Powerful hurricanes cut a swath of destruction through the Caribbean and southeast United States early last month, prompting what’s likely to be the largest philanthropic response to natural disasters in at least a half-decade. Hurricanes Jose and Maria were on their way at presstime.
More than 200,000 people in six states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands — including 132,000 overnight on Sept. 10 — sought refuge from Hurricane Irma, with almost 8,000 still in shelters because of Hurricane Harvey, according to the American Red Cross. Harvey and Irma are likely to have the biggest impact since Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and possibly Hurricane Katrina in 2006.
The expansive need came just two weeks after Harvey made landfall. Some preliminary estimates have pegged Harvey-related damage in Texas and Louisiana as exceeding that of Katrina. Michael Hicks, an economist at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., estimated Harvey’s total damage will be $198 billion as compared to Hurricane Katrina’s total, in current dollars, of $194 billion.
The breadth of destruction has led to the use of new fundraising and response strategies and mechanisms, complementing more traditional crisis-response methods.
Social media and technology have made it possible for unique and personal appeals directly to donors, said Una Osili, associate dean for research and international programs at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University-Purdue University (IUPUI). In the same way that giving by text message became more prominent after the Haiti earthquake in 2010, crowdfunding took on a new role in response to Harvey. Many crowdfunding platforms were operational after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Osili said, but they were relatively small and not as widespread.
Houston Texans football player J.J. Watt posted a video message on social media, directing donors to give to the Houston Flood Relief Fund set up on the crowdfunding platform YouCaring.com. The effort easily surpassed its initial goal of $500,000 within hours and continued climbing, eclipsing $37 million from 201,000 when it closed on Sept. 17. Funds went to his Justin J. Watt Foundation, which coordinated relief supplies to the Houston area.
Traditional outlets also have raised prominent sums after Hurricane Harvey. As of Sept. 18, estimates were:
• $211 million, American Red Cross;
• $60.9 million, Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund established by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, and housed at the Greater Houston Community Foundation (GHCF);
• $25.9 million, United Way of Greater Houston Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund; and,
• $49.4 million, Rebuild Texas Fund, launched by Gov. Greg Abbott with the help of matching gifts from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and housed at Austin-based OneStar Foundation.
Corporations have donated more than $150 million to relief efforts, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, including some 70 gifts of at least $1 million.
Donors to Fidelity Charitable’s donor-advised fund recommended some 9,500 grants totaling $17.3 million specifically designated for Hurricane Harvey and Irma response as of Sept. 10. Fidelity Charitable creates a designation after a disaster specifically for the event so organizations know that’s where people want their money going, according to a spokesperson. So, donors could very well have directed more than $17 million to disaster organizations generally.
A 12-member advisory committee has already been put in place to administer dollars from the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund, according to a GHCF spokesperson. GHCF has sought support from other philanthropic partners to cover management and administrative costs so that 100 percent of dollars will go to long-term and immediate need efforts. Areas of focus will include shelter and temporary housing, healthcare, transportation, and childcare needs not met by other local and federal efforts. Grant information will be shared publicly on the foundation’s website.
The Rebuild Texas Fund will focus on long-term needs in health and housing, schools and children, workforce and transportation, and rebuilding small businesses, according to Elizabeth Darling, president and CEO of OneStar Foundation. Cognizant of the philanthropic dollars that will be needed once media and public attention dies down, Abbott and the Dells have sought a means of keeping dollars flowing, with a fundraising goal of $100 million.
Darling noted that the rebuilding timeframe will be different from community to community. Leaders in Corpus Christi, which was not hit as hard as expected, were able to begin mucking, demolishing, and rebuilding within a week of the storm’s landfall. Beaumont, hit later in Harvey’s cycle, was still flooded at the time and will function on a different timeframe.
A distribution schedule for the fund was not set as of presstime, though preliminary processes such as arranging a fund advisory committee and reporting system to provide public transparency were underway. Intermediary-type organizations with direct connections and networks with municipalities will likely be the prime beneficiaries of fund dollars, the idea being that such organizations can most efficiently use the capital. Darling expects the fund to be active for up to three years.
The Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP) has seen its greatest fundraising effort to date, due in part to Facebook. The social media platform matched gifts to CDP up to $1 million, which was quickly reached, even crashing the charity’s website in the days after the storm. CDP’s Harvey fund raised more than $11 million, including the $1 million match from Facebook, according to President and CEO Bob Ottenhoff.
What prompted the partnership was “the power of this storm and the overriding recognition that this is going to be a long haul after this,” Ottenhoff said. When CDP was established, it was to be for mid- and long-term activities, something that appealed to Facebook as well, he said.
CDP has been active for other disasters, including the Hurricane Sandy, the Haiyan typhoon, and Nepal earthquake, but this is the largest amount ever raised for its disaster fund. Ottenhoff said the organization is better situated and better known now, able to draw some attention to issues of effective giving after a disaster.
“Part of it is history, we were started after Katrina. It took some time to establish ourselves,” he said, adding that Hurricane Harvey probably ranks second only to Katrina in terms of destruction over the past decade.
Early FEMA estimates projected 500,000 individual applications for assistance, according to Meadows Foundation President and CEO Linda Perryman Evans.
Perryman participated in the call with leadership from GHCF, the Council on Foundations, and FEMA and noted that the early estimates, while expansive, came prior to flooding to communities such as Rock-port and Beaumont. More than 220,000 assistance applications had been approved as of Sept. 12, according to FEMA’s website, with $305 million in individual and household dollars approved and $181 million in public- assistance grants.
