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Hurricane Michael recovery has a big problem: People aren’t donating

A Times/Herald analysis found that donations to three top national charities for Michael recovery lagged far behind gifts to other storms.
Three months after Hurricane Michael made landfall, two children's toys sit in front of lingering piles of debris in Panama City. EMILY L. MAHONEY | TIMES [EMILY L. MAHONEY | Emily L. Mahoney]
Published Jan. 27
Updated Oct. 9

PANAMA CITY — More than three months after Hurricane Michael bludgeoned the beachside communities in the Panhandle, dozens of people crammed into the Messiah Lutheran Church on Thursday.

They were there to address enormous questions that hang over their largely lower-income part of the state.

“Affordable Housing,” “Reach Less Fortunate,” were written at the top of a long list of goals for a startup recovery group. Some suggested auctioning off quilts, or holding a car show.

But the reality is they’re going to need millions.

Major donors simply aren’t coming through for Florida’s Forgotten Coast. According to a Times/Herald analysis of contributions to three prominent national charities, donations to Hurricane Michael recovery fall far below donations for recent landmark hurricanes to hit the South such as Florence, Irma and Harvey.

The Salvation Army has received $2.8 million for its Hurricane Michael response. It received a combined $125 million after Harvey, Irma and Maria in 2017.

United Way Worldwide received just under $750,000 for Hurricane Michael recovery. That’s more than $10 million less than it received for its combined fund for Hurricanes Irma and Maria. That’s about $100,000 less than it received for the 2017 Mexican earthquake.

“God, I give you praise and honor for bringing us together ... I pray that you will continue to give us the strategic ideas and the resources so that our county shall be a better county than it was before October the 10th,” Pastor Lynva Masslieno said at Thursday’s meeting.

The Bay County group is still in its early stages. Its members are mostly local nonprofit and faith leaders. So far, its work has been hampered by the fact that national attention dried up long ago.

“In terms of the national response … this was the strongest storm to hit the U.S. since Andrew, and it has not been commensurate with that,” said Lance Rettig, who leads the Bay County Long Term Disaster Recovery Organization. He’s also the executive director of the local Habitat for Humanity, which is aiming to build eight houses this year for displaced families. “To come back from this — for a low-income community especially — I think we’re talking hundreds of millions here.”

•••

Comparing different hurricanes is an inexact science. Even storms with the same wind speed can vary on the damage they inflict, from the severity of flooding to the destroyed infrastructure.

But it’s clear that Michael was a historic disaster. Michael carved a deadly path from Florida to Virginia, killing at least 54, and triggered flooding that killed 13 more in Central America. Those who felt the full force of Michael were in Florida’s Panhandle, where state officials estimate property damage at nearly $5 billion. That’s more than Irma. It’s made worse because many of Michael’s victims were likely not insured.

Rettig, who moved to Panama City from Tennessee just two and a half weeks before Michael made landfall, said the level of damage is still “staggering.”

“Nine out of 10 homes have tarps on them right now,” he said.

Yet somehow, at least nationally, Hurricane Michael is “not even a topic of conversation.”

A trailer in Panama City with a blue tarp on its roof has "Thank You God" spray-painted on its side. Three months after Hurricane Michael hit Bay County, much of the community still lives in damaged homes, if their homes survived at all. EMILY L. MAHONEY | TIMES [EMILY L. MAHONEY | Emily L. Mahoney]

Members of the Bay County Long Term Disaster Recovery Organization have no illusions about the long road ahead. Dinah Crayton, of the Bay County chapter of the NAACP, said the umbrella group’s first step will be sending case managers from house to house to determine the long list of needs.

Affordable housing was already scarce before the storm, she said. Now, families are enduring cold January temperatures, still living in tents or in their cars.

READ MORE: ‘We’re not going back to normal.’ They rode out Hurricane Michael, but were left without homes.

Community leaders fretted about an uptick in suicides from anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the storm, and aim to offer more emotional and spiritual counseling.

Janice Lucas, the executive director of a small local charity that helps at-risk youth and focuses on safe housing, said the local and state response has been strong, but that groups like hers are still trying to recover.

“You’ve got nonprofits trying to stand up their organizations again and trying to help stand up the community,” she said. “And I tell you, it’s a daunting task.”

