Hurricane Laura’s winds tore through southwest Louisiana with a ferocity that hadn’t been matched in 150 years, but the relief and fundraising efforts to date have lagged those of lesser storms.
While thousands remain unable to return to their homes and others are making do under tarped roofs, the heads of some charities and relief organizations say they’re worried about how they will be able to meet southwest Louisiana’s vast needs. Though Laura made national headlines when it first struck and for a day or two after, its long-term impact has fallen off the radar in the five-alarm-fire news cycle of 2020.
Those raising money to help with relief efforts in the aftermath of the storm stress that they are thankful for donations that have poured in so far: the American Red Cross has raised $11.1 million, the Community Foundation of Southwest Louisiana has raised $5.5 million, and United Way of Southwest Louisiana has raised $2.5 million.
But some are worried that the largess will start to dry up as time passes, and they expect a yawning gap between needs and resources. While firm damage assessments are still pending, some analysts project that insured wind and storm damage to homes and businesses will range from $8 billion to $12 billion. It’s unclear what the scope of uninsured losses are, but they are expected to be in the billions.
Recovery is often a slow and costly crawl. Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge is still helping people recover from the 2016 floods that inundated the capital region.
“It’s clear we need the support of the country to help us through this,” said Denise Durel, the president and CEO of United Way of Southwest Louisiana. “It’s that large, it’s absolutely that large.”
Durel said that United Way’s donations in the aftermath of Laura are only 75% of what the organization raised over the same period after Hurricane Rita, when adjusted for inflation. She expects the recovery from Laura to be far more costly.
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Since the storm hit, United Way has distributed groceries, hot meals, gas, ice and more to people in and around Lake Charles. They’re also helping people who otherwise couldn’t afford to have trees cleared from their yards and sending generators to people who still lack power in Cameron Parish.
When people see the destruction, they’re often moved to give. Durel said the Florida Power and Light workers who have been helping to rebuild the Lake Charles electrical grid took up their own collection after seeing the extent of the devastation. They gave $4,870 to United Way.
“The need is so great,” said Sara Judson, the president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Lake Charles. “We believe if we were able to reach a $10 million mark, we could do so much good, yet there would still be more needs.”
The foundation has raised about half of its goal. It has also made $1 million in grants to local relief organizations, including $250,000 apiece to The Salvation Army of Lake Charles, Catholic Charities of Acadiana and the Red Cross.
Judson said donations have come from around the country, including a particularly poignant one, an envelope with a New York postmark and three dollar bills inside. She and Durel both said corporations that have ties to southwest Louisiana have also helped with fundraising.
The Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Louisiana donated $1 million apiece to United Way and the Community Foundation after announcing a $5 million commitment to Laura relief. The Walmart Foundation also donated $1 million to the Community Foundation.
While Judson and Durel are raising money for their community at large, they’ve also been dealing with their own personal challenges. Durel was so busy helping others that it took her weeks to get her own roof tarped. The United Way office in Lake Charles also had water damage. It still doesn’t have internet or cable, and the organization has had to buy hotspots to make do in the meantime.
Judson has been working out of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation’s offices, 125 miles to the east, since the storm hit.
The Red Cross, known for its on-the-ground presence after disasters, will need to raise millions more for Laura relief and recovery, according to regional communications and marketing director Stephanie Wanger. Red Cross is providing aid to the 16,000 people still in emergency lodging after the storm, while providing food, water and other necessities to others in need, she said.
Coronavirus concerns prompted the Red Cross to make some of its services, like health care and mental health, virtual.
“We are more aggressively recruiting volunteers this year and are heartened that people still raise their hands to help — despite the hardship presented by COVID-19,” Wagner said.
Nearly 200 separate fundraising accounts have been set up to help families and storm victims through the GoFundMe website. GoFundMe is a for-profit company, and donations made through its website generally are not tax deductible. However, GoFundMe’s charitable arm, called GoFundMe.org, has a separate hurricane relief fund set up that has raised $75,000 so far.
At Catholic Charities’ offices in Baton Rouge, Director of Administration Carol Spruell said people have been quick to donate to Laura relief efforts, perhaps because the pain and memories of the 2016 floods are still fresh. She said the organization has raised about $100,000 so far.
Catholic Charities has also been able to pair churches that flooded in 2016 — including Immaculate Conception in Denham Springs and St. Alphonsus in Greenwell Springs — with the same church parishes in Lake Charles that took up donations for them after the floods.
But Spruell said it will be a challenge to keep that momentum going over the long run.
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“We’ve learned time and time again for disasters that long-term recovery money is the hardest to get, after the disaster is no longer in the headlines,” she said. “When it’s time to rebuild houses, the money drops dramatically.”
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