A Major Lesson from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria

In recent weeks, three catastrophic hurricanes have caused mass devastation. These hurricanes—Harvey, Irma, and Maria—have provided numerous lessons for people to think about.

The lesson I want to focus on for this blog post is that the United States (or at least news media in the United States) only cares about a natural disaster if it hits one or more states.

The media’s treatment of Puerto Rico with Hurricane Maria is a sad example of this. Last time I checked, losses from Maria in Puerto Rico totaled $72 billion—staggering when you consider the fact that storm costs are equal to nearly three quarters of the entire territory’s GDP of just over $100 billion! A humanitarian crisis is unfolding there, a crisis that may only be rivaled by few hurricanes in our entire nation’s history. Yet, since Puerto Rico is a territory instead of a state, Harvey and Irma received wall-to-wall coverage for days while Maria only got a mention of a few minutes at most until allegations of the federal government’s neglect began to dominate headlines.

If Puerto Rico got second class media coverage from Maria, then one could only imagine how much worse the media coverage was of Maria during and after hitting Dominica. The prime minister of Dominica had to be rescued and then said that the nation “lost all that money can buy.” There are reports saying that 98% of buildings in Dominica were damaged. Dominica is also in heavy need of humanitarian help. Unfortunately, American news media has reported very little on this, and I had to turn to news sources from Trinidad and Tobago (an island nation in the same region as Dominica) in order to get consistent and reliable information on Dominica.

In terms of media coverage, places like Antigua and Barbuda, Cuba, and the Bahamas suffered the same relative lack of American media coverage during Hurricane Irma, even though all these places got pounded by a Category 5 hurricane. Instead, all of the focus was on the possibility of Irma hitting Florida, not on any impacts in other parts of the world.

However, there was one thing going for media coverage of Dominica with Maria, or several Caribbean nations with Irma: they were all in the path of a hurricane that was expected to hit a U.S. state or territory. Because of that fact alone, all of these nations got at least some level of media coverage.

The same could not be said about India with the catastrophic flooding that parts of the country recently received. The flooding rains in India were not heading to a U.S. state or territory. They were not heading to Florida, Texas, or even Puerto Rico. The flooding was on the other side of the globe, and as a result I heard practically zero media coverage about it. Or, at the very least, zero coverage until I listened to the BBC, which admittedly has a stake in what’s happening in India since India is part of the British Commonwealth.

Clearly, the United States, or at the very least American media, seems to care very little about natural disasters that don’t strike one of the fifty states.

But why is the lack of focus on disasters outside of the states unjust? It is unjust because, by largely ignoring people outside of the States, a message is being sent that not all lives matter. In fact, a message has been sent that the lives of people in the States matter most, that the lives of people in territories like Puerto Rico matter a little, and that the lives of people outside of U.S. states and territories don’t matter at all.

Where to Donate and Where Not to Donate

I was going to post on a different topic this week, but given the events in Texas and Louisiana, I decided to go in a different direction.

I want to start this post by saying that my thoughts and prayers are with the people in Texas and Louisiana that are being hit hard by Hurricane Harvey. While I enjoy tracking storms (as I say in my own bio), I do not enjoy seeing people suffer like this. I hope that these areas recover and recover quickly.

Of course, some of us will try to help these areas recover quickly by giving to charities that are supposed to help hurricane victims. I deeply appreciate this desire, and people down in Texas and Louisiana will appreciate that desire as well.

However, I warn all of us to please be careful with where we give our money. I give this warning because not all charities do the positive work that they claim to do.

So how can people determine where they should or shouldn’t give their money? I have a few dos and don’ts, in no particular order:

  1. Saying this will be controversial, but don’t donate to the American Red Cross. I have to admit that this is somewhat personal, because my family in New York noticed after Superstorm Sandy that the Red Cross was more interested in photo-ops than helping people (an observation confirmed by a National Public Radio story two years later). These problems are well-documented, not just by an editorial I wrote while I was in college, but also by the sources I cited in my editorial (and, quite frankly, many sources not cited by my editorial). You want to give to a charity which has a good track record with natural disasters, and unfortunately the American Red Cross isn’t one of them.
  2. Don’t donate to a charity which lacks an established reputation. This seems obvious, yet there are so many scam charities which prey off of the big hearts of people.
  3. Do look at charity rating systems, such as Charity Navigator and the Better Business Bureau Wise Charity Alliance. Charity Navigator in particular is helpful because the organization’s pages for charities give you an idea of how transparent an organization is, what percentage of your donations go to the services a charity delivers, and more. These measurables are very important when you’re trying to determine whether to donate to a charity.
  4. Do research into what organizations have a presence in the area hit by the disaster. Speaking from my family’s experiences after Superstorm Sandy, some of the best work is usually performed by organizations that already had a presence in the area. Likewise, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the best work in Louisiana and Texas after Hurricane Harvey is performed by organizations which already have a presence in that area.
  5. If there are any charities which did particularly good work after a natural disaster you experienced, do consider donating to said charities if they are going to be in the area hit by Harvey. You want to donate to a charity which has a positive track record with handling disasters, so there’s no better way to do that than donate to charities that helped you when you had a disaster. The only condition, of course, is that the same charity will be working in the areas hit by Harvey.

Even if you follow these dos and don’ts, there’s no guarantee that you will donate to the perfect organization. But hopefully this post has increased your chances of donating to a charity which helps people recover from Hurricane Harvey. After all, being blindly unjust in a situation like this is to give money that doesn’t go directly to victims, without even realizing that your money doesn’t go to the victims.