Sandy Donations Lagging Far Behind Smaller Storms

December 10, 2012       Patrick Sullivan      

Donations to Hurricane Sandy relief are trending far behind the terrorist attacks of September 11, the 2005 South Pacific tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 Haiti earthquake. According to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (CoP), giving for Sandy most resembles giving for the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

The CoP estimates that after three weeks, fundraising for Sandy, which rampaged up the East Coast impacting 65 million people in 11 states in late October, stood at $219 million, compared to $188 million for the Japanese disaster. But after the same period, fundraising for the 2005 tsunami was $610 million, Haiti received $752 million, fundraising for September 11 was $876 million, and fundraising for Katrina was $1.3 billion.

“It’s surprising because (fundraising is) remarkably low for a disaster of this magnitude,” said Patrick Rooney, CoP’s Executive Director. “The perception is that areas hit (by Sandy) are relatively more affluent, although there may be low and middle-income families wiped out by Sandy. The financial dollar value (of damage) may be even higher for Sandy, but it appears to have affected more affluent households than Katrina and the tsunami and Haiti.”

Four weeks out from Sandy, CoP’s estimate of the fundraising total was $244 million. The bulk of that went to the American Red Cross (ARC), based in Washington, D.C. According to Director of Media Relations Anne Marie Borrego, ARC had received about $172 million in donations as of December 4, a little more than a month after Sandy made landfall. She said donations are still coming in. ARC estimated it will spend about $110 million through the end of 2012, and “what’s left over is what we’ll look to spend on long-term recovery,” said Borrego.

A month after the storm, ARC was beginning to transition from an emergency response phase to a recovery phase, said Trevor Riggen, vice president of disaster operations. “The challenge is that recovery is a very local effort,” he said. “We have to work with local partners and families to see what is the right next step. The next phase is really doing a solid needs assessment, prioritizing where resources should go and working to take those next steps. The biggest change (from emergency response to recovery) is it moves from massive services,” to a more case-by-case assessment of needs, said Riggen.

The ARC experienced multiple peaks in service. “Late October was a peak for sheltering. We had 350 shelters operating and sheltered 15,000 people,” said Riggen. “Once people started to go back to their communities, we saw the power outages drag out. Feeding was the priority, and that peaked on November 5, when we served 500,000 meals and snacks. Now we’re distributing items like blankets, coats and cleaning supplies.” That phase peaked on November 17, said Riggen, a day on which ARC distributed 800,000 items.

ARC had approximately 2,200 disaster workers in the field a month later, almost all of whom are in New York and New Jersey and 90 percent of whom are volunteers. As the response stretches out, volunteers have to return to their normal lives. “We typically have them on site two to three weeks at a time,” said Riggen. “We have a workforce planning team that’s constantly replacing people” according to that two-to-three-week cycle, he said. ARC also recruits volunteers from affected communities to “help anywhere from a few hours to a few days,” said Riggen.

Power outages, gas shortages and infrastructure damage plagued relief workers just as they made things miserable for those living in the areas impacted. Another challenge was responding in such a large area; 11 states initially plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, in total an area about the size of Europe. The areas most heavily impacted were predominantly urban.

“Sandy has been incredibly complex,” Riggen said. “When we have events, many times that’s more of a flat disaster where we’re going house to house and meeting different needs.” In contrast, said Riggen, Sandy was more of a “vertical” disaster. “Families and seniors are in high-rises, and the challenge is in identifying where they are and getting to them,” he said.

The United Way of New York City (UWNYC) has taken administrative ownership of the United Way Hurricane Sandy Recovery Fund for the organization’s Alexandria, Va. worldwide headquarters. The fund raised about $2 million in the first week after the storm and nearly $10 million a month later. UWNYC President & CEO Sheena Wright said her chapter was tapped to administer the fund because “New York City is a large media market and major corporations live and reside here.”

UWNYC receives the donations and distributes them to United Way state associations, which then pass them out to their chapters and partners. UWNYC will charge no fees to administer the fund. Wright said UWNYC is still in the process of releasing money from the funds. “Needs are defining how the funds will be used,” said Wright, adding that the fund will be kept open indefinitely. “We’re focused on longer term needs not covered in the next three, four, five, six months,” she said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), in partnership with the ARC and others, has helped distribute 3.2 million meals, 2.4 million liters of water and 210,000 blankets in New York. It has also paid roughly $714 million to affected individuals and families in New York as of one month later. Families can get grants of up to $31,900 from FEMA.

FEMA does not give grants to businesses, but its sister agency, the Small Business Administration, has paid out nearly $157 million to about 2,500 individuals, businesses and nonprofits throughout the affected region, according to a press release dated December 7. Nonprofits can get a loan of up to $2 million from the SBA at a 3 percent interest rate on 30-year terms. The deadline to apply for loans for physical damage is December 31, 2012 and July 31, 2013 for economic injury loans, in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Public affairs specialist Jay MacKenna said that most nonprofit loan applications were still being reviewed as of early December.

