Policy Pub: Generosity in Hurricane Michael’s Wake

Hurricane Michael hit Florida’s Gulf Coast in October of 2018 as a category five hurricane. The storm leveled communities to the West of Tallahassee, damaging homes, displacing residents, crippling some industries, and leaving piles of debris behind. In its wake, I set off to study how civil society – nonprofits, religious organizations, and less organized volunteer groups – would respond. I found a far greater pool of generosity than anticipated, including at least $145 million in donated assistance.

Reporting on this storm was limited. Immediately after the storm, reporting just focused on Bay County, ignoring the more rural counties also severely damaged by winds and storm surge. Since then, what little reporting followed primarily concerns about delayed and limited assistance. To some degree, this is accurate, as national giving to the Red Cross is substantially lower than for comparable disasters, federal and state funding both took longer than for many other storms and were at lower levels, and the storm quickly moved out of the public conscience.

Yet within the region, both the communities still coping with the aftermath and amongst their neighbors, the storm was not forgotten. Research conducted by students and colleagues at FSU reveal a much more extensive system of post-disaster generosity than is observable on the surface and begins to identify suggestions for future disaster response, recovery, and philanthropy.

Shortly after Hurricane Michael hit, I began working with the college, local partner the Institute for Nonprofit Innovation and Excellence, and eventually 22 students, to study the extent and organization of voluntary assistance after the storm. We conducted 27 field visits to community meeting, events, trainings, board meetings, and other discussions, and recruited representations of 255 organizations to share information about their generosity after the storm. Beyond the $145 million in donated cash (40%), supplies (30%), and labor (30%) these groups provided, we also identified approximately another $50 million in publicly acknowledged donations from groups that have not yet elected to take our survey. Rough approximations of other missing gifts suggest that total donated aid to rebuild after Michael likely is close to $300 million in value.

To put these figures into context, just the $145 million captured in our survey is about the same as FEMA’s grants to households, while the larger $300 million estimate would equal or exceed state support for recovery efforts. In addition to being a substantial figure and share of recovery assistance, these donations fill critical needs and have far more flexibility in how they are used than formal programs.

In our research, we made four critical observations about the structure of this assistance. First, the vast majority of this assistance was funneled through organizations (primarily nonprofits) based in the region. Whether originally coming from elsewhere or being provided by local donors, donated supplies, volunteer time, and money generally was overseen by previously existing organizations like the local Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity chapters or newly formed long term recovery groups. Second, most of those involved in providing assistance helped multiple local communities, with about 2/3 of respondents helping multiple counties. Third, those seeking to provide assistance more frequently went to those with whom they were already familiar, like religious organizations or nonprofits that are not typically involved in disasters, than to dedicated emergency management organizations like state or local government agencies. Finally, in all but one of the counties, religious and nonprofit organizations took on substantial leadership roles once recovery efforts began. Leaders in Calhoun, Gadsden, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, Liberty, and Washington counties all formed long-term recovery groups with substantial involvement from nonprofit and faith communities, while Bay formed a similar entity primarily led by political and business leaders. Elsewhere in the region, state-wide or area disaster funds were created or mobilized and drew across all sectors to support recovery efforts.

As my colleagues and I continue to analyze our findings and gather even more information, I anticipate further guidance that can help ongoing and future disaster recovery efforts. At a minimum, this work can both serve as a call to celebrate the generosity of neighbors helping one another rebuild, and to renew attention to the severe needs that remain throughout the region.

On January 14th, 2020, COSSPP’s Policy Pub focused on findings from this research and a community discussion about it. You can listen the to conversation and view the PowerPoint slides here.

Dr. David Berlan is an Assistant Professor in the Askew School of Public Administration. Dr. Berlan’s research examines nonprofit organizations, global health policy and international development. You can learn more about this research here.

The feature image is from Florida Today.

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