Sandy donations: Where the money goes

First there was New Jersey legend Bruce Springsteen headlining a star-studded telethon to benefit the American Red Cross. Then there was Oscar de la Hoya and his Los Angeles-based Golden Boy Productions donating the proceeds from a night of boxing to the decimated Boys & Girls Club of Atlantic City.

Now, National Hockey League all-stars Brad Richards and Scott Hartnell have announced Operation Hat Trick, a charitable professional hockey game to be played Saturday night at A.C.’s Boardwalk Hall to raise money for the Red Cross, the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund (HSNJRF), and the Empire State Relief Fund.

Next in the lineup, a Dave Matthews Band benefit concert November 30 at the Izod Center in East Rutherford for a relief fund set up within the Community Foundation of New Jersey,

The Boss will be back 12-12-12 at Madison Square Garden. And the list goes on . 

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Since Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey October 29th, celebrities, politicians, corporations, foundations, religious organizations, and private citizens have poured donations into the Jersey Shore and other areas smashed by the worst mid-Atlantic storm in memory.

Some donors pledge a dollar at the QuikChek cash register or slip a quarter into one of those ubiquitous boxes found at gas stations, while others, like Hess Corp., pledge $2.5 million to the HSNJRF, established just over two weeks ago by Gov. Chris Christie and his wife Mary Pat.

But with U.S. property damage totaling an estimated 20 billion dollars, according to forecasting firm IHS Global Insight, and almost 300 New Jersey residents still occupying the three remaining Red Cross shelters, where does all that money go? And who makes those decisions?

While some organizations, like the Red Cross, landed immediately on the ground to provide critical care to storm victims, for the most part, charity organizations say it will be a coordinated effort from foundations across New Jersey, both longstanding and newly created. It’s too early for most of them to provide details, since many will be conducting thorough needs assessments over the next few months.

Filling the Gap

But those that plan on dealing with long-term needs agree that they will look to “fill the gap” between what private insurance and the government can provide and what will be needed by those affected.

That gap is going to be wide. According to a spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which has so far received 221,000 storm-related claims from New Jersey individuals and families and doled out $217 million, assistance is a constantly moving target.

“With 221,000 claims being filed there are 221,000 different stories to be told,” said FEMA public affairs and media relations manager Scott Sanders. “Some people have homes that were destroyed and some people lost their cars. We’re doing everything we can to provide people with every nickel they can get.”

After private insurance, FEMA is the first line of monetary defense for disaster victims. Through its individual/household program, the agency uses federal funds to supply or pay for short-term lodging, property replacement, and structural repairs in counties declared federal disaster areas by the president. (Reimbursement to municipalities for infrastructure and facilities repairs falls under a different program.)

In New Jersey, all 21 counties qualify federal disaster areas. FEMA representatives process claims and answer questions in person at any of 30 disaster recovery centers operating statewide on a seven-day-a-week schedule. They also can be reached via their website, a hotline, and a mobile app. And they’re always on the move, traveling door to door and to churches, synagogues, mosques, schools, and community centers to assess victims’ needs and to explain their capabilities and limitations.

Their biggest limitation? The money doesn’t go far enough. Federal assistance cannot duplicate what’s available through private insurance, and it does not typically stretch to cover all of a claimant’s expenses. Hence, “the gap.”

“When you have a disaster like a hurricane, the victims will get FEMA checks and they’ll get their own insurance checks and then there will be a huge gap between what insurance covers and what FEMA covers,” Mary Pat Christie told NJTV. “So to help these people rebuild their homes and rebuild their lives we are going to focus on gap funding.”

Christie’s fund has emerged as one of the state’s primary repositories for donations. In little more than two weeks, it’s collected $16 million from 7,800 donors, with $1.5 million coming in through the Internet, where donors are pledging anywhere from one dollar on up.

Thanks in part to its significant political clout, major donors to the fund (whose honorary vice chairman is former senator Bill Bradley) have included Hess ($2.5 million), AT&T ($1 million), and Bridgewater-based Sanofi ($500,000). Yesterday Christie announced that famous New Jerseysians Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, Kelly Ripa, and Dr. Mehmet Oz will be among those serving on the advisory board, which is still under development.

Besides consulting with disaster-relief experts who worked massive hurricanes in Florida and the Gulf Coast, Christie has hired a consulting firm to trek through the worst-hit areas of the state to determine the most critical rebuilding needs. She told NJTV that she expects to prioritize the creation of long-term recovery teams and mental-health assistance for almost immediate financial disbursement. Citing the rise in domestic violence and suicide rates after a disaster, Christie said she hopes to use some of the money to promote available mental health services.

RWJF Assesses the Situation

As an organization dedicated to healthcare issues, Princeton-based Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is also seeking to bridge gaps in access to mental health treatment. Aiming to boost recovery efforts far into the future, RWJF employees will spend the next six months studying the capacity of major institutional mental healthcare providers across the state before making determinations about where to allocate the $4.5 million in long-term funding it has pledged. After spending $20 million to support post-Hurricane Katrina relief, RWJF says it found a great need for programs that train school nurses to recognize signs of stress and post-traumatic stress disorder in their students and teach members of the clergy to do the same with their congregants.

