A report from the New York attorney general’s office found that 89 charities, with the American Red Cross coming in on top, raised more than a half a billion dollars in donations intended to aid Hurricane Sandy victims. Yet five months after the hurricane hit the New York coastline, killing 72 people and destroying more than 70,000 homes, only 57 percent of donations had been utilized.
The report discovered that as of April, the 89 charities were sitting on $238 million in donations intended to aid those affected by the superstorm. Now, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is pointing a finger at the nonprofits, urging them to use donations for their intended purpose.
“Last year, after Superstorm Sandy devastated families and communities throughout our region, people throughout New York, across the country and around the world opened their hearts and made more than half a billion dollars in charitable contributions to help those in need,” he said at a press conference.
The report was commended by local government leaders in areas hit hard by Hurricane Sandy, including Assemblyman Philip Goldfeder, a Democrat representing Rockaway Park. Goldfeder has been among the voices calling for aid in an area still impacted by the October 2012 storm.
“Almost 85 percent of my district, including my own home and office, were destroyed by Sandy, and it is unacceptable that nearly nine months after the storm, funding raised for thousands of victims still hasn’t been given to those in need,” he said in a press release.
The attorney general’s report also addressed whether nonprofits that collected funds after the disaster used the donations for Sandy relief or unrelated projects.
“New Yorkers are resilient and generous people. As we have done so many times in the past, we got right to work rebuilding,” Schneiderman said. “We have a responsibility to the people who donated their hard-earned money to help our community rebuild to make sure that the contributions were used as advertised.”
Nonprofits holding out on poor
Months before the release of the attorney general’s report on Hurricane Sandy nonprofits, Occupy Sandy, an organization that emerged to raise awareness and provide support for long-term victims, released a statement indicating low-income victims were being overlooked by charities whose purpose was to provide relief.
“Billions have been raised in the name of Sandy victims, but the poorest, people of color in the Rockaways and some of the hardest hit are being denied those donations,” it stated.
The complaints stemmed, in part, from the Robin Hood Foundation’s decision not to assist the Action Center, a nonprofit that converted into a relief center after the storm. Those served by the Action Center often live well below the poverty level, unable to address issues of mold in their homes and subsequent illnesses that have plagued their personal recoveries.
Occupy Sandy is still calling for supporters to petition the Robin Hood Foundation and request a response from the group’s board of directors as to why assistance for those living in the Rockaways is not being granted.
“Let them know that they have not been forgotten: Request an explanation in writing from the Robin Hood Board of Directors as to why funding was not even considered and send notice to the other groups who raised funding in the name of Sandy victims that you are watching to see that these funds are actually going to those who need it the most,” the post states.
The attorney general’s report largely focused on five nonprofit organizations that accounted for nearly 80 percent of all donations raised. The largest of them all was the American Red Cross, which received just shy of $300 million for Hurricane Sandy relief. The Robin Hood Foundation was second, with more than $64 million raised.
The Red Cross reported to the attorney general’s office that it abided by its own guidelines in terms of Hurricane Sandy donations. Donations were only reserved for Hurricane Sandy if given within one month of the storm. Nov. 26, 2012, was the cut-off date. The cut-off date for Hurricane Sandy text donations was Dec. 31, 2012.
The organization claims that all funds after that date, except when raised specifically through Hurricane Sandy fundraisers, were not used for Hurricane Sandy relief.
Red Cross was criticized harshly following Hurricane Sandy, with victims of the storm who were left without food and power claiming the organization’s response wasn’t adequate.
“Red Cross sucks,” Thomas Donovan, a 43-year-old whose Breezy Point community was hit hard by Sandy, told NBC News. “I’m never giving them another dime.”
Donovan wasn’t alone in his complaints, forcing the organization to publicly acknowledge the criticism and offer its defense.
“I know that there are people who have absolutely lost everything, that are cold, that are frightened, that are saying, ‘Where is the American Red Cross?’ and I am totally supportive of that. I understand their cry for help, but we are out there,” Gail McGovern, the organization’s CEO, told NBC News in the weeks following the storm.
With thousands still impacted by the storm, the attorney general’s office is urging organizations to provide assistance where assistance is due.
The office’s Charities Bureau is launching what it’s referring to as a heightened review of Hurricane Sandy fundraisers, relief efforts and charities.
“This is about transparency,” Schneiderman told the Fox News New York affiliate station. “This is about accountability. this is about us all understanding that the money goes where the donors intended and the relief is delivered effectively and efficiently.”
Victims remain victims
The hurricane was devastating enough — at least 159 people died in Sandy-related incidents and more than 72,000 homes were destroyed in what NASA scientists referred to as a once-every-700-years storm.
Yet the nightmare entered round two when time came for victims to pick up the pieces.
While Congress approved its $51 billion aid package to assist victims, federal funds were slow to roll in, as lawmakers waited three months to act. Tens of thousands of victims were reported homeless in April.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, more than $958 million in grants for individuals and households was approved, with more than 271,000 people registered for assistance in the 13 impacted counties.
According to the New York Daily News, 2,400 of the 2,800 existing Breezy Point homes were unoccupied as of April. Hundreds more either burned down in the hurricane or have since been torn down.
“There wasn’t a single home untouched by Sandy that I know of in Breezy,” John Nies, a 55-year-old who runs a siding and roofing company told the New York Daily News in April. “And (Gov. Andrew) Cuomo, (City council Speaker Christine) Quinn and (Mayor Michael) Bloomberg all came down and said everything would be expedited. Now the cameras are gone. It’s six months later. And next to nothing has been done.”
And when it comes to dealing with insurance companies, it’s an ongoing battle.
“Some people are still very much in the midst of recovery,” Cuomo said in an April news conference commemorating the six-month anniversary of Hurricane Sandy. “You still have people in hotel rooms, you still have people doubled up, you still have people fighting with insurance companies, and for them it’s been terrible and horrendous.”
The people on the front lines know this well. For those living in the midst of the nightmare, the stories are quite similar: Aid is slow to roll in, and insurance companies are a pain.
“People are trying to rebuild these homes,” Art Lighthall, a Queens resident told My Fox New York. “They need the assistance ‘cause in many cases they did not get the support through FEMA and in many cases they had no insurance or their insurance proceeds were small or they are fighting with insurance companies.”
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