Hurricanes Harvey and Irma took just hours to devastate Texas and Florida, but efforts to rebuild will take years. These storms inflicted an estimated $200 billion in damages — destroying cars, flooding homes, and fracturing state infrastructure.
Fortunately, the magnitude of these storms was dwarfed by the magnitude of the philanthropic response that followed. As these natural disasters trapped millions of Texans and Floridians without power, private organizations from across the country quickly sprang into action.
Operation BBQ Relief — an organization founded in 2011 to deal with the devastation of a Missouri tornado — has been on the ground in Texas and Florida in recent weeks. Its goal is to serve as many meals as possible to people displaced by flooding and the first-responders who’ve helped them. Over the course of 11 days, the group provided more than 370,000 hot meals in Texas alone, composed of 158,000 pounds of pork and 18,000 cans of vegetables.
Another organization called Team Rubicon dealt with the more immediate threat of rising floodwaters. It marshaled military veterans and deployed a small army of boats to support water rescue operations in Texas’ hardest hit areas. Once the waters began to recede, the group pivoted its operations to focus on digging out houses and beginning the rebuilding process.
Area businesses played their part as well. Days before Hurricane Harvey made landfall, a weather alert triggered The Home Depot’s disaster response plan. The mechanism ensured that roughly 700 truckloads of supplies — such as generators, flashlights, and shovels — were delivered to stores located in Harvey’s path.
Other private charitable efforts focused on more-concrete financial relief. In less than a month, private individuals and groups raised over $350 million for Hurricane Harvey victims; NFL star J.J. Watt raised nearly $40 million.
Philanthropic response in the wake of a disaster is not new — historical precedent is plentiful. According to The Almanac of American Philanthropy, over $752 million was donated to provide medical care to the victims of 9/11 and almost $3 billion total was raised in response to the attacks. Other examples include Hurricane Katrina, which not only destroyed homes and businesses in South Mississippi, but also leveled the New Orleans’ public school system. In response, private donors built a totally new public education system, largely dependent on better performing charter schools. The once failing school district is now closing the achievement gap with the state average faster than ever.
But these private philanthropy efforts do not act alone, they complement the role played by the federal government. President Donald Trump promised federal aid to both states, and a bill in Congress appropriated $15.25 billion in disaster relief. We shouldn’t minimize the significance of these relief funds; they’re available to help residents rebuild long after the media interest has faded.
However, private philanthropy and government spending are not created equal. Government-guided relief efforts are inevitably weighed down by the bureaucracy required to implement them; this impedes quick reaction times, especially when the crisis is acute. In contrast, private philanthropy groups can quickly marshal resources and are often better-targeted to affected populations.
Philanthropic groups also seek innovative solutions to old problems. Think about new platforms like YouCaring — a crowdfunding site for a number of charitable causes — that enabled the NFL star Watt to raise millions of dollars from smaller-dollar donations. These platforms demonstrate that the charitable spirit in America isn’t limited to the wealthy; in fact, data analyzed by the National Center for Charitable Statistics show that lower-income Americans donate a larger percentage of their income than higher-income families.
The significant presence of private philanthropy groups in the U.S. is rooted in our culture and foundational principles. Historically, Americans do not look to the federal government for help initially. We typically rely on our friends, family and community first — creating a de facto reliance network that reacts quickly without the immediate need of government assistance.
The real impact of this “American mindset” is easily seen when comparing generosity statistics. According to the new 2017 Compact Edition of The Almanac of American Philanthropy, Americans lead the world in private giving as a percentage of income — almost doubling second-place contender Canada and dwarfing all other countries.
While the impacts of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma will be felt for years, we can count on the combined efforts of sustained government relief funds and private philanthropy organizations to help return life for Floridians and Texans back to a state of normalcy.
Angie Lawry is the Vice President of Marketing and Communications at The Philanthropy Roundtable.