteer programs where you can learn disaster relief skills.
  • Points of Flight: They have a disaster preparedness program as well as community development programs.
  • Team Rubicon: If you are a retired veteran, you can join this group. They deploy vets as first responders. They also offer online training.
  • Texas Search and Rescue: This is a volunteer organization that professionally trains members to help with disaster rescues.

6. Use the Skills You Do Have

Not all of us are physically able to go out and perform search-and-rescue operations.  That doesn’t mean you can’t help though.

Just consider how much Matthew Marchetti, a 27-year old developer, was able to help victims by creating a website.

The website called HoustonHarveyRescue.com lets people in need of rescuing register their location along with details like whether they had small children.  Rescuers were also able to register on the site.  Through the site, the rescuers were able to save lives.

So think outside the box.  Everyone has a skill that can be utilized to help others during disasters.

And, if you really aren’t able to provide firsthand support, then at least consider donating to help victims!

Leave a comment

  1. I began my career as a professional fire fighter. Then I retired as a Deputy Chief Law Enforcement. I am CERT (certified). I would like to become a search and rescue volunteer for National emergencies. Any suggestions as to how I can become a team member would be appreciated. With the exception of the Red Cross I will entertain any opportunity.

  2. I am a Indian and I would like to become a search and rescue volunteer for National emergencies. how do I become a volunteer.. pls provide contact details..


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