Like ARC, FEMA is beginning to transition out of the emergency phase and into recovery. “The first priority in any crisis is life saving: search and rescue, emergency medical care, anything you need to do immediately to save lives,” said External Affairs Officer Ed Conley. “Once you’ve got the situation stabilized, set up your distribution points and logistics lines and have notified people of their availability, they you get information out on financial aid.”

Some of that financial aid will be in the form of grants that will go to companies and organizations to provide mental health services, said Conley. Bob Ottenhoff, president and CEO of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP) in Washington, D.C., said his organization, which had raised about $500,000 in the month after Sandy, would be focusing on mental health and children’s services. “This is a traumatic storm,” he said. “A lot of kids had to be rescued, day care has been disrupted, schools have been disrupted, and we’re concerned about long-term mental health issues.”

The CDP was formed in part because founders did not believe there was enough collaboration among institutional and high-net-worth donors after Hurricane Katrina. Ottenhoff said that hasn’t been as much of a problem for Sandy. “I think grantmakers in New Jersey and New York are aware of the need to coordinate and make sure (collaboration) does happen,” he said.

Like CDP, the Salvation Army (SA) is beginning to focus on mental health care for storm victims, said Maj. John Hodgson, community relations and development secretary for the SA’s Eastern Territory, based in West Nyack, N.Y. “We have a lot of people out right now walking the streets and doing emotional care,” he said. “We just try to be there and sit with folks and talk with them and let them express themselves.”

The SA also runs disaster assistance service centers — at least 20 in New York and New Jersey — where “people can get help with FEMA applications, insurance, vouchers for clothing, heaters, food, clothes,” said Hodgson. The SA had raised about $14 million for Sandy relief in the Eastern Territory in the month after the storm.

The Alexandria, Va.-based organization has an inherent advantage, said Hodgson, in that its corps are all over the United States, including in affected areas: about 45 in New York City neighborhoods alone. “Because we are permanently in most of these locations, people know the Army, know where we are, and we are easy to find,” said Hodgson. Being in affected communities can also be a disadvantage, as Hodgson said several staff members and regular volunteers had damage to their own homes. “They still responded, but it took them a little longer,” he said.

The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the federal agency that oversees the AmeriCorps program, had about 600 volunteers deployed a month after Sandy, down from about 1,350 in the storm’s immediate aftermath. “Immediately following the storm, the majority of volunteers were working in shelters. We were still in response mode,” said Acting Press Secretary Samantha Jo Warfield.

One month later, “we’re in the recovery phase, and members are starting to take on the role AmeriCorps is best suited for: opening and leading volunteer reception centers,” and the physical work of cleanup and debris removal, said Warfield. As individuals and groups move into affected areas and want to help, AmeriCorps members figure out where the community’s needs are, give volunteers training, and send them to where they’re needed.

Sandy was the first time all the teams of FEMA Corps, created earlier this year, have been deployed. “The FEMA Corps teams are unique in the type of work they do, a new element for disaster response,” said Warfield. FEMA Corps members go door-to-door in affected areas to help connect citizens to aid resources available. “They give us another tool to respond to disaster,” said Warfield. All 42 teams have been deployed to affected areas. Warfield said she expects another large deployment of AmeriCorps members in the new year.

Tony Sellars, director of communications for Feed the Children (FTC), said his organization is still responding to Sandy with food and cleaning supplies. The Oklahoma City, Okla.-based nonprofit has delivered 46 shipments of relief supplies in the month after the storm hit, and Sellars said he expects at least that number of shipments to be delivered in the coming months. Sellars estimated that FTC’s supplies have been depleted by at least 50 percent due to the response.

“We’re always looking for both cash and product,” said Sellars. “Product is critical because the supplies we’ve built up have been depleted and we need to replace them, whether for Sandy or whatever is going to happen in the spring. You don’t know when the disaster is going to hit but you know it’s going to hit and you need to be ready.”

Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA), the third largest nonprofit in America according to NPT’s 2012 Top 100, has raised more than $2.5 million for disaster relief in response to Sandy and donations for relief are still coming in, said Candy Hill, senior vice president for social policy and government affairs for the Alexandria, Va.-based organization. “While (fundraising) has been steady, the needs of the people on the ground are tremendous,” said Hill. “Now that we’re a fair distance from the storm, our real long-term work begins, and it takes a large amount of resources.”

CCUSA gained about 1,860 new donors from a Google and Facebook ad campaign, said Hill. It also sent out a total of 87,400 emails in three waves, which garnered on average a 5.15 percent response rate. Hill said that the response rate climbed for each of the appeals. “From an analytical point of view, we did not see a dropoff during the e-campaign,” she said. In all, about 11,000 donors responded to the ad and email campaigns, said Hill.

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