Charities along the Texas Gulf Coast have received millions of dollars to help victims of Hurricane Harvey — but where does it all go? And how can victims connect with the help they desperately need? As of now, it is unclear how all that money will be spent, and how and when (if ever) victims can get their hands on it.
Some groups, like the Houston Food Bank and the Texas Diaper Bank, are giving out supplies rather than cash. But at least some of the groups operating in Houston have implied they will offer financial aid. The Houston Press contacted four of them in hopes of offering readers a guide to applying for aid. Instead, we found something troubling: Despite the millions of dollars of donations pouring into the city, basically no one yet knows how that money will be distributed.
Here's what we found out.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency
The most obvious option for post-disaster financial aid — albeit not always a popular one — is FEMA. While the agency may not have the best reputation (think: Katrina, "FEMA camps," etc.), it does offer grants and low-interest loans to anyone in "designated areas" of disaster, which currently includes Harris County.
Better yet, FEMA — unlike most groups working in Houston right now — has clear instructions on how affected residents and business owners can receive aid.
There are three ways to apply: Online at DisasterAssistance.gov, via the FEMA smartphone app or over the phone at 1-800-621-FEMA (3362). "We’re encouraging people to use DisasterAssistance.gov as the primary option for now," Peter Herrick Jr., a spokesman for the agency, said in an email. "It is the most accessible and doesn’t have the wait time that our phone line does."
To apply, people will need to provide their Social Security number, address, insurance information, phone number and bank account and routing numbers so that the agency knows where to send money. FEMA is asking people for descriptions of the damage and encouraging people to take photos of any destroyed belongings.
Also, if your current mailing address is different from the damaged address, be sure to include both.
Once the application is in, FEMA will send an inspector, who will "make a determination on how much aid [a person is] eligible for," Herrick said. A FEMA official told CNBC last week that it expects almost 500,000 Harvey-related applications.
Houston's Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund
On August 28, as Houstonians woke to flooded homes and images of widespread devastation, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced he was starting a “Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund.” The money will be used to help “victims affected by the recent floods,” according to its website.
It isn’t yet clear how that will work. Although the fund’s website has a section on general aid, it doesn’t apparently have any information on applying for financial assistance. And the Greater Houston Community Foundation, which is running the fund, appears to give grants usually to small nonprofits rather than individuals.
Alan Bernstein, a spokesman for Mayor Turner, said via email that “full details [are] not yet available" on how to apply for aid.
The J.J. Watt Foundation
Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt charmed the city last week by announcing that he would use his charitable foundation to raise money for Harvey victims. On Tuesday, the fund surpassed $20 million in donations.
To sweeten the deal further, Watt has implied that he plans to help victims directly rather than by funneling money through other nonprofits. “I’m really focusing my efforts on making sure that I get that money directly back to the people,” Watt told CNN.
Again, it isn't yet clear how that will work. His foundation's website asks people to send funding requests to firstname.lastname@example.org. But there isn't apparently any information on who qualifies. And the foundation's information page on funding seems geared toward school sports programs — not Harvey victims.
The J.J. Watt Foundation did not respond to a request for comment.
The Red Cross
The Red Cross, still struggling to repair its image after its disastrous response to the Haiti earthquake, hasn’t been helped much by Harvey. Asked by NPR last Thursday what proportion of every dollar in donations would go to actual victims, Red Cross CEO Brad Kieserman said, “I don’t know the answer to that.”
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“People are urging donations for Harvey relief efforts — just not the Red Cross,” the Washington Post blared in a headline Monday.
Maybe Red Cross will prove the pundits wrong. But while the website for the organization’s Gulf Coast branch does have links for donations, for volunteers and for anyone who wants to “shop the Red Cross store,” there do not seem to be any links for applying for aid.
When asked about applying for Harvey aid, the Red Cross initially directed the Houston Press to FEMA. When pressed further, the group said it would have an answer by next week.
"I’ve contacted our national office and at this point I cannot answer this question,' said MaryJane Mudd, spokeswoman for the Texas Gulf Coast Region in an email. "HOWEVER, we will be announcing something next week."