Lance Rettig, the executive director of Bay County’s affiliate of Habitat for Humanity, speaks to the Bay County Long Term Disaster Recovery Organization gathered on Jan. 24, 2019. EMILY L. MAHONEY | TIMES [EMILY L. MAHONEY | Emily L. Mahoney]

The shortfall in national donations impairs local charities’ ability to respond, and not just by leaving more recovery work behind when their funds dry up. The Bay County Long Term Disaster Recovery Organization has several members connected to national organizations, like the local United Way chapter that would be able to contribute more money in grant funding — if only there was more to give.

•••

A major component to any disaster response is money from large corporations, in addition to donations from regular households and foundations. After every major American natural disaster, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation collects a list of corporate donations on its website. It’s not comprehensive but provides a window into company giving.

After Hurricane Irma, the U.S. Chamber site showed roughly $100 million in corporate donations. For Michael, it is about $27 million.

Bryan Taylor, the president of the United Way of Northwest Florida, called it an “underwhelming” corporate response.

“I don’t want to sound ungrateful for anything we received — we have received very generous corporate gifts,” Taylor said. “(But) what we’ve heard in the past about millions of dollars being donated for disaster relief for various other situations, other storms … the financial response doesn’t hold a candle to what’s been donated in the past.

“And on the flip side of that, we’re not a community like a Houston or a Miami or a New York City that’s going to draw the attention of big donors,” he added.

The Chamber’s website revealed corporate giants that had contributed millions after previous hurricanes but gave either less money or not at all after Michael.

The Bay County Long Term Disaster Recovery Organization meets in a side-room of Messiah Lutheran Church in Panama City on Jan. 24, 2019. EMILY L. MAHONEY | TIMES [EMILY L. MAHONEY | Emily L. Mahoney]

The National Football League, for example, donated $1 million for Irma relief, but defended its decision not to send funds for Michael in a statement to the Times/Herald.

“The NFL examines each disaster on a case-by-case basis, considering the type, scope, location and timing of the disaster, while also communicating with our disaster relief partners on the ground and impacted NFL club communities before determining support,” the statement from the NFL read. It added that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers held a donation drive for relief supplies at its training facility.

Doug White, the former academic director of New York University’s Heyman Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising who’s also advised donors, said storms that have received more prominent coverage are more attractive causes.

“Corporations don’t give money because they’re altruistic. They do it to improve their image,” he said. “I don’t say that with any rancor — they have obligation to shareholders, and many companies see they can address that by being good citizens. That said … if you look at it that way, then you’re going to get more bang for your buck in a place like Houston.”

•••

Several experts in post-disaster philanthropy interviewed by the Times/Herald agreed that the donations for Hurricane Michael were unusually low.

MORE MICHAEL COVERAGE: 'Should you give up?’ Hurricane Michael left a beloved motel in ruins and its owners with an impossible choice

Eugene Tempel, a founding dean emeritus at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, attributed that to the fact that the affected areas are rural, which meant that national news coverage had moved on quickly.

Hurricane Michael also hit on Oct. 10, less than one month before the 2018 midterm elections that stole a great deal of media attention.

“Small towns like the one I grew up in, they don’t count as much, unfortunately, in people’s minds,” he said. “If Michael had hit Tallahassee, my guess is the response would’ve been much larger because in the state capitol the media is right there.”

Whatever the reason, it’s of secondary importance to those left behind.

“I know that when we say, ‘People have forgotten about us’ — before October 10th we were those people too,” Lucas said, explaining that even Panhandle residents who donated or volunteered to help after Hurricanes Irma and Florence naturally moved on once the daily drama subsided.

What makes Michael different, though, is the extent of the damage, Lucas said, adding that even the hurricane recovery volunteers who’ve seen many storms told locals that “they’ve never seen the likes of a community that they saw here post-Michael.”

Even the Messiah Lutheran Church, where Bay County’s recovery organization gathered, had a blue tarp on its side, covering a patch of ripped-off shingles in preparation for the all-too-familiar storm clouds looming overhead.

“So, we need help,” Lucas said, after a pause. “We need help.”

Times staff writer Kathryn Varn contributed to this report

Those wishing to donate to the Bay County Long Term Disaster Recovery Organization, which is still working to establish its status as a 501(c)3, should direct their donations to the United Way of Northwest Florida here, and make a note that it should be directed to the BCLTDRO.

A Baptist church just down the street from Messiah Lutheran Church in Panama City lays in ruin three months after Hurricane Michael made landfall in Bay County. The church's contents, including congregation chairs, silk flowers and Bibles lay exposed to the elements. EMILY L. MAHONEY | TIMES [EMILY L. MAHONEY | Emily L. Mahoney]

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