Foundation leaders reached out to grantees including The Salvation Army and Red Cross prior to Harvey’s landfall to established a response dialogue, but foundation support is likely to come later in the process, Evans said. While entities such as the Justin J. Watt Foundation, United Way, and community foundations provide front line support, The Meadows Foundation in Dallas will likely come in on the backend, replenishing the coffers of organizations that leapt into crisis-management mode.
“It’s almost too early for us,” she said a little over a week after the storm. “We usually take that long-term approach. We are here immediately if they need us and if they call us, but really we are here for the long-term needs and to help them with that,” Evans said.
The foundation’s leadership has taken a similar approach to response in years past. Following the Sept. 11 terror attacks, for instance, leadership helped expand the capabilities of inundated American Red Cross missing- person call lines. The organization helped rebuild animal shelters wiped out after floods in Austin in 2015.
Evans noted that a number of Houston-area arts organizations canceled performances due to the storm and will need help filling gaps in anticipated revenue. Other organizations throughout the state have diverted donations to help respond to relief efforts and will need help making up the difference for their own budgetary needs.
Other areas where The Meadows Foundation, and foundation support in general, might be able to fill needs include capital expenses relating to organizations’ damaged facilities and equipment and community mental health needs.
Evans noted that, post-Katrina, the mental-health needs of affected communities were significant as individuals struggled to cope with the loss of their homes and possessions. A similar need is expected along Texas’ coast.
Local food banks are among the entities that have needed to regain their own footing before helping their communities. Houston Food Bank was flooded and inaccessible in the days after Harvey and the Food Bank of Corpus Christi incurred roof damage. The majority of centers were operational as of a week after the storm, according to Celia Cole, CEO of Feeding Texas — a network of 21 state food banks. Exceptions included sites in Victoria, which was dealing with Internet connectivity issues, and Beaumont, which was still dealing with area flooding.
Cole said that comprehensive facilities assessments have yet to be conducted given the response-mode centers have been in since Harvey’s landfall and expects repairs to be made on a patchwork basis. Funding and attention has been on distribution with Houston Food Bank expecting to distribute 1 million pounds of food per day for the “foreseeable future.” The total is nearly five times the food bank’s average yearly output of 75 million pounds. The network has been working with the United States Department of Agriculture and Texas Department of Agriculture to ensure available resources for a sustained response. Inland food banks have been on standby, accepting products on behalf of their coastal counterparts, with affiliates as far west as Odessa running shipments across the state.
The distribution network is nothing novel for Feeding Texas, Cole explained. As there are limited locations in the state capable of growing produce, the San Antonio area being one of them, a network was formed with farmers to distribute surplus product north and west. Feeding Texas turned to that same distribution network once donated items started flowing in after Hurricane Harvey.
“I do think that, from Feeding Texas’ point of view, we’ll deploy funds and supplies to victims of the storm,” Cole said of the organization’s efforts, which had totaled $1.5 million in storm-related donations after two weeks. “Get food and supplies — that is the goal. The goal is to raise enough money to continue to mount a response. We don’t anticipate that this is a problem that will recede as quickly as the flood waters,” she said.
Ottenhoff fears the double-whammy of consecutive hurricanes might lead to some weariness by donors. Community foundations in Tampa, Orlando, Miami, Sarasota and other locales launched relief funds within days of Irma’s landfall, according to the Florida Nonprofit Alliance.
“The coverage kind of wears you out after a while. We can’t keep doing it this way. It’s just not sustainable over the long term to rely so much on voluntary contributions and support,” Ottenhoff said, adding that country must come to grips with the fact that there are more disasters, increasing in frequency and intensity that require more planning and preparation.
The donating public, meanwhile, must realize that donations after an event are important but the real work is going to take years. “We haven’t come to grips with that yet. A donation in the short-term for emergency housing and food is not going to solve the majority of problems caused by that disaster,” Ottenhoff said.
In some circles, there seems to be increased skepticism of donating to the American Red Cross in the recent disasters, instead pushing donors to give to local organizations or other nonprofits. Reports by Pro-Publica and NPR in recent years took issue with how much was raised and spent by the federally-chartered disaster relief charity after the earthquake in Haiti and Hurricane Sandy, which struck the New York region. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner criticized The American Red Cross for what he perceived as a slow response to $400 in aid from donations to families.
Reached for response, a Red Cross spokesperson claimed that an unprecedented demand for services created a challenge for the organization’s information-technology infrastructure and led to a temporary suspension in service. The organization is in the process of amending operating procedures to ensure smoothness when the assistance-grant application system reopens. It was anticipated that the new application would launch online on Sept. 21. It will remain open through Oct. 10, the spokesperson said via email.
Prior to the suspension, the Red Cross distributed $45 million in aid to 100,000 affected households on Sept. 11 alone, the first day financial assistance was provided. Red Cross has also helped provide food, shelter, relief supplies, health services, and emotional and spiritual care in the aftermath of Harvey.
Still, the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit raised millions in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, including some $15 million from Disney’s Day of Giving on ABC, and also was announced as the recipient of numerous donations by celebrities or professional sports teams and other corporations.
Ottenhoff said skepticism of the Red Cross and nonprofit sector generally could be similar to the questioning or loss of faith in other institutions in recent years, including religion, media, journalism and government. “When you read negative stories about the Red Cross, that’s not good for the nonprofit sector generally. It feeds that skepticism.
On top of that, you have people who take advantage of disasters or start organizations that are not very good or engage in self-aggrandizement,” he said. “There’s already a heightened awareness of being careful when you make a contribution,” Ottenhoff said. “This makes all of us in the nonprofit sector work a little harder to demonstrate accountability and transparency, that we are legitimate organization and we will use money wisely,” he said.
“The Red Cross is sort of on the vanguard of that, the issues they’re confronting are ones about which all nonprofits have to be concerned.”