In the days after Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston, hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of donations poured into disaster relief agencies. But that level of aid is nowhere to be found for victims of Hurricane Maria, even though it’s been weeks since the storm knocked out clean water and power to much of Puerto Rico and nearly leveled the island’s infrastructure.
So far, the American Red Cross has received $350 million in donations and pledges to rebuild after Harvey, dwarfing the $9 million collected for Hurricane Maria. And while the private sector has donated $271 million to Harvey and Irma relief efforts in cash and other quantifiable donations, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation Corporate Citizenship Center, they’ve given only $32.9 million toward Maria relief.
“We’re seeing a trickle of funds still coming in, but it’s a trickle,” explained Bob Ottenhoff, who heads the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, which seeks to improve how people give to disaster relief. “It’s in part because the news cycle has moved onto other things. So now there’s a new hurricane that people are paying attention to … there’s guns, there’s been Las Vegas. So all of that just kind of hastens the normal end of the giving pattern.”
“We’re seeing a trickle of funds still coming in, but it’s a trickle.”
It’s possible that other corporations have donated — the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation tracks corporate aid based on publicly available information and data submitted directly by the companies. But the disparity between the two disasters — one on the mainland U.S. and one largely off — is striking.
The Foundation lists nearly 300 companies that donated either money or services to Harvey recovery efforts. For Maria, that number is far lower: Just 38 companies have contributed so far.
Plus, not every dollar of those companies’ contributions will exclusively go to rebuilding after Maria. Many of the donations were earmarked for multiple “hurricane relief” or “disaster relief” efforts. Only 16 companies specifically direct money or services toward rebuilding Puerto Rico. And because many of the donated services — which include Delta flights carrying supplies and free stays at Airbnb homes — don’t come with an estimated cost, the listed dollar amounts for donations devoted to only Puerto Rico adds up to just $8.75 million.
It’s hard to say why, exactly, Maria recovery efforts have received relatively little cash. It’s possible, that after a string of natural disasters, donors were feeling tapped out. But Ottenhoff doesn’t blame so-called “donor fatigue,” explaining that Puerto Rico simply lacks the so-called “personal connections” that drive people to donate.
Thanks to Puerto Rico’s decade-long economic crisis, there are few deep-pocketed employers remaining on the island who are invested in rebuilding. Plus, since many Puerto Ricans have left the island in search of economic opportunity, there are relatively few people left on the island. And without friends and family living on the island, many Americans on the mainland may not feel compelled to contribute to restoring it.
The fact that most reporters had trouble getting to the island also didn’t help; by the time they did arrive, the 24-hour news cycle had moved on.
“Puerto Rico was virtually not accessible for a few days.”
“Puerto Rico was virtually not accessible for a few days. And so the lack of attention, I think, also helped contribute to a lack of contributions,” Ottenhoff said. In comparison, during Harvey, “because there was no mandatory evacuations, there was lots of coverage of people having to be rescued. Dramatic pictures, you know, dramatic stories being told of people being rescued.”
Tony Morain, the communications director for the disaster aid agency Direct Relief, says it’s possible that some corporations may be holding back on giving until later on. Individuals’ donations to a disaster tend to peter out after a week, he said, but companies and foundations often wait longer before they give.
“A lot of [those] donations are thoughtful and patient, and waiting to see what needs aren’t being addressed by contributions that are immediately following the emergency,” Morain said.
So far, Direct Relief has received $1.4 million in online donations directed exclusively toward helping Puerto Rico, compared to about $6.8 million for Harvey relief. (That includes both online donations and mailed checks; Direct Relief hasn’t yet counted all the checks it’s received for Puerto Rico relief.) But Morain says more money is coming in — and when it does, Puerto Rico may be better off for having waited for it. Only about 5 to 10 percent of all disaster relief money ends up going toward long-term recovery, Ottenhoff said.
“Ultimately, one thing you can do is not forget about Puerto Rico,” Ottenhoff said. “Your dollars next month or a year right now will be just as critical as the dollars you give today.”