Before getting into the green details, let me make a futile attempt to fend off the angry readers who will send notes to tell me how inappropriate this column may seem.
Part of me knows it’s way too early to write a column such as this. We still don’t know the total of the damages Hurricane Harvey wreaked on Houston. Our esteemed Congresswoman from the 18th District, Sheila Jackson Lee, has asked for a record-breaking $150 billion aid package to be sent to Texas. Can’t blame her for trying, especially since the federal government is just playing with Monopoly money anyway.
The storms of late August took people’s homes, their possessions and, in some cases, their lives, and there’s no amount of money that can replace those things.
But as city crews pick up debris from lots across town, and as truckloads of supplies still pour into our city, it seems important that we do our best to be good stewards of the billions of dollars that have been sent our way.
Let’s start with the made-for-30-for-30 influence of Texans megastar J.J. Watt. By now, we all know the story: Right after the storm struck, Watt put out a challenge to raise $200,000, and he donated the first $100,000. Neither Watt, nor anyone with a calculator, could have imagined that he’d be sitting on a bank account that has (as of press time) $32.3 million to dole out to victims of the storm.
But that’s just the tip of the gold stack. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and County Judge Ed Emmett wisely pooled their influence and created the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund, where donations could be sent directly to this community. That fund, which is being controlled by the Greater Houston Community Foundation, had a staggering $49.6 million donated as of Tuesday night.
Walmart, which hasn’t missed a chance to publicize its contributions, has committed $30 million in in-kind and cash donations.
And then there’s the vaunted Red Cross, which continues to offer its support in the face of mounting criticism, even from folks like Houston City Councilman Dave Martin and, for a brief moment, Emmett himself.
It doesn’t matter how deep you search in the digital library of information these days, there’s absolutely no way to tell how much money the Red Cross has brought in from this storm. Like after any good disaster, they’ve been quick to air commercials and grab celebrity spokespeople – four days after Harvey hit Houston, former President Obama was asking folks to send money to the Red Cross.
If history is any indication, we can find a glimpse of Red Cross information from the Associated Press one month after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. That storm hit on Aug. 29, 2005. Almost a month later, on Sept. 28, 2005, AP reported the Red Cross had raised right at $1 billion.
A watchdog organization called Charity Navigator estimated that, after Katrina, more than $4 billion in donations were made to help our neighbors in Louisiana. And if you use a standard CPI calculator, that $4 billion in 2005 (taking inflation into account) would equal about $5 billion today.
There’s another amazing line of donations coming to people of Houston that you may not realize. If you’ve heard of the website GoFundMe, you know it’s a mixed bag of individuals and groups who raise money for just about anything. One fellow asked people to contribute $50 to buy booze for the night. Another person asked for $1,200 because she booked the wrong flight. And the amazing thing is, people send in money.
So earlier this week, I spent some time on the GoFundMe website and searched for Hurricane Harvey funds people had established. I had to stop (because I have a job) at 306 different funds that have been established.
I went a step further and counted the money that had been raised for the first 50 funds I found and, astonishingly, more than $3.3 million had been raised. One guy had his car flooded, posted a picture of his car (you have to assume it was his car), and he asked for $4,000 from random web surfers. As of press time, he had raised $4,800.
Why am I giving you all these numbers? To be honest, I’m not sure.
We can’t disparage anyone who feels so bad for the people of Houston that they’ll open their wallets to show us support. But don’t you just wish there were a better way?
After Hurricane Katrina devoured New Orleans, a federal commission found that $500 million was wasted on fraudulent expenses – and that’s only what the federal government could document at the time.
There’s not a mother in Houston who wouldn’t trust J.J. Watt to babysit her children for a week. It certainly isn’t my intention to question him, or the Greater Houston Community Foundation or even the Red Cross about how they’ll spend the money they’ve been given.
But don’t you wish there were a better way? Don’t you wish the public could see every penny that came in after disasters like this? Don’t you wish there were one group of trusted people who would volunteer their time to oversee one fund? Don’t you wish there were a streamlined way for people to apply for help and receive a check that same week?
Disasters will continue to happen all over the world, and our wonderful citizens will continue to volunteer their hard-earned money. Let’s just hope the right people, in the wrong circumstances, are really the ones getting help.