As Hurricanes Gustav and Ike zeroed in on the Gulf Coast, the Mennonite Disaster Service — a small nonprofit based in Akron, Pa. — ramped up its phone center to handle the expected flood of calls from loyal backers seeking to donate or to volunteer in the disaster area. But unlike the outpouring of support after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, this time the phones stayed mostly silent.
“Usually our constituents rise up and say, ‘What can we do?’” said Scott Sundberg, spokesman for the relief group. “This time, I’m saying, ‘Why aren’t they?’”
The problem is not particular to the Mennonite group. Across the board, relief organizations report that they are struggling to raise funds to pay for their operations in Texas and Louisiana, where thousands of people remain in shelters after the storms. The biggest reason they cite is the dearth of media coverage, which has been diverted by a raging financial crisis and presidential elections.
“Because of the other big news stories that are out there … the cameras and the lights didn’t stay on to show the need that people have,” said Suzy DeFrancis, spokeswoman for the American Red Cross, which is operating 57 shelters for roughly 6,000 victims of Gustav and Ike and has served 4.5 million meals. “It’s not that the American people don’t care, but that they don’t know.”
When Hurricane Katrina hit, by comparison, public interest was high, both because the damage was of epic proportions and the initial response to the emergency was a dramatic failure. That translated into weeks of non-stop media coverage. The wrenching images of New Orleansians sweltering in the Super Dome and wading through chest-deep water captivated the public, dominated broadcasts and prompted individual and corporate donations in the billions.
“The media coverage plays a huge role in disaster relief giving,” said Patrick Rooney, executive director of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. “If you think about Katrina coverage … broadcasters would say ‘if you want to do something to help, visit these Web sites. … In this case it’s just not the same.”