After a disaster like Hurricane Ian, it can take days or even weeks for people to get aid—and when it arrives, it’s usually in the form of in-kind donations, from clothing to food, that might not be what someone needs at that moment. The nonprofit GiveDirectly is taking a different approach in Florida and Puerto Rico and sending $700 cash payments to low-income hurricane survivors.
“In our experience, the very well-meaning infrastructure around disaster relief has resulted in people getting a lot of things that they actually don’t need in the wake of a storm,” says Sarah Moran, the U.S. country director for GiveDirectly. “People will send blankets and bottles of water and medicine and candy bars. And what we’ve heard loud and clear from people who are experiencing post-disaster recovery is that they need to be able to make the choice about how they can recover themselves. Cash is a far more efficient way to ensure we are meeting the needs of people who have gone through a storm.”
That’s not to say that other donations aren’t also useful—bottled water is necessary if clean drinking water isn’t available, and if stores are closed or run out of stock, a gift of diapers could be more helpful than the money to buy them. But it’s important to also give people the option to pay for what they know they need most, whether it’s renting a car to get to work or making rent.
The nonprofit, which first pioneered direct cash payments for people living in poverty in Africa, gave similar aid after Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Maria. Using a tool developed by partners at Google.org—which they first used in 2019, after Hurricane Dorian—they’re finding the people likely to be most in need by mapping how damage from a storm intersects with poverty in a community. (Google.org has also donated $3 million to support GiveDirectly’s work in Florida and Puerto Rico.)
“What we can then do is actually target at the census-block level who we want to pay, and what’s great about that is we can do that within a day of receiving satellite imagery,” she says. “Whereas, to get there on the ground, and actually drive around and look at people’s houses and try and make a determination about who’s been impacted, is far more difficult and far less effective. You might miss an entire neighborhood, if you’re trying to do that manually.”
Using the Providers app, which millions of Americans use to manage SNAP benefits to buy food, GiveDirectly sends a notification to people in the hardest-hit areas, telling them that they might be eligible. Within seconds, they can complete an application, and the money can show up in their account within 24 to 48 hours.
Last week, the nonprofit started making the first payments in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Fiona. It wasn’t as destructive as Ian, but because the island still hasn’t recovered from Hurricane Maria five years ago, they knew that more support was needed. The first payments in Florida will begin on Thursday, and the nonprofit will be analyzing the program to see if more payments are needed in the future.
Thanks in part to GiveDirectly’s previous work, other organizations are also beginning to use cash transfers—including FEMA, which also plans to offer cash to people impacted by Hurricane Fiona in Puerto Rico. But GiveDirectly thinks it can reach additional people faster.
Equitable disaster relief is critical, she says. “Storms like this are devastating for everyone. But there’s also data that shows that big storms exacerbate wealth inequalities and exacerbate and widen the racial wealth gap. So the post-storm recovery is a critical time to make sure that the most vulnerable people are getting the support they need to rebuild. And that’s why we’re doing this work.”
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