Why Puerto Rico donations lag behind fundraising for Harvey, Irma victims

No gas and debris are scattered all throughout the island.

Hurricane Maria has wrecked the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, causing a near shut-down of the island’s economy and leaving most of its 3.4 million citizens without power and other vital goods and services.

But as contributions soar to homegrown fundraising efforts for victims of Sunday's Las Vegas shooting, those devastated by Maria have seen comparatively small donations especially when compared to money raised for those affected by hurricanes Harvey and Irma, according to groups contacted by USA TODAY.

— The Red Cross reports that it has collected $350 million in donations and pledges so far to help those affected by Hurricane Harvey, which slammed Houston and environs. It has received $45 million for Irma victims and $9 million for Maria.

— Catholic Charities reports that it has distributed $2 million to its agencies in Texas, $2.4 million in Florida $10,000 in Louisiana and $1.2 million to Puerto Rico/Virgin Islands.

— U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation statistics indicate that so far corporations have donated $270.8 million for Hurricane Harvey and Irma relief efforts in cash and in-kind donations, while the Maria tally currently stands at $32.4 million.

 

Why the big Maria gap?

Those raising money say a prime reason for lower Maria numbers has to do with its damage coming after devastating storms hit the U.S. mainland in Texas and Florida, which means donors are more apt to be either financially or even emotionally tapped out.

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Media attention is also a huge factor in generating contributions, and the supersaturated coverage that greeted Harvey and Irma tapered for Maria. 

Puerto Rico's woes now also sit in the shadow of the mass killings in Las Vegas on Sunday, which left 59 innocent people dead and hundreds wounded. Tellingly, Americans, who remain riveted by the tragedy of the event so far have donated $8.5 million to a GoFundMe campaign started by Las Vegas local Steve Sisolak. 

And while the word "racism" is brushed aside as inappropriate by most relief organization experts, many are quick to admit that having some sort of personal or cultural connection to disaster victims often drives the levels of funding. Of note is a recent poll by Morning Consult revealed that half of respondents were not aware that Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens.

Personal connections

Tricia Wachtendorf, director of the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center, says “research shows that people are more likely to give if they are in close physical proximity to the event,” which may be one reason why Maria donations are down.

She adds that “people also give when there’s social affinity to the affected group, so where the (Puerto Rican) diaspora lives (New York, Chicago), there will likely be continued giving.”

Cultural affinity reasons may resonate, but they shouldn't get in the way of helping fellow human beings who fly the same flag, says Daniel Borochoff of the relief organization rating group Charity Watch.

“It’s a humanitarian crisis down there and they are U.S. citizens,” he says. “It would be like helping people in Hawaii."

Bob Ottenhoff, CEO of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, notes that as devastating as the damage to Puerto Rico was, the island had the misfortune of being of not being part of the U.S. mainland and being hit after days of non-stop media coverage before and after Harvey and Irma hit coastal cities.

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"Houston is the fourth largest city in the U.S., Florida is a big state, but there are relatively few people living in the Caribbean, 3 million or so in Puerto Rico and a few hundred thousand in the Virgin Islands," he says. "That means there aren’t as many people with friends and family, or as many corporations with employees. There aren't as many personal connections, and personal connections are often the key to donations." 

That said, Americans traditionally do not shy away from giving to victims of natural disasters overseas, says Stacy Palmer, editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy. 

"I find the notion that we need to give more because people are Americans a bit uncomfortable, simply because we have a tradition of giving all over the world when things happen, like earthquakes in Mexico and tsunamis in Asia," she says.

"In this instance, there may be some lack of understanding about Puerto Rico being part of the U.S., but mainly the factors have to do with being a third disaster that is now battling with the Las Vegas shooting for our giving."

Maria may yet see donations rise

Some relief organization executives caution that Maria donations continue to come in, thanks in part to high-profile campaigns by celebrities such as ethnic Puerto Ricans Jennifer Lopez (who donated $1 million) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (who is releasing a song to raise money for the relief efforts). 

A spokesman for One America Appeal, the relief organization supported by the five living U.S. presidents, said the charity has seen an uptick in donations recently.

“We’ve raised close to $3 million online since the beginning of the campaign (to help victims of all three hurricanes), and there is no drop-off in intensity,” says Jim McGrath, spokesman for President George H.W. Bush. “The images, interviews, footage all put the wind back in the sails of the recovery effort.”

To a person, relief organization executives said donations ebb and flow with the rhythm of major media coverage of a disaster.

"There’s always a spike in the early days, then the news cycle changes and it’s less from the general public and more from our ongoing donor base,” says Safirstein. “While we are seeing fatigue, donors sense that this is really tremendous devastation. Many aren’t sure what to support, and some tell us to split the money evenly.”

The good news for Puerto Rico is that a media spotlight remains on the island thanks to not only the contentious dialog between President Trump and Puerto Rican officials over the debated success of relief efforts but also due to the shocking nature of the images coming from the Caribbean island.

More: Jennifer Lopez pledges $1M for Puerto Rico, teams with A-Rod, Marc Anthony

More: Lin-Manuel Miranda to Trump: 'You're going straight to hell' over Puerto Rico tweets

More: The cost of Harvey recovery will be staggering, lawmakers learn

Many experts say that while Puerto Rico’s financial needs won't eclipse those of Houston and other towns hit by Harvey (estimated at around $180 billion), research and analytics firm IHS recently reported that it may take between $40 and $80 billion to restore Puerto Rico's infrastructure. 

But with Red Cross donations to Harvey victims topping those to Maria thirty-fivefold, it seems unlikely donations are in any position at this point to help with those huge debts.

Typically, household charity giving averages 2% of income, and “if you’ve given that, unless you’re passionate you’re not going to do anymore,” says Borochoff of Charity Watch. “There’s limited attention span for such disasters unless you’re very close to them geographically. Otherwise, you go into disaster overload.”

Follow USA TODAY reporter Marco della Cava on Twitter.

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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