While the amount of cash and in-kind contributions to disaster relief from the corporate and nonprofit sectors might seem significant—it can routinely stretch into the hundreds of millions domestically—it is nonetheless far too low to adequately address the long-term challenges faced by communities stricken with major disaster events, experts say. And the results of this gap can be seen quite clearly in Puerto Rico, where—as of press time, several months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island—some 40 percent of its residents are still without power and much of the country lacks basic services.
According to Bob Ottenhoff, CEO and president of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, the total charitable commitment to relief efforts following the series of storms that struck the U.S. mainland and Caribbean in late summer/fall of 2017 topped $600 million. Some $335 million went to Harvey relief, $128 million went to Irma-related relief and $65 million went to efforts related to Hurricanes Maria and Jose.
“That’s not nearly adequate,” Ottenhoff said. “It doesn’t even touch what’s needed for long-term recovery.”
According to Ottenhoff, statistics show that about 70 percent of grants and donations to disaster relief come in within the first two months of the event. By the end of the third or fourth month, funding usually dries up completely. But the need for funding hasn’t abated at all.
“One of the biggest challenges is cleaning out or rebuilding homes, schools and businesses,” he said. In areas that have flooded, burned, been ravaged by winds or been toppled by earthquakes, the sheer number of structures that are rendered unusable can be astounding. And until they are reclaimed and put back in use, the local economy and civil society cannot recover.
There’s a downward spiral of economic issues, he said. First off, people can’t work due to a variety of reasons—for example, their workplaces are destroyed, or they have to stay home and care for their children because the local schools are closed, or they have relocated because their homes have become uninhabitable. This results in fewer people around to help with the necessary recovery work, like cleaning and rebuilding homes and businesses, repairing infrastructure, re-establishing social services and caring for those who’ve been injured during the event. And in turn, there’s fewer people to buy any products or services that might be brought back online as recovery slogs along, making it difficult for those who’ve reopened businesses in the aftermath.
And then there’s the challenging task of coordinating the various actors involved in long-term recovery, Ottenhoff said.
“There’s a crazy quilt of government agencies, funders and relief organizations, all with their own requirements and agendas,” he said.
What’s more, the major disaster relief agencies simply don’t have the capacity to handle the seemingly endless disaster events that come along, he added.
“I know of a number of groups that were working in New Orleans after the 2016 floods, and were pulled off of long-term recovery work to respond to the 2017 storms,” he said. “They are all overstretched and underfunded. Very few have the resources, volunteers or staffing to respond effectively to long-term needs.”
More funding dedicated to disaster relief would obviously help. But just as important, Ottenhoff said, is that funders of all stripes start taking a long-term, strategic view when it comes to their contributions to the disaster relief arena.
“Companies and foundations should continue to fund immediate response efforts, but need to start thinking about the full life cycle of a disaster event,” he said.
That means dedicating more funding to preparation and building resiliency among communities prone to disasters. For every $1 that goes into planning, it saves $6 in terms of response and relief costs, he said.
“Funders need to figure out some formula where they give sufficiently to address needs before and long after a disaster—not just during and immediately after,” he said.
Ottenhoff said he is encouraged by a trend among major corporations to put their products, services, expertise and employees to use in disaster response. He noted the efforts of UPS, which draws on its vast transportation capabilities and logistics expertise to move supplies to disaster zones and help distribute them to those who need them most, as well as Walmart’s partnerships with relief agencies, under which the global retailer delivers an array of much-needed food, beverages, medical supplies, clothing and other goods—leveraging both employee volunteers and on-the-clock workers.
“Companies and nonprofits need to establish similar partnerships now, so that they have things lined up well in advance of the next disaster,” he said.
Prepositioning resources—including disaster relief supplies and staff—in areas prone to such events is one way to ensure that responses are efficient and well-coordinated, and helps lessen the long-term impacts.
And evaluating ways in which new technologies can be put to use to help in all stages of planning, response and recovery will also pay off, he said.
“There needs to be more use of technology—for example, to manage supplies and resources and identify who’d been impacted and needs help,” he said.
Keeping the public informed of the continued need for donations and support in the months after a disaster may also help—after all, individual donations account for more than foundation grants and corporate contributions combined.
“Everyone needs to work together to ensure that nonprofit relief agencies are well-funded, organized and have the capacity to effectively respond to disasters,” he said.
For more information, Ottenhoff can be reached at (202) 595-1026 or email@example.com, or visit www.disasterphilanthropy.org.