Near Miss and Direct Hit

October 1, 2008       Mark Hrywna      

American Red Cross volunteer Jan Frost holds three-week-old Destiny Sibley at the Gus Young Red Cross Shelter in Baton Rouge, La.

It’s shaping up to be a repeat of the 2004 hurricane season when one storm after another battered the United States, giving relief agencies little time to come up for air.

In early September, Hurricane Gustav slammed into Louisiana, leaving large parts of the state without power and damaged by high winds and torrential rain. Just as relief agencies around the Gulf Coast region began assessing the impact of Gustav, Hurricane Ike swooped in and pounded parts of Texas by the middle of the month, leaving millions without power and some areas underwater. But, donation coffers remained bone-dry.

This year’s hurricane season could be second only to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when it comes to the cost of relief efforts. During the 2004 hurricane season, the American Red Cross (ARC) spent $125 million, and more than $2 billion responding to Katrina and Rita. But the national ARC has raised only $10 million and other agencies aren’t having much luck either.

“Since Gustav, how much I’ve gotten in donations is zero,” said Margaret Trahan, president and CEO of United Way of Acadiana in Lafayette, La.

Trahan said the same is true of other United Ways in the area, and United Way of Iberia, St. Landry-Evangeline United Way, and United Way of Southwest Louisiana have decided to create a joint disaster fund together to try to boost donations. “We think that by putting this coalition together people within Louisiana who were not as hard hit by the storm may be more inclined to give and see a vehicle to getting their dollars to the impacted areas.”

The media roar that accompanied Hurricane Gustav, with reports that Gustav might mirror the devastating Hurricane Katrina in 2005, quickly downgraded like the storm itself. Now donations are trickling in as if Gustav was an inconvenient rainstorm.

With Hurricane Katrina still seared in everyone’s mind three years later, The Salvation Army wanted to be ready for Hurricane Gustav and started by forwarding $100,000 to some areas in the Gulf Coast to prepare for sheltering and feeding people left without power.

For Hurricane Ike, which made landfall in Texas on Sept. 13, The Salvation Army is undertaking its biggest operation of the 2008 hurricane season. The Army has provided throughout the Gulf Coast nearly 1 million meals to people affected by Hurricanes Dolly, Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike.

“The early indications are that this storm is the worst of the five we have already responded to in the 2008 hurricane season,” said Maj. Marshall Gesner, Greater Houston Area Commander for The Salvation Army, estimating the organization’s response was about twice the size for Ike that it was for Gustav.

Since Ike began, The Salvation Army has served nearly 4 million meals to evacuees, emergency workers and those affected by the storm. More than 100 Salvation Army mobile feeding units responded in Texas. Several convoys of canteens and mobile kitchens moved into the disaster zone to begin serving the millions of people who are without power in the areas around Beaumont, Galveston, Houston and Lufkin.

This hurricane season has put a squeeze on disaster organizations since July, according to Maj. Henry Gonzalez, Texas divisional commander for Salvation Army, and the donations haven’t matched up to the storms. The Salvation Army spent an estimated $800,000 to $900,000 in the six weeks after Hurricane Dolly hit southern Texas in July, according to Maj. Gonzalez, but only received $50,000 in donations after the storm. “I hope this is not a trend because if it is, then the Salvation Army disaster services could be in trouble,” he said, who explained he had faith that donors will respond with donations.

The Salvation Army served more than 55,000 meals in only three days after Hurricane Ike, with those numbers growing as more evacuated families come back to unlivable conditions in their towns. Three days after Hurricane Ike, Salvation Army received an estimated $45,000 from 250 online donors, and Maj. Gonzalez hoped that donations would continue to come in after launching a Texas direct mail appeal. “We are being stretched to the max,” he said. “We are stepping out in faith. Because of the scope of Ike, we don’t know if we are going to be providing services, whether they are emergency services or long-term services, six months from now, a year from now or two or three years from now,” said Maj. Gonzalez. The Salvation Army continued to help Texans affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, he said, spending $53 million in the three years after those disasters.

The organization spent more than $1 million in preparation and meals before Gustav hit — and has received more than $35,000 in online donations after the storm dissipated, according to Maj. George Hood, Salvation Army’s national community relations secretary.

“It’s far from where we need it to be. Historically, the American public has always responded generously, and this year it’s coming in very slow, at least for this particular storm,” said Maj. Hood. “The hype for the storm far exceeded what took place. That tends to get people to back off because they don’t sense that the need is that critical.”

