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When Disasters Strike, Cash Is Best

When disasters strike, the first thing people want to know is “How can I help?” As a Red Crosser working in international communications, one of the most rewarding parts of my job is to see how people come together after tragedy, like the recent earthquake in Nepal, wanting to simply help in any way they can.

Many times, this well-intentioned and generous “How can I help?” question translates into donations that actually complicate an already difficult logistical situation on the ground. Donations like clothing, food and gifts, bought here in the U.S., are challenging to ship. In situations like Nepal, where transportation and logistics are difficult in the best of times, getting such donations in country and out to the people most in need wears heavy on responders. Whether it’s on the receiving end or the distribution end, the Red Cross and other disaster responders have learned over the years that cash is best.

Here’s why.

Cash involves no transportation costs, no delays, no customs and fees, no carbon footprint and it doesn’t divert relief workers’ time. Cash allows relief supplies to be purchased in markets close to the disaster site, which stimulates local economies by stabilizing employment and generating cash flow.  Cash donations also ensure that commodities are fresh and familiar to survivors, that supplies arrive expeditiously and that goods are culturally, nutritionally and environmentally appropriate. For example, many western canned goods contain pork, something that those following a Halal diet (like many people in Nepal) don’t eat. Few material donations have this highly beneficial, four-fold impact.

The Red Cross takes this “cash is best” stance when responding to many different disasters. Cash transfer programming has become a critical element in international disaster response and has successfully helped people rebuild their lives in Haiti, the Philippines, Jordan and Bosnia, among others. While the Red Cross still distributes indispensable items following a disaster such as tarps, blankets and hygiene kits, putting cash in the hands of survivors allows them to buy the essentials necessary to start rebuilding their lives and continue to pay their bills. It helps stimulate the local economy by allowing them to make transactions from their local markets and gives people a sense of control in situations where control is often the last thing felt.

Wondering more about how you can help the Red Cross response in Nepal?

  • GIVE: To help those affected by the Nepal Earthquake, visit Redcross.org or contact your local chapter.
  • MAP: Find tasks ready for volunteers online to help with critical mapping efforts. No experience is needed, just a computer and Internet connection.
  • SHARE: Spread the word on relief efforts and ways to help online. Find and share information on social channels, including the global Red Cross Twitter account and American Red Cross Facebook and Twitter posts.

Information pulled from USAID’s Center for Disaster Information

A Red Cross Insider Look: Tweets From Nepal

Many of you are wondering what the Red Cross is doing in Nepal after the earthquake. Today, we created a new way to see what’s happening on the ground.

Field assessment teams have arrived in Nepal to obtain a more accurate assessment of the destruction. Eight American Red Cross disaster specialists are mobilized to Nepal to support emergency relief, cash transfer programming, information management, recovery planning and IT/telecoms.

To help compile what those on the ground are doing and seeing as part of the global Red Cross response, we created a new Twitter list: ”Red Crossers on the Ground in Nepal.”

You can subscribe to the list to stay updated and see the full stream of tweets, but here’s a sampling:











Shaken In Nepal

Written by Glen and Julie Bradley, IT/Telecommunications volunteers with the American Red Cross Emergency Relief Unit in Nepal, who were deployed immediately following the earthquake to restore critical communications in the region.

Nepal telecommsThe aftershocks, which have been rolling across Kathmandu sporadically since April 25, shake the region almost as much as the initial 7.8 quake. People are skittish of enclosed spaces. Families whose homes are still standing continue to sleep in the open. Aid workers sleep jumpily in the few so-called ‘earthquake proof’ hotels – a claim that basically gives you time to run from the building before it collapses. Those of us who brought tents vie for the best empty space—the grassy grounds of a nearby hotel closed since the quake. Space is tight as International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) relief units from all over the world pour into the Kathmandu airport and then push out toward the epicenter to do help among the growing need and casualties.

Laying the Telecommunications Groundwork

As a strange comfort, I keep my portable VHF radio close as I work, monitoring the Red Cross disaster communications network we installed a little over a year ago as part of a joint Earthquake Preparedness Program with the Danish Red Cross. Glen and I, American Red Cross IT/Telecom Emergency Response Unit (ERU) members, previously spent a month in Kathmandu and the foothills of the Himalayas installing a robust radio communications network that covers the entire Kathmandu Valley. Funded by the Danish Red Cross and assisted by the Nepalese Red Cross, we dubbed ourselves the ‘Kathman-duo’ and spent that December working with our Nepalese counterparts installing radio repeaters, antennas, solar panels and battery banks on two mountain tops surrounding Kathmandu. All followed by training sessions with the Nepalese Red Cross staff and volunteers – allowing daily operational use of the network to widely dispersed districts and chapters. That month, we worked long days and weeks with our Nepalese counterparts; forging friendships which opened our eyes to their culture and people.

