The day after Hurricane Ida struck Louisiana, Delaney Nolan spent hours biking around New Orleans, handing out money to people who needed to pay for supplies or for the hotel rooms where they’d taken shelter.
Once the cash ran out — banks were closed, and ATMs were empty or no longer running without electricity — Nolan Venmo’d people the money they needed. As site coordinator for the mutual aid group Southern Solidarity in Louisiana, she and her team also handed out free meals from restaurants that were cooking up their food stockpiles before they spoiled.
Nolan is among the faces of philanthropy that are tending to the immediate personal losses inflicted by the hurricane. Mutual aid networks like hers spring into action to supplement the more established relief services from federal and local governments, as well as larger charities.
The networks, in which community members pool resources and distribute donations to care for one another, seek to avoid the traditional charity model of giver and receiver. They grew in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic as communities across the country faced dire needs. And now they are mobilizing in the wake of other disasters like Hurricane Ida.
“Mutual aid is the most effective help right now,” Nolan said. “It’s built on communications with a lot of neighbors and existing relationships, from personally knowing what people need.”
Established philanthropic groups are joining to support the mutual aid groups, too. Jasmine Araujo, the founder of Southern Solidarity, said that days after the hurricane hit, the organization GlobalGiving had called her and said there would be donations coming to her group quickly.
“Most of our funds, though, come from individual donors,” she said. “We don’t usually get a lot of grants from bigger groups right away.”
GlobalGiving launched its Hurricane Ida Relief Fund over the weekend to speed distribution of funds for those in need, said Donna Callejon, who leads the group’s disaster response effort.
“The funds come in, and we mobilize quickly,” said Callejon, adding that because GlobalGiving has worked in the area for years, it has a list of partners that have already been vetted to receive funds. “We have experience working in Louisiana with a lot of historically disenfranchised groups.”
Another Gulf is Possible, a collective of 11 organizers and artists based in Louisiana, Texas and Florida had stored up 30 kits of solar panels, batteries, lanterns, power banks, iPads and water filters in preparation for the storm. They are gearing up to distribute the items to community organizers in New Orleans and the predominantly Native American communities of Grand Bayou and Grand Bois. But reaching people in some areas has been difficult because of the power outages, said Bryan Parras, a member of the group.
“People need everything,” said Anne White Hat, a Louisiana resident who’s part of the group, which has been collecting masks, googles, and gloves to protect communities from mold or lead during clean-up efforts.
Mutual aid efforts “allow everyone, no matter their status, to contribute what they are able,” said Tanya Gulliver-Garcia, a director at the Washington-based Center for Disaster Philanthropy. “The pandemic showed us that even in a cash-dependent society, people and their ‘stuff’ are still a valuable resource.”
Most of the nation’s 800 formal mutual aid groups formed during the pandemic, according to the group Mutual Aid Hub. Community fridges, for example, have sprung up in many cities since last year, allowing anyone to donate and take food.
Members of Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, another group, have been circulating an online form where people sign up to help remove trees, share meals, host spaces for donation collections, provide counseling and perform other services for those impacted by Ida. About 90 new people have signed up to contribute in the past few days, a regional coordinator estimates.
Help has also come from grassroots rescue groups. In the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, Paul Middendorf, a volunteer disaster responder from Houston, traveled across hard-hit LaPlace, driving home to home in a high-water vehicle in an effort to rescue Louisianans from chest-deep floodwater.
Most of those rescued were in shock, Middendorf said, with some stationing themselves in their attics, fearful of rising waters and with nowhere to go. Many sought help from CrowdSource Rescue, a Houston-based disaster response group that connects people seeking help with trained volunteers. Along with Middendorf, it has aided dozens of other volunteers do rescues or wellness checks during the disaster response.
By the time Middendorf arrived at the homes, most of the floodwaters had receded. But some residents still feared leaving their attics. “A couple of the families, I literally coaxed down the attic as the waters receded,” Middendorf said.
CrowdSource Rescue, which launched in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, directs people seeking help to call 911 before contacting them. The group says it provides assistance when local officials are overwhelmed with requests. Matthew C. Marchetti, the group’s executive director, says its average donation size is $60. So far, Marchetti says he’s confirmed that the volunteers have rescued 364 people from floodwaters using boats and high-water vehicles.
Volunteers connected with CrowdSource had been fielding requests for help since Ida made landfall, but the fierce winds had initially made it impossible for them to respond. Middendorf, of Houston, rode out the storm at a parking lot in Baton Rouge, before heading 56 miles (90 km) southwest to LaPlace, where he found many trapped by floodwaters. Requests for help also came in for Lafitte, another town that suffered major flood damage.
Despite coordination efforts amongst different rescue groups, Marchetti says there were overlaps in responses. Similar concerned pleas for help had flooded into Cajun Navy Relief, a group of Louisiana volunteers who help with search and rescue after hurricanes and floods.
Owen Belknap, a student at Louisiana Tech University who leads one of the rescue teams, said his team managed to rescue one person in Laffitte. Belknap and his friends, also volunteers with Cajun Navy, began helping with disasters three years ago when a tornado swept through their hometown of Ruston, Louisiana. They joined the Cajun Navy last year as Hurricane Laura pummeled southwest Louisiana, killing 27 people.
Once a business major, Belknap transitioned to studying nursing as he grew more passionate about rescue efforts. With a few more days before the school year begins, he has time, he said, to help cut knocked-down trees and distribute supplies to the affected communities.
Amid the devastation, institutional funders have also opened their pocketbooks. Among them, the family foundation of Arthur M. Blank, the co-founder of The Home Depot and owner of the Atlanta Falcons, has pledged $500,000 each to a community foundation in New Orleans and The American Red Cross, whose volunteers are on the ground working on recovery efforts. Verizon’s company foundation has said it’s donating $100,000 to the Baton Rouge-based Foundation for Louisiana to aid those impacted by Ida.
“My inbox is really full right now with queries from the funder community asking where to really pitch in,” said Regine Webster, the vice president of Center for Disaster Philanthropy.
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