According to Maj. Gene Hogg, Salvation Army’s divisional secretary for Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, “Everything that we were listening to told us that we would be facing a Katrina event.” He said that the organization prepared for the worst with Gustav because he “did not want to be at a point where people were standing on rooftops and floating around in bathtubs – hungry, thirsty, and without hope.”

Maj. Hogg said that the Alexandria, Va.-based organization did not yet know how much was spent mobilizing more than 100 mobile canteens traveling from Maryland and other areas and four mobile kitchens, in addition to operating 15 shelters and setting up other feeding areas. The Salvation Army served more than 200,000 meals before the storm landed, and expected to continue for more than a week as power is restored to hard hit areas.

But donations coming from the organization’s national Web site are miniscule compared to the job ahead – including damage assessments, more meals and family assistance.

“It’s going to be very difficult to raise funds to cover the expenses we are going to put out. The national media is walking away from this pretty much. I think what’s going to happen is the urgency that was communicated prior to the storm got everyone geared up for a Katrina-like event. Luckily, it did not turn out to be so, and our attention turned quickly to the Republican national party or something else,” said Maj. Hogg, who said the organization launched damage assessments after the storm.

The Red Cross said Hurricane Gustav spurred its biggest relief response since Hurricane Katrina – costing the organization more than $45 million and counting. ARC is faced with a “challenging fundraising situation,” according to Jeffrey Towers, chief development officer. Donors are saying the organization “dodged a bullet,” and donations are reflecting that mindset, according to Towers.

In the days after Gustav, online donations plummeted – from $1.3 million on Labor Day, $325,000 on Tuesday and a mere $70,000 on Wednesday – and just $5 million raised overall as of early September. ARC decided on that Thursday to launch a comprehensive fundraising campaign the following Sept. 8 mailing within all 740 ARC chapters with a $100-million goal across all areas of fundraising, including online and direct mail. Towers said the organization began calling foundations, corporations and major donors for support.

ARC spent nearly $12 million for mobilization and supplies, such as cots, blankets and meals, before Gustav’s landfall, according to ARC spokesman Rob Levine.

The organization had almost 900 shelters serving nearly 265,000 people after Gustav and Ike took their toll. ARC estimates it will cost more than $45 million to support people in the Gulf Coast area affected by Gustav alone, according to Towers, and the costs to feed people affected by prolonged power outages is expected to increase. As of the morning of Sept. 14, ARC had sheltered 264,165 overnight stays, served more than 1.2 million meals and distributed 50,000 comfort kits, with the help of more than 13,000 Red Cross workers.

Expenses for Ike are anticipated to be “substantially larger than for Gustav,” Towers said, though it was still being assessed at presstime Sept. 15. There are some 600,000 homes in four affected counties with major damage that makes them uninhabitable.

To date, only $10 million has been raised through the national ARC, not including fundraising by chapters, with about $3.4 million of that coming via the Web and another $4.1 million in corporate gifts.

Media coverage for Ike and Gustav has not been sustained while the ARC’s 800 number has been “very slow,” Towers said, adding that the organization recently launched a direct mail appeal to about 2.2 million donors who have made prior contributions to the national office during disasters.

United Way established a United Way 2008 Hurricane Recovery Fund to aid the long-term rehabilitation of affected communities and began talks with 125 United Way National Corporate Leadership (NCL) companies that work with the organization in times of disaster. “People need to feel a sense of urgency in order to give support, particularly in tough economic times,” said Sally Fabens, public relations director for United Way of America.

Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain drove visitors from their campaign Web sites to The Aidmatrix Foundation to donate toward Hurricane Gustav relief. The Aidmatrix Foundation, a nonprofit based in Dallas, allows participating nonprofits and state agencies to use donation portals on their Web sites. The Aidmatrix Network provides the technology to coordinate relief efforts with cash donations, supplies and volunteers across organizations such as FEMA and National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD).

State portals include Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida and other states affected by Gustav, according to Aidmatrix CEO and President Scott McCallum, a former Wisconsin governor. The foundation handles $1.5 billion of aid annually, according to McCallum, and is used by 35,000 nonprofits, corporations and government entities in the network, even though McCallum, pointed out that The Aidmatrix Foundation provides the technology, not the aid.

The Salvation Army, in addition to online donation solicitations, started looking at prices for doing a direct mail territorial campaign in the southern 15 states and Washington, D.C. “There are people who’s lives have been devastated — the only people who know that are people that read the newspaper near Houma, La., or live there,” said Maj. Ron Busroe, secretary for community relations and development for the south-east Salvation Army. NPT