When Glen and I got the call to deploy to the Nepal earthquake, our thoughts were of our friends – they had not responded to our emails. Were they safe? Had our disaster preparedness communication network survived?

Back to Nepal for Telecommunications Support

We sent an email with our airport arrival time and were relieved to see the smiling faces of our Nepalese friends with arms stretched out to welcome us back. As they loaded our stacks of 70-pound cases of VSATs, computer networking and radio equipment, they told us their survivor stories; where they had been and what they were doing when the quake hit. In our relief to see them safe and well we forgot to ask about our communications network. Then we heard a remote voice and our friend Achyut reached for his radio responding to a call from the Nepal Red Cross headquarters.

The communications network survived. All the planning and hard work paid off; the Danish Red Cross had recognized the need and the American Red Cross worked with the Nepalese Red Cross to make it happen.

Now Glen and I are here in Nepal working the earthquake disaster the only way we know how; supporting the dozens of IFRC disaster response units on the ground with satellite communications, networking and radio capability. It’s a big job, but once again we are working as a combined team – this time with our New Zealand and Nepal Red Cross counterparts.

That capacity building project worked – but now we have a bigger challenge. Do whatever it takes to provide communications to the ever-growing numbers of Red Cross relief and medical teams working across a wide swath of Nepal. The job here is overwhelming, but we will have a lot of help from our friends.


To help those affected by the Nepal Earthquake:

  • GIVE: To help those affected by the Nepal Earthquake, visit Redcross.org or contact your local chapter.
  • MAP: To help with critical mapping efforts, visit http://tasks.hotosm.org. No experience is needed, just a computer and internet connection.
  • SHARE: Spread the word on relief efforts and ways to help online. Find and share information on social channels, including the global Red Cross Twitter account and American Red Cross Facebook and Twitter posts.

Mapping Nepal: Disaster Response in the Digital Age

After disasters strike, updated maps are extremely important to emergency responders. These maps help us measure the damage, identify priority areas, navigate our way around damaged roadways, and more efficiently deliver aid to people in need. The maps can show us things like road quality, building damage, and whether rural areas are cut off from the aid delivery routes.

A History of Mapping for Disasters

The Red Cross used OpenStreetMap technology in 2012 to trach a cholera outbreak in Sierra Leone and then again in 2013 to assist Typhoon Haiyan survivors. After Typhoon Haiyan, emergency responders told us how much more efficiently they were able to work because of these maps. The Red Cross loaded the updated maps onto relief workers’ GPS devices—it not only saved them time navigating to villages while delivering relief supplies, but also helped teams to assess damages.

Mapping for Nepal

Red Cross and OpenStreetMap volunteers are now mapping areas in Nepal after the 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit on Saturday. Mappers are working hard tracing detailed mountainous terrain to help disaster responders measure the damage caused and deliver aid to people in need. When we deployed people to Nepal this week, we sent maps to use and share with other Red Cross team members on the ground.

Following the earthquake, the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) tasked volunteers to map IDP (Internally Displaced People) camps from satellite imagery donated by DigitalGlobe through MapGive, a project of the State Dept.’s Humanitarian Information Unit.

“This collaboration is unprecedented,” said Samuel Estabrook, a GIS Analyst with International Services at the American Red Cross. “It’s wonderful. Now all this work has to be put to good use. Within the next few days and weeks we will analyze incoming data that’s a result of this thoughtful gesture by volunteers, organizations, and partners of the American Red Cross. Our tools and resources, given to us by trusting and kind donors and volunteers, are being deployed to and utilized in Nepal. We can only hope that our help will alleviate some of anguish cause by the earthquake.”

How You Can Help

OpenStreetMap works like Wikipedia, in that many people have their eyes on the same information. Volunteers are playing a huge part in making these maps, but more experienced mappers are checking their work, making wide-ranging edits, and identifying areas that have been undeserved.

To help with critical mapping efforts, visit http://tasks.hotosm.org. No experience is needed, just a computer and internet connection.


Learn more about how the American Red Cross is responding to the Nepal earthquake on redcross.org.

