The Long Haul: Lessons From Charitable Responses to Previous Disasters

The Long Haul: Lessons From Charitable Responses to Previous Disasters

While media outlets — both online and print — have been quick to offer suggestions as to how individuals should channel their charitable impulses to help those affected by Hurricane Harvey, many Americans have been inspired by the stirring images of neighbors and strangers lending a hand to help each other.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the Frenchman who documented our voluntary impulse during a tour of a young America in the 1830s, would nod knowingly if he were around to see the extraordinary outpouring of generosity we have witnessed since the first days of flooding in Texas.

Time and again over the last twenty years, I've watched Americans respond quickly and generously to a series of natural and man-made disasters. Corporations and foundations also have risen to the occasion, and the lessons they've learned from their responses are of considerable value as we all weigh how to use our resources to the greatest effect in the wake of a disaster like Harvey.

But I've also learned a few things of my own from the responses to disasters like Katrina and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and would like to share them with you.

First, businesses, foundations, civic and fraternal associations, faith communities, and the public at large must be prepared to invest in both relief and rebuilding efforts. Relief from the immediate suffering and dislocation caused by an unprecedented rain event like Harvey is, rightfully, the first order of business, and Texans know that the road ahead will be long and winding. But the rest of us must be willing to hang in with them for the long haul. As Texas governor Greg Abbott said earlier this week, "Digging out of this catastrophe is going to be a multiyear project for Texas."

After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the Gulf Coast in the summer of 2005, Nancy Anthony, executive director of the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, recounted how her community was still responding to the mental health needs of first responders and survivors of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City ten years earlier.

Because they're seen as entities with significant resources, corporations are always under pressure to "get the money out the door" after a disaster occurs. But many companies have discovered that a pledge or commitment with a dollar amount attached to it can be announced immediately while the actual funds are distributed for different phases of the recovery and rebuilding process over time. In fact, that was the course of action taken by the Toshiba Corporation after Hurricane Katrina.

It was also heartening to see the pledge of $36 million made by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation — the largest to date for Harvey relief and recovery efforts. In announcing the gift, Michael Dell noted that "[i]t will take all of us together, over the long term, to rebuild our Texas communities." Interestingly, the foundation has chosen to pool its resources with others by seeding the Rebuild Texas Fund under the aegis of a charitable intermediary, the OneStar Foundation. The approach is consistent with the one taken after 9/11 by the New York Community Trust and the United Way of New York City, when they joined forces to create the September 11 Fund with the aim of both maximizing the impact of their own resources and creating a vehicle for thousands of others eager to contribute to recovery efforts.

Second, given the scale of the destruction caused by Harvey and regardless of the truly impressive scope of the charitable response, charity cannot presume to be a substitute for action by government at the local, state, and federal levels. It is estimated, for example, that rebuilding the flood-ravaged parts of Texas and Louisiana will far exceed the $50 billion in funds allocated by the Congress to states in the Northeast after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 — and that figure is likely to increase as the full scope of the devastation becomes apparent.

Third, while the dollar amounts attached to relief, recovery, and rebuilding efforts in Texas truly are staggering, small acts of kindness should not be discounted. The images of Houstonians helping neighbors through flooded streets will stick in people’s minds for decades. Something similar happened after the Indian Ocean tsunami created devastation from Thailand to Kenya in December 2004 and many tourists were stranded without access to telephones or other means of communication. However, American Express was able to track many survivors through their credit card charges and notified their loved ones back home, bringing unimaginable relief to countless families.

Fourth, national organizations like the American Red Cross are vital frontline responders. But the hard work of recovery and rebuilding inevitably falls on the shoulders of community-based organizations that are most attuned to local residents' needs. While most such organization are unknown to the general public and almost always are underresourced, they are in the best position to make a small contribution go a long way. In fact, after the Loma Prieta/Bay Area earthquake on October 17, 1989, the only large kitchen in the area in good operating shape belonged to Project Open Hand, the local Meals-on-Wheels organization for homebound people living with AIDS. Over the next few days, its staff and volunteers were able to get meals to many of the 12,000-plus residents of San Francisco's Marina district who had lost their homes.

Fifth, rebuilding efforts at their best must address underlying factors that contribute to a disaster's destructive impact, whatever they may be. While New Orleans cannot hope to avoid hurricanes in the future, the strengthening of the city's levees after Katrina should help to mitigate the damage and dislocation caused by future storms. Such efforts require stakeholders to raise their voices and make the case to government at all levels for the funding of preventive measures.

And finally, government, businesses, foundations, and the public must act to ensure that the lessons learned from previous disasters — and the stories of those who lost their lives or were profoundly affected — are not forgotten. In the fourth decade of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S., a number of local foundations were sufficiently moved to erect a memorial in a park in Greenwich Village to the 100,000-plus New Yorkers who have died from AIDS, while memorials and museums like those in Oklahoma City and on the site of the destroyed World Trade Center serve as much-needed reminders of those tragedies for future generations.

Recovery, rebuilding, and healing after a disaster know no timetable. However, small and big acts can ease the suffering of the survivors and help build stronger and more resilient communities. We just have to pay attention to the lessons learned by those who have already been through it.

Michael Seltzer directs the New York Community Trust Leadership Fellows program at Baruch College's Marxe School of Public and International Affairs in New York City. A version of this post appears on the Philanthropy New York site.