Recovery Support for “Low Attention” Disasters

One of the most powerful tornadoes in history slammed into Moore, Oklahoma on May 20, 2013, killing 24 people, including seven children from Plaza Towers Elementary School, and injuring 377 others (read some of CDP’s reports on Moore).
The horror of seven children being killed in their school building prompted massive media coverage for many days, including personal visits from the news anchors of the major television networks. The media saturation coverage also inspired a torrent of charitable contributions probably totaling more than $100 million. One nonprofit executive told me she wasn’t fundraising; she was “fund-catching” as money flowed into Oklahoma to a variety of nonprofit organizations.
FEMA declared Moore a major disaster and allocated more than $15 million in 3,665 individual and household assistance grants and nearly $50 million for public assistance.
Fast forward to 2015. This time, Oklahoma has been hit by severe storms, tornadoes, straight-line winds, and flooding spread over 30 days of intense weather, resulting in four deaths. So far, FEMA has processed nearly the same number of individual assistance grants (3,370) and in just a month has awarded $13 million. It’s still too early to consider public assistance support.
And charitable donations? The difference has been stunning. As far as we can tell, there have been hardly any – certainly totaling less than $100,000.
A few obvious differences:

  • Deaths attract media coverage.
  • So do spectacular pictures of destruction.
  • Media coverage stimulates charitable contributions.

Nancy Beers is now our program officer in a 10-state region for our Early Recovery Program – focusing particularly on what we call “low attention disasters.”
Here are a few things she has learned:
After the 2013 Oklahoma tornado outbreak, donors contributed $52.4 million to the Red Cross of which, two years later, they report having spent $51.5 million (see the report). After the 2015 floods (33 declared counties), the Red Cross has already spent more than $1 million in response but has raised only about half of that. Catholic Charities is facing the same challenges, reporting they are already working with nearly 400 households with estimated uninsured needs of $5 million.
The impact of tornadoes is visible to the public. Tornadoes are terrifying events. With floods, the impact is often not visible. The outside of a home may look perfectly fine but the interior has been gutted and personal property tossed into a dumpster.
According to the Insurance Information Institute, during the last 10 years in the US, approximately 67 percent of severe storm/ tornado losses were insured, compared to 18 percent of flood related losses.
Floods rarely have the same news impact as tornadoes or hurricanes. Floods will occasionally make network news or the national headlines for a brief moment, but are more often regional not national stories. Pictures of blocks and blocks of torn out sheet rock and personal items on the curb usually don’t lend themselves to eye-catching photos. But the financial impact on those households to rebuild their homes and their lives is almost four times greater than those impacted by tornadoes.
Donors have an opportunity to break the funding cycle of disaster related activities. Take a few minutes to think about your plans for disasters. How are you planning for the impact of disasters on your grantees? What will happen to your community two years after the disaster strikes? When disaster strikes next time, will your community be more resilient?
Let us hope it won’t take more television coverage to spur action.
Learn more about CDP’s Early Recovery Program.

Robert G. Ottenhoff

More like this