A Picture of Nepal: The Land, the People, the Response

Posted by Maya Kapsokavadis, International Services Program Officer supporting country programs in Bangladesh, Myanmar/Burma and Nepal at the American Red Cross

IMG_0827As a Program Officer at the American Red Cross, I understand the devastating impact disasters have on people and the immense effort it takes to implement a successful humanitarian intervention. In my role, I am responsible for South Asia, which includes some of the most hazard prone countries in the world. In fact, my first trip to Nepal was unforgettable not because I was traversing its idyllic countryside, but because I was seized by an absolutely paralytic fear of being in an earthquake (something hard for a California native to admit).

“Typical Kathmandu”

IMG_0280A local partner organization had arranged an introduction to “typical Kathmandu” – a walk that traversed some of the most physically impressive (not in a good way) parts of the city where unplanned urbanization was at its worst. Buildings loomed overhead on streets so narrow that no emergency vehicle could possibly gain access to them. Staring up at telephone towers bending under the weight of exposed wires, I experienced a sense of panic that never surfaced in my past work. The same pattern repeated as I traveled to remote areas of Nepal where villages were weakly connected by bumpy, pot-holed, half-paved roads that slinked tenuously across mountains with breathtaking views and plummeting falls. I held my breath more often than not and refined the technique of sleeping through unease. This exposure visit increased my awareness of the potential ill-effects of sub-standard construction techniques and the need to educate the public about the risks of rapid, unplanned, and unregulated building.

Nepal Earthquake Response

Until this past Saturday, I had never experienced a disaster in a country I intimately knew—where the people at the heart of the crisis were my people—not only my coworkers, but friends I’d shared dinners and deep conversations with—people who made long (often lonely/hotel ridden) deployments exciting and inspiring. As the response mounts from the American Red Cross, I am overwhelmed with concern for the safety of our partners, local staff and volunteers and the people of Nepal.

The staff we have been in contact with are struggling to travel across a country that lacks the infrastructure to accommodate their movements. Most are walking, tens of hours, to access vulnerable villages in earthquake and landslide-affected districts. Logistics, transport and access, massively difficult in the best of situations, is a top concern for responders. Many deployed staff still struggle to enter this land-locked country. With only one international airport, the response efforts are constrained and much-needed relief supplies and early responders cannot reach those in need. Moreover, Nepal has only two doctors out of every 1,000 people; a daunting fact given the rising health needs as survivors are pulled from the rubble and require urgent medical care. As I sit, safely behind my desk, I think of my colleagues, and am humbled by their courage and selflessness. They are first responders, but also those who have been most affected. Mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, these staff and volunteers have arguably put the needs of their communities ahead of their own.

Red Crossers in Nepal

IMG_0682I have been most impressed by the longevity and dedication of my counterparts at the Nepal Red Cross. Volunteers supporting this national society forever changed my concept of what it means to be a Red Crosser. I quickly lost track of the number of people who had spent the majority of their lives in voluntary service to the Red Cross mission and the communities they worked with. Whether teaching children life-saving techniques in the event of a disaster or helping communities identify local solutions to build resilience; it is the volunteers who are at the heart of Red Cross work. This emergency is a reminder for me of the invaluable work we do, the sacrifices we make, and the beauty of the human spirit when we come together to support each other.

Now Recruiting: Social Media Ambassadors for Red Cross Giving Day


Can you tweet in your sleep? Instagram on the fly? Facebook your face off? We need your help!

You are: A social media maven. Passionate about helping those who are in need.

We need: Social pros to help carry our Red Cross Giving Day message far and wide. We’ll give you all the tools you need. Help out as much (or as little) as you can.

What is Giving Day? Red Cross Giving Day is coming up on June 2. It’s a chance for neighbors, friends and families to unite in order to make a difference in the lives of those who need it most in our communities. Because we never know when an emergency will occur and a neighbor or family member may be left with nowhere to turn, your support is critical to be sure the Red Cross is there to respond with help and hope.

Your mission: You have a simple, yet important assignment – spread the word about Giving Day to your social media networks! You will have access to content, images and badges to use in your posts. Wondering what to write? We’ve got you covered. The Social Ambassador Toolkit provides easily customizable, click and paste social posts and images for you to use. We even have a special hashtag to use – #allin1day – to add to the Giving Day conversation.

Sign me up! It’s easy – head to the Giving Day website and let us know a little about who you are. You’ll receive periodic emails from us with ideas on how to keep the momentum going as we lead up to June 2.

Are you a student or young professional? We have a special program just for you. Take our pledge, and we’ll send you a t-shirt to rock your Red Cross pride.

Together let’s bring more good days for families in need! #allin1day

When Disasters Happen: Family Links for the Nepal Earthquake

Nepal Earthquake April 25, 2015

Post by Lisa Ghali, LMSW, International Caseworker for Europe and Asia at the American Red Cross 

When disasters happen, people’s first reaction is usually to think about family or friends. Maybe they were affected. Are they ok? They contact them by phone or through social media only to discover that their loved one isn’t responding. Thoughts quickly travel from the best case scenario to the worst case scenario and then back again. In times of emergency, the Red Cross is there, helping loved ones reconnect after a disaster.

