Katrina - Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Q. Why did you do this?
A. My original plan was to take a year or two off to travel, and then spend a year on a service/volunteer commitment with something I'd find along the way. During our world travels we saw lots and lots and lots of abandoned complexes and rotting signs of grand projects from every major Christian denomination and major secular groups. But aside from a hand water pump project in Africa, we saw no charity/volunteer projects that were sustainable or made a lasting difference in people's lives. They all mostly slowly died after the ribbon cutting photographs were taken. So we both had a backlog of wanting to do some volunteer work and no outlet for those efforts.
When Katrina hit two things happened. One, we had a friend we'd ridden with in Africa who had helped out with relief after the Midwest floods in 1993 and after hurricane Ivan, Gary DuBois. Gary and I talked by phone about what we could do and hatched a potential plan. Two, both Steph and I got completely sick of people pointing fingers and trying to assign blame while there were still bodies floating around. While New Orleans Mayor Nagin was certainly in way over his head and simply didn't have the personal or professional skills to cope with the situation, his comment to "get off your asses and do something" really resonated with me. We loaded the truck and drove non-stop to Gary and Angie’s farm, picked up Gary and the tractor and headed south.
I think a lot of our friends and family would have done the same if they could. We were blessed with the time and available resources.
We wanted to do something directly that would help people. We wanted to do something where we could see with our own eyes the impact of our contributions.
Q. How long were you there?
A. About a month. The only time we left was over a weekend for a party for my brother in a suburb of Austin, TX. It felt very surreal to be in upper-middle class Texas while the people we’d been helping were sleeping in moldy, soggy homes.
Q. What did it cost?
A. About one kazillionth of what we got back.
It has been a very rewarding experience, and although we receive a lot of thanks for our efforts, we both feel that we have gotten much more than we've given.
It's been a real blessing to get to know these people, and have the chance to learn about this region, this area and its wonderful people. It's really an extension of our motto, "exploring the world and meeting its people." These people just happen to be fellow Americans. And Americans that we've never known much of anything about. It's been very educational and interesting to basically live with people who went to segregated schools and only had about 100' of the Gulf Beaches that they could set foot on.
Q. What did you do?
A. We cut and removed hurricane blown down trees out of people's homes, garages, buildings and yards.
Q. Where did you help?
A. We spent all of our time in Mississippi. The media was focusing almost exclusively on Louisiana, but a quick look at a map showed the hurricane actually came ashore in Mississippi. We started in Mt. Olive and worked in the Laurel and Hattiesburg areas before heading south to Gulfport. We spent the last two weeks cutting the trees out of every yard in the Turkey Creek community, a small enclave founded by emancipated slaves.
Q. Who did you help?
A. We tried to focus on the people in the greatest need and those who could least afford to pay for help. Consequently we did most of our work for the working poor and lower middle class families. Along the way we helped the rich, the poor, the middle class, white, black, land owner, renter, welfare recipient, college graduate, professional, laborer, disabled, blind, widower, widow and retiree.
Q. How about some stats?
A. In our first 24 hours we traveled 1,638 miles, used 116.6 gallons of fuel at 14.1 MPG and averaged 72 MPH. We drove 22 hours and 20 minutes out of the first 24 hours. Other than gas and driver swaps we made one stop for lunch in Texas.
Between leaving Carlsbad, CA and driving to AL to pick up Gary and the tractor, back down to MS, all around MS for a month, to Baltimore, MD (where we stopped to attend a sailboat show) and then home to Carlsbad via friends and family all across the country we traveled 8,690.4 miles, used 650 gallons of premium gasoline, averaged 13.4 miles per gallon (including a month of towing a 6,000 lb. tractor & trailer combination around Mississippi), and averaged 55 miles per hour.
Q. Could we do this too?
A. Absolutely! This is not rocket science, and with a little common sense you can spend a few days or a couple of weeks making a huge difference for people who are in great need.
