More than $174 million in donations has been raised for those affected in New York and New Jersey by Superstorm Sandy, which devastated parts of the Atlantic coast in late October.
“The more affluent and well-insured people will figure a way to recover their lives, but there are a lot of people in New York who really won’t have that capacity and can’t speak out for themselves,” says Stacy Palmer, the editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy.
Palmer tells Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered, that nonprofits in New York are also watching out for those among the poor and immigrant communities who were affected by the storm.
“There are a lot of people who can’t speak English and so can’t get typical disaster aid,” she says. “Making sure that somebody looks out for those poor, very vulnerable people who are living in the city, that’s one of the lessons that certainly previous disasters have taught us.”
Stepping into the breach to assist with disaster aid is Occupy Sandy, an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It might seem strange, but it makes sense that Occupy Wall Street would be great at doing Sandy relief: It has networks of organizers and it’s been tested camping out in adverse situations.
Thaddeus Umpster, an Occupy protester, told NPR’s Margot Adler that after what he and others experienced during Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park, they were prepared to help in the storm relief effort.
“When the police took away our generators, we built bicycle-powered generators,” he says, “and because of that the day after the storm we had bicycle-powered generators set up on the Lower East Side.”
Other former Occupy Wall Street protesters – now working with Occupy Sandy – are helping out with food preparation, unloading supplies and giving medical checks to homebound residents. Occupy Sandy was one of the first organizations on the ground in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood, but now it is working with Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The Long Haul
Any kind of giving presages the question: What happened with the money?
While still managing editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Dan Shea’s reporting followed some of that relief money in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Shea says a lot of people wanted to help Katrina victims immediately after the storm; a lot of money came flowing in, even from overseas, but then came the long-term recovery.
“What happens in these disasters is half of all giving happens in the first two weeks and tends to be focused on providing initial shelter, food and some additional cash,” Shea tells NPR’s Lyden. “The problem … is that phase is over-covered, while [during] the longer-term recovery phase, the attention and the money move on and people are in for a very long slog.”
Although many of the first responder groups, like the Red Cross, for instance, do a great job with the initial response, Shea says, they often disappear quickly. While he is not suggesting people not donate to the first-responder organizations, he asks that those interested in giving think of the long term as well.
“Perhaps look up local charities who are into the longer housing rebuilding,” he says.
Shea says many of the lessons from Katrina were evident in the early response to Sandy, but he adds we won’t know for some time how well the long-term recovery efforts will pan out.
“I think people in New York are going to look back four or five years from now, to wonder how much of that initial flow of funds and effort should have been held back a little bit to in order to focus on the more difficult phase two,” he says. “The money dries up, the interest dries up and then you have people fall to the wayside.”
In June, Shea quit the Times-Picayune ahead of projected layoffs. Now he’s volunteering his time and expertise at the St. Bernard Project, which helps rebuild disaster-affected communities.
Shea says the lessons he’s learned are that while FEMA and the Red Cross are essential up front, it’s transparency and consistency that are needed for the long haul.
This week marks the launch of a national campaign called Giving Tuesday, an effort to encourage people to give not just money, but also their time.
“It’s a day of thanks after Black Friday and Cyber Monday,” says Eileen Heisman, the CEO of National Philanthropic Trust.
She offers advice to potential donors to be loyal in their giving because it helps build planning.
“It’s really expensive for charities to find new donors and to raise money, so by doing fewer larger gifts, and then staying with them for three to five years, you’re actually helping the charity plan better and it’s easier for them to meet their mission,” Heisman tells NPR’s Lyden.
One common mistake people make, Heisman says, is that they often give to a very specific project or narrow program within a charity. These “restricted gifts” don’t help a charity out with its other needs such as computers, training and maintaining facilities.
“Really, if you like a charity and you’re going to give a small gift, consider giving an unrestricted gift,” she says. “It really is the hardest money for them to raise … [and] charities that are well run will use it wisely, I promise you.”