By going to our Family Links page, you have the opportunity to be proactive in finding your loved ones. You can search the list of people who are safe and well and register the names of ones who are still missing. Currently there are about 1600 registrations for the recent earthquake in Nepal. As more people know about the site, the more the list will grow and we can help reconnect even more families.

My role as a national headquarters caseworker has been to work with the chapters across the United States to support them in their efforts to engage the Nepalese community and coordinate with our international partners to understand our on-the-ground operations. In this recent earthquake, the best method for connecting with loved ones is the Family Links website. I support our colleagues nationally as they broadcast the message out to their community. Our colleagues have been canvassing neighborhoods handing out flyers with information on the family linking website and with contact information for their local Red Cross. They are reaching out to community leaders, consulates and the Nepalese diaspora providing information, referrals and access to mental health services.

Nepal Earthquake April 25, 2015

For example, our colleague Terri Illes in New Jersey was contacted by the Mayor’s office after they learned of the tragedy of this recent earthquake. New Jersey has one of the highest populations of South Asians in the United States, therefore their community was dramatically affected by this recent disaster. Over the weekend, Terri was able to disseminate information on our response through the mayor’s office and became a local resource for information and support to the Nepalese diaspora during this challenging time.

As Red Crossers, we work as a global team to support our communities, whether they would like help connecting with their families overseas or disaster relief in the moment. We recognize that our global reach has a local impact and we stand committed to serving our community in these times of need.

Three Ways to Help Nepal Earthquake Relief Through the Red Cross

The global Red Cross network, led by the Nepal Red Cross, has mounted an international relief effort to provide emergency humanitarian assistance following the devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Nepal.

How Can I Help?

If you’re wondering how to help Nepal earthquake victims, you have three easy options:

1. Donate online to Nepal earthquake relief on redcross.org.

RCO donation_Nepal

2. Visit your iTunes store to find a donation link.

RedCross in iTunes_Nepal

3. Spread the word on relief efforts and ways to help online. Find and share information on social channels, including the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies Twitter account and our very own Facebook and Twitter posts.

Tweet nepal

UPDATE: To help with critical mapping efforts, visit http://tasks.hotosm.org. No experience is needed, just a computer and internet connection.

What We’ve Done So Far

  • Funds: The American Red Cross is committing an initial million dollars to the response operation and working closely with the Nepal Red Cross and the global Red Cross network to coordinate additional support.
  • Management Support and Relief Items: The American Red Cross is also providing remote mapping and information management support and is arranging for supplies from its warehouses in Kuala Lumpar and Dubai to be sent to Nepal, including non-food items such as tarps, buckets, kitchen sets and blankets, although logistical transport remains a challenge.
  • People and Skills: Additionally, eight American Red Cross disaster specialists are on their way to Nepal to support emergency relief, cash transfer programing, information management, recovery planning and IT/telecoms.


Keep an eye on redcross.org and our social media channels, including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, to see the latest updates.

This post has been updated to reflect current response numbers and information.

App Review: Emergency!

Throughout the last year I’ve navigated through a number of American Red Cross apps. Until recently there were 12, and while each one provided valuable information about preventing, preparing for, and/or responding to emergencies, I simply didn’t have enough storage space on my phone for all of them. In the end I narrowed the list, downloaded the three apps most relevant to my family and location, and reluctantly left the rest behind.

Imagine my excitement then, when the Red Cross released lucky #13: a new, comprehensive, interactive emergency app. I couldn’t wait to check it out, and after having done so, to share with you my thoughts on what Emergency has to offer.

Emergency is an all-inclusive, customizable app, capable of using real-time information to keep you and your loved ones safe. The app combines more than 35 different severe weather and emergency alerts (provided by the National Weather Service/NOAA, the USGS, and FEMA) to help you monitor your location, as well as the locations of your family members and friends, for watches, warnings, and potential hazards. The app also provides access to information on what to do before, during, and after an emergency strikes.

When I first opened the app I was prompted to allow it to monitor my current location for watches and warnings. I liked that the app started here, and that within the first two minutes I had already set up my phone to alert me to potentially dangerous conditions using push notifications.

Next I added the locations – besides where I live – I wanted the app to monitor. 18 months ago my sister and her family lost their home in the Washington, Illinois tornadoes, so it’s important to me to keep tabs on the weather in the cities my family members call home.

