On April 27, 2014, severe storms swept across Arkansas – 16 tornadoes, hundreds of homes destroyed and more than a dozen men and women dead in their wake. The strongest tornado, rated EF-4 with wind speeds over 166 mph, devastated everything in its 41-mile path, lifting and throwing roofs and SUVs through the town of Mayflower, across interstate 40, and through Vilonia. Following search and rescue efforts, Mayflower, Vilonia, and Conway, AR, faced the long process of rebuilding their homes, their communities, and their lives.

Support systems

"Without every base covered, a community loses the opportunity to leverage a huge asset – local citizens who want to help."

In the wake of the Arkansas tornadoes, over 10,000 spontaneous volunteers showed up to lend a hand. Americans have long turned out to help each other through crises, but these outpourings of support can present their own challenges to those leading recovery efforts. An uncoordinated influx of volunteers can quickly overwhelm an already precarious relief infrastructure.

Fortunately, those leading the recovery were prepared. Additional manpower was planned for, led and supported. Volunteers cleared debris, sifted through rubble, and supported all manner of other efforts. Most importantly, they provided moral support to those impacted by the storm.  

Managing volunteers in post-disaster environments must be planned and rehearsed before an incident. Leaders must be trained and tested to:

  • Plan: How many volunteers do you need and expect?  How many can you support? Organizations managing volunteers must think through and prepare for the details that someone hoping to help might overlook – gloves, masks, tools, lunch, etc. – they all need attention.

  • Lead: Who is leading 10,000 volunteers? This isn’t their everyday job, so those who want to help must be led. Disaster zones complicate the very simple – something as mundane as debris removal can be extremely hazardous. Identifying good volunteer leaders for seemingly simple jobs is critical.

  • Support: Remember that plan? Let’s execute. Gloves, masks, tools and lunch are real now. Without every base covered, a community loses the opportunity to leverage a huge asset – local citizens who want to help.

Faulkner County will never forget April 27, 2014.  But because of effective volunteer management, they will never forget the 10,000 fellow Americans who assisted in their recovery.