After Katrina, RWJF hired a New Orleans community worker to gather actionable intelligence from her network of community-service providers and vet those who applied for grants. As a New Jersey-based foundation that’s awarded $1.5 billion in grants within the state, RWJF already has well-established relationships with state government, the Red Cross, and myriad additional agencies that can help them identify gaps that need to be bridged. That’s why John Lumpkin, senior vice president of RWJF, says this time his staff is well versed in the relevant nonprofit nuances. Because of this, out-of-state organizations are turning to him and his colleagues in the state’s grant-making community for their suggestions on where to give.

“One of things we learned in Katrina . . . is that it’s really important to have local information,” Lumpkin said.

Chris Daggett, president and CEO of the Morristown-based Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, says a number of outside organizations have reached out to him to request this type of advice and to donate to the New Jersey Recovery Fund that his foundation has jointly established with the Community Foundation of New Jersey, the Community Foundation of South Jersey, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the Subaru of America Foundation.

“They don’t have the infrastructure or the local knowledge,” he said of the out-of-state associations. They give to this fund knowing that we will take care of it.”

The consortium has received pledges for $2.75 million thus far and will use it primarily to award grants to state nonprofits working over the intermediate-to-long-term on various facets of recovery and rebuilding. While no decisions have been made, Daggett suggests that some of the money could go toward determining how to redevelop the shore, with options including the hiring of national experts to consult on seaside zoning or post-disaster reconstruction; funding innovative projects; and identifying successful solutions — say, for boardwalk construction — and replicating them elsewhere in the state.

But more important than what they should fund, says Daggett, is what they shouldn’t.

“The most important thing is that [donor organizations] try to work in a complementary fashion with one another,” he said. “No matter how much money is raised, it won’t be enough to handle the breadth and scope of what needs to be done. So we’ll need to coordinate with others.”

Those conversations occur formally at meetings and weekly post-Sandy conference calls hosted by the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers. Each Monday at 4 p.m., representatives from member philanthropies receive briefings from emergency management officials and learn best practices from philanthropic organizations that have supported disaster relief efforts in the past. They also discuss one another’s projects to prevent duplication.This type of communication takes place on many other levels as well, as organizations and public entities like FEMA, the Red Cross, and the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management (OEM), along with municipal offices and religious and civic organizations, share information and resources with one another and coordinate and cross-promote their outreach and fundraising efforts.

These are crucial relationships. Disaster recovery works best when all participating organizations know exactly what sorts of supplies, services, and volunteers are needed, and where – and when — to channel them. The OEM refers interested large-scale donors to the National Donations Management Network, an online database that helps match in-kind donations to businesses and organizations that can put them to good use. Several OEM employees sift through the offerings every day to pair them with the agencies that need them.

Cash Is King

Yet the OEM and other nonprofits and distribution facilities emphasize that in most other cases, when it comes to donations, cash is king. Too often well-intentioned individuals or groups collect items that either aren’t needed or require too much manpower to sort, store, and distribute, and sometimes would-be volunteers show up at a disaster site only to be turned away.

However, when an organization already serves constituents in an affected area, its help to its own can be invaluable. For example, the international relief and development arm of The Episcopal Church of the United States trained its New Jersey pastors on Monday to help congregants fill out FEMA forms. Its churches are serving as distribution centers for members who need supplies. And in New York, several churches sheltered storm refugees and trained members on how to minister to low-income parishioners who were displaced. Its Hurricane Sandy Mobile Response Fund supports the dioceses involved in this work.

Another religious institution, the Southern Baptist Convention, is integral to the work of the Red Cross and uses a significant portion of the donations it collects. As the entity that cooks all of the meals purchased and distributed by the Red Cross during and after disasters nationwide, its parishioners have prepared 3.8 million meals and snacks in Monmouth County since Hurricane Sandy.

Their service has augmented the food taken from Red Cross pantries in counties that weren’t hard hit — pantries that will need to replenish their own supplies soon with donations designated specifically for those particular chapters. (Red Cross donations are either routed to wherever the need is greatest or when applicable they go to the location or project specified by the donor.) With 91 cents of every dollar donated to the Red Cross directly funding its services and programs, the organization has spent between $40 million and $50 million dollars in ten states providing hot food, water and shelter, and distributing 1.3 million relief items such as rakes, shovels, garden gloves, trash bags, breathing masks, and cleaning supplies in Central and South Jersey.

Experienced national coordinators leading state operations from a command center in Tinton Falls plan for each day by calculating what was used the day before and sending employees and volunteers out to scour the affected communities to talk with victims and agencies close to the ground about their evolving needs. Not only do they operate stationary response centers and distribution and collection points, but they also send out two roving vehicles each day equipped with food, supplies, counselors, doctors, nurses, and any other resources that can help clients move up to the next level of self-sufficiency.

It’s a very complicated, very exhaustive formula for success but it’s one that employees say works.”Logistics are handled very methodically and carefully,” said Laura Steinmetz, community and government relations officer for the South Jersey region. “And we are always true to our donors’ intent. But I think they and our clients recognize our efforts and trust in Red Cross.”

While it’s true that disaster relief cannot occur without the benevolence of untold numbers of foundations, agencies, institutions, corporations, and individuals, the Red Cross is often the first humanitarian responder in times of crisis, even though it also lingers behind for months or even years, until its executives are satisfied that their services are no longer required.

And while many forward-thinking organizations do choose to save their resources until after the initial disaster response concludes and the flood of donations and volunteers begin to dry up, immediate donations are equally critical, as exemplified by the fact that the Red Cross has already made 24,000 points of contact with South Jersey residents suffering from post-hurricane mental health concerns.

NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks.

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