Sunday, September 04, 2005


Are we donating money to pay for disaster relief operations or to give as gifts to the hurricane Katrina victims?

They are not the same thing, and it is a question that I think deserves some consideration.

Right now all over the country, people are donating money to help the victims of hurricane Katrina. Everyone donating needs to put a few moments thought into where their donation is going. Obviously, they should make sure that they are donating to a real charity and not to a confidence scam; there are non-comprehensive lists of legitimate charities involved in the disaster response at Instapundit, and FEMA’s website. But we need to go beyond just that and consider where we want the money to ultimately end up. The donations that are given this week cannot be sent backwards in time to buy relief supplies last week when they were most needed. It is non unlikely, therefore, that after this is all over there will have been more money donated to these legitimate charities than they have spent on both disaster relief and normal post-disaster recovery assistance. I want to warn everyone that these charities may not divide up all the money they have left and give it as payments to the victims of this high-profile disaster or provide Katrina’s victims with more elaborate forms of post-disaster aid than is normally given to the survivors of less publicized disasters like building fires or tornadoes. Instead the charities may keep the extra money for themselves to spend on either preparing for the next large disaster or helping victims of ongoing smaller disasters that might not receive any national news coverage at all! Shocking, I know, that charities might divert money this way to needy people we haven’t even seen on TV but it is a reality that donors should be prepared for when deciding who to trust with their donations.

Personally, I think that donations to disaster relief charities being made right now should go into their general budget and that if the charities have any surplus still left after providing their normal level of assistance to hurricane Katrina’s victims then that money should be used for helping victims of and preparing for other disasters around the country. I think that disaster victims should be helped with the same enthusiasm regardless of how dramatic or publicized the disaster was. Up until 2001 I thought that was a fairly typical attitude and that only a sick solipsist would feel that people who he saw suffering should be helped more than people he didn't, but apparently a lot of other people disagree with me.

I donated to the Red Cross immediately after the 9-11 insurgent attacks that year, like a lot of other people. I assumed that if they had any money left after providing help to the victims and feeding the other emergency crews, that they would use the extra to prepare for the next disaster or the next attack in what I assumed would be a long terrorist war. Imagine my surprise when prominent news media figures began attacking charities for doing exactly what I expected (and assumed everyone else expected) instead of dividing up the loot and cutting big checks to the families of 9-11 victims! At first, the idea that the 9-11 victims and their families should get gifts of so much more money than we give anonymous victims of an apartment building arson or other “mundane” disaster seemed so bizarre and illogical that I naturally assumed that something nefarious was going on and that the extortionists or scam artists pushing the story would soon be exposed. Instead more and more seemingly respectable news outlets, who assured me that they spoke on behalf of hordes of howling donors, demanded that every penny of the over $1 billion raised for disaster relief charities in the wake of the attacks to go to the 9-11 victims families “to guarantee security for everyone who’s suffered a loss in the attacks.” Congressmen beat their chests in outrage, the head of the Red Cross resigned, and a special fund was set up just for the 9-11 families that victims of less photogenic disasters would not have access to. No one, at least no one on TV, echoed my concern over turning disaster relief into a sympathy contest with six figure prizes for the unlucky winners.

So if you are one of those many donors who believe in the disaster relief lottery, then you should to heed my warning and be careful about who you donate to or you might be outraged to discover that part of your hurricane Katrina donation winds up helping Wisconsin tornado victims or some other non-Katrina sufferers. I’m sure that if you look hard enough there are charitable funds being set up exclusively for Katrina victims, perhaps even some for just New Orleanean victims. A little care now in researching the proper charity will keep you from feeling betrayed later.

If, on the other hand, you are like me and think that any hurricane Katrina donation surpluses should be used by the charities for other relief and preparation efforts then you should also be careful about who you donate to. Once I would have suggested that a cash donation to the Red Cross is a good place to donate for general disaster relief. Unfortunately that may not be true in this case. There are a lot of dishonest New Orleaneans, from the politicians who sent their cronies around to extort bribes from businesses on the excuse of them not having enough horse hitching posts down to the modern-day Fagins who have children bet gullible tourists that they can tell them where they got their shoes*, that suddenly don’t have anything to do (or at least they won’t after all the good looting is done) but sit around their new host communities listening to the huge amounts of money that are being raised for disaster relief charities and scheme about how they can get control of some of it. I certainly hope I am wrong, but I expect that before the streets are dry in Orleans Parish we will see self-appointed community leaders and well dressed lawyers making television appearances to decry how unfair it is that the money donated “to them” is being stolen by greedy charities for use in other disasters instead of being put in a special fund “to rebuild New Orleans” that they can more easily skim money out of or take kickbacks on the contracts from. Since so many of the high profile donations are for the Red Cross and the special “Liberty Disaster Fund” set aside just for 9-11 victims showed that the Red Cross can be bullied into giving preferential treatment, I fear that any surplus donations to the Red Cross will be an obvious target for victims who want more than their “fair share” of the generous gifts its donors make. Anyone wanting to make sure that their disaster relief donations are really only used for disaster relief in a needs-based (as opposed to a publicity-based) manner might want to consider spreading their donations around to some of the lower profile, but equally effective, disaster relief groups like Southern Baptist Convention -- Disaster Relief and Mennonite Disaster Service. Perhaps the best way to have control over how your donations are used is to donate your time by volunteering for one of your local disaster relief organizations.

I think it is a shame that people will use the opportunity of a disaster to get things at the expense of others, but it is a reality that we should not be blind to even in our scramble to help the truly needy. A little forethought now in the mad rush to give assistance can help insure that fairness trumps media pressure and the dark side of human nature when the huge amount of money in the hurricane Katrina disaster relief funds inevitably becomes a temptation.

* The answer, btw, is “You gots dem on yo feets,” and suddenly a group of thugs materialize to insure that you pay the boy for his correct answer.

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