When I finished with the Alerts tab and moved to the Prepare tab, I was taken aback by how well the app creators had organized this section’s information. (That is perhaps the greatest compliment someone with OCD tendencies – like me – can give.) The comprehensive list of natural and man-made disasters, arranged alphabetically and each with its own color and image, made it easy to find what I was looking for. When I clicked on each option, I found detailed information on what to do before, during, and after that specific disaster, as well as steps that could be taken ahead of time to lessen the impact of that disaster on my family and home.



Under the Quizzes tab I found (and took) – you guessed it – a number of short quizzes, each covering one specific disaster. I admit to getting a question wrong here and there, but I liked and appreciated how the app provided me with the correct answers after I’d finished each quiz.



The Maps tab allowed me to see real-time hurricane tracker, radar, satellite, cloud cover, rain, wind speed, and snow maps, not just for my city and county, but for the entire country. The Maps tab also shows all of the Red Cross shelters currently open across the country.



Under the Info tab, I could link to all of the other 12 Red Cross apps, change the language in which the app operates, share and rate the app, and take care of other Red Cross-related business. Donating money, setting up an appointment to donate blood, signing up for a course, buying a first aid kit, and/or signing up to volunteer can all be taken care of via Emergency.



I enjoyed using many of the first 12 Red Cross apps, but Emergency is by far my favorite. I love having the ability to access so much information in one place, appreciate the safety features it offers by way of its many monitoring and alert capabilities, and…it’s free! Download the new Emergency app in the Apple App Store or Google Play Store.

HOW TO: Set Emergency Alerts on the New App

Emergencies are stressful. We lose sleep when dangerous thunderstorms, tornadoes, earthquakes or wildfires hit close to home, but also when they threaten areas of the country where our loved ones live.

Luckily, a new app, Emergency by the American Red Cross, includes a helpful tool to monitor multiple locations for watches and warnings of all kinds. The app can alert you with an alarm when hazards or potential emergencies may impact where you live as well as regions of the country where your loved ones call home.

Here’s a quick step-by-step guide to setting up alerts on your phone.

1. Get Started

Download and open the Emergency app on your phone. When you see the first screen on the left, click Continue. When you see the second screen on the right, click Allow so the app can monitor your current location. The app will automatically add your location to your list of monitored places, so you don’t have to! (Follow the app’s prompts to select Allow twice.)


2. Add Places

When you see the screen on the left, select Get Started. When you see the screen on the right, select Add Place.

IMG_3002 IMG_3003

3. Search Locations to Monitor

In the search bar, enter the zip code or name of the city and state you would like to monitor.



4. Select and Verify

When it appears, select the name of the location you would like to monitor. Then verify the app has correctly highlighted the map by clicking on Next.IMG_3005 IMG_3006

5. Label Locations

If someone you care about lives in the location you would like to monitor, click Yes. You can program that person’s contact information into the app so they will also receive alerts by selecting Add Person.
IMG_3007 IMG_3008

6. Associate Phone Numbers and Wrap Up

The app will take you to your phone’s Contacts, where you can insert a contact’s phone number. If you would like to add an additional loved one, select Add Person again. (P.S. Even if your contact’s main phone number is a land line, the Family Safe feature in the app knows to use the contact’s mobile number, or will prompt you to add one.)

Once you have finished adding people, select Finish. When you see a confirmation screen, select Finish a second time.



7. Monitor Your Location 

At the top of the screen, slide the highlight bar to Places. Scroll down to Monitor Current Location and slide the circle to the right (until you see green behind the circle) so your current location will always be monitored.

IMG_3012 IMG_3011


8. Tweak Monitored Areas

Now select the location you added. If you would like to change the size of the monitored area (perhaps you would like to monitor ten miles outside of a particular city), click on Alert Radius and enlarge the area using the bar at the bottom of the screen.

If you choose to delete the person associated with the location, simply swipe left on the person’s name on an iOS device or press the contact’s name on an Android device and you will receive a message to remove the contact.

IMG_3013 IMG_3014

9. Set Notifications

Next click on Notification Settings. Work your way through the different emergencies, choosing whether or not to Show Alerts, Notify with Sound, and Send Notifications for each one.

IMG_3015 IMG_3016

10. Adding More Places

If you’d like to monitor additional locations, return to Places, select Add Another, return to step #4. 


That’s it! Thanks to the Emergency app, your phone will alert you to emergencies in your current location, as well as any locations you chose to track, even if the app is closed. 

Sleep easier knowing you have notifications at the ready, but go to bed with your phone nearby and the phone volume turned on, just in case!