Q. How can we help directly, without sending our money into the black hole of a giant big-logo charity?
A. Please see the page on “How to Help.”
Q. What do I need to know if I want to do what you did in a disaster zone?
A. Please see the page “Lessons Learned.”
Q. What was it like on the ground?
A. Much, much different than what you see in the media. The small towns and rural areas got basically zero help. The big logo charities were MIA for the first few weeks. Nobody got help for the first two weeks, rich or poor, black or white. We spoke with, visited and worked for people across the economic spectrum, white and black, and there was nothing for anybody for at least two weeks. When we left, there were still people living in tents and in the woods only a few miles north of Gulfport, which was basically swimming in relief supplies.
As an example, in an upper middle class neighborhood of Gulfport neighbors were punching holes in gasoline tanks of parked cars to steal gas from each other. Homes were broken into in searches for food and water. This happened two weeks after the hurricane. There was no power. There was no drinking water. There was no food. There was no Red Cross.
As another example, Steph talked with a guy who lost one of the big Antebellum mansions on the beach of Gulfport. He slept in the ruins to protect what was left of his property for the first couple of weeks. The only people down there with him were the Salvation Army workers who were feeding thousands. They literally slept on the ground next to him.
The only groups on the ground giving aid of any kind for the first few weeks were the Salvation Army and the church groups.
Q. What about the American Red Cross
A. Before we left I happened to catch an interview with the leader of the American Red Cross on TV. She was making an appearance on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange to accept a donation check from their CEO. Her hair was perfectly coifed and her quadruple string of giant pearls exactly filled the front scoop of her bright red dress. She spouted endless praise of her organization, going on and on about the aid they were providing at that very moment to all the victims of Katrina.
In reality, at that moment the Red Cross had just six (6) people in the entire county where the hurricane made landfall. They weren’t helping anybody do anything.
It took me three weeks on the ground before I found a single resident of Mississippi who had received any form of direct aid from the Red Cross, or even a resident who knew of someone who had received any aid from the Red Cross.
In four weeks I never found a single person, or a single person who knew of a person, who had been able to get through on the Red Cross’ aid request toll-free 800# phone lines. The lines were always busy and everyone finally just gave up trying to call and ask for help.
In contrast, during this entire time anyone in the United States could pick up a phone and get an immediate answer on the Red Cross donation lines. That to me tells the entire story.
Prior to our departure the Red Cross had already raised over $700 million for Katrina aid. We saw very little evidence of that money hitting the ground in Mississippi.
Forbes reports that in 2003 the chief executive of the Red Cross, Marsha Evans, was paid $651,957 (Forbes Analysis). The analysis shows that in the same year the Red Cross spent $175 million on management and general expenses and $123 million on fund raising. Only 80% of funds contributed to the Red Cross were spent on actual relief.
In Mississippi, the Red Cross claimed that it couldn’t get to the impact site any quicker than two weeks because they “couldn’t get fuel.” I do not accept that an organization led by someone being paid $651,957 and spending $175 million on management cannot figure out to buy a few fuel trucks to drive in with their relief vehicles. They also haven’t figured out to buy a fleet of “star wagons” such as the type used in motion picture production to house the performers on locations. Instead, the Red Cross uses up scarce local hotel rooms and won’t serve a disaster area if there are no rooms available. In the time we were in Gulfport, Mississippi, the Red Cross was using up hotel rooms in Hattiesburg, 65 miles away, because they had no ability to house their volunteer workers in the local disaster area.
Compare this with the Salvation Army, a disaster relief organization of comparable size. Both the Salvation Army and the Red Cross have annual inflows of about $3 billion. In 2003 the Salvation Army’s top executive, W. Todd Bassett, was paid $166,850 in salary and the organization passed on 91% of its inflows out to those in need. In Mississippi, the Salvation Army’s volunteer workers brought their own accommodations and fuel and were serving food to those in need within hours of Katrina’s landfall.
While the Red Cross passes on at best 80% of what it takes in to disaster victims, the Salvation Army manages to pass on at least 91%. That 11% difference adds up to $330 million dollars that the Red Cross is not getting to people in need. Where is that money going?
There is no doubt that the American Red Cross has superior advertising. There is no doubt that the millions they spend on Public Relations buys them positive news coverage about everything they do. There is no doubt that the American Red Cross has a monopoly on the mindshare of America when it comes to where to contribute money in a time of crisis.
There is, however, much doubt in my mind about where this money is going after witnessing how little of it got to the ground in Mississippi.