August 11, 2015
Ten years after Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast, leaving 80 percent of New Orleans underwater, killing more than eighteen hundred people, and displacing hundreds of thousands of others, important questions remain unanswered. Are we better prepared to help communities of all kinds respond to and rebuild from extreme weather events and natural disasters? Has greater media scrutiny of relief organizations improved the efficiency and effectiveness of their efforts? If not, why not? And what can or should philanthropy do to improve its performance and responsiveness in the wake of a major disaster?
With the tenth anniversary of Katrina just weeks away, PND asked Robert G. Ottenhoff, president and CEO of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy — an organization founded in the aftermath of the storm — how the philanthropic response to major disasters has evolved over the last decade and what his organization is doing to ensure that the philanthropic community is an integral and effective part of the response to major disasters in the future.
Philanthropy News Digest: You’ve written that Hurricane Katrina "forever changed the way our nation thinks, reacts, and plans for massive natural disasters." How so? And what were the key lessons learned by philanthropy in the aftermath of that disaster?
Robert G. Ottenhoff: Katrina was a traumatic experience for our nation and brought the realization that our conventional ways of responding to disasters were insufficient and unsustainable. We learned three big lessons: the need for comprehensive advance planning and preparation for disasters; the critical importance of building communities that are resilient to disaster and better able to respond and bounce back; and the need for funders to support disaster recovery needs before and after disaster strikes, as well as during the immediate humanitarian crisis.
Nonprofit organizations need a plan themselves, too. How will they respond when a disaster strikes? How will they handle an influx of donations or volunteers? If they are a service provider in a stricken city, how will they make sure any interruption of service is as limited as possible? How will their staffs continue to provide vital services?
CDP has been working with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Rockefeller Foundation on the National Disaster Resilience Competition. Forty communities that have experienced natural disasters are competing for $1 billion in funds to help them rebuild and increase their resilience to future disasters. Our staff contributed to Rockefeller's Resilience Academies in Chicago and Denver with jurisdiction finalists and are working with them to develop initiatives and outreach plans that will better prepare them for future disasters — and, we hope, lead to better partnerships with foundations and corporations.
CDP also is working to ensure that the philanthropic community understands the importance of supporting long- and mid-term recovery needs in disaster areas. This fall, we will begin the process of awarding grants from our Nepal Earthquake Recovery Fund to community organizations in Nepal. Now that much of the immediate crisis has passed, these funds, raised from more than two hundred and sixty institutional and individual donors, will focus on long-term recovery and rebuilding of devastated areas.
PND: The American Red Cross was widely criticized for its response to Katrina, as well as for its efforts in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake in that country and for its response to Superstorm Sandy. Do you think the Red Cross has been unfairly singled out by the media for its response to those and other recent natural disasters? And what should the organization do to improve its response to disasters in the future?
RGO: The reports of Red Cross activities in Haiti and other disaster areas have been disappointing and disturbing. For those of us working in disaster philanthropy, the news coverage underscores several critical issues — including gaps and flaws in our current system — that deserve consideration and national attention. If properly addressed, we could see more effective disaster response in the future.
First, our country needs a structure for responding to the humanitarian needs caused by natural disasters that is both well funded and well organized. The current system of relying on voluntary contributions in support of multiple voluntary organizations does not adequately address the needs of either the survivors or the organizations providing support.
Second, the public needs to better understand the arc of disasters and why the rush to respond immediately tends to create future problems. On one hand, the immediate outpouring of donations in the days after disaster often puts the Red Cross and other service organizations in the awkward position of receiving too much money for some activities and not enough for others. In addition, the outsized nature of the immediate response makes it harder to raise needed funds later on for recovery and rebuilding efforts that can take years. We suggest consideration be given to finding national solutions that result in better coordination and balance in disaster giving and that reflect the full cycle of disasters.
Third, we urge the American Red Cross to use these reports as an opportunity to reassess its strategies and priorities. Its world-class brand has long been known for its work in immediate relief following disasters, and during this time of reflection it can use that asset as a touchstone for an examination of its future.