Oklahoma Tornado Project
7:30 am
Wed November 20, 2013

Hold Onto That Water, Cash Is King In Crises

Six months after a series of tornadoes tore through the Oklahoma City area, we’re looking back this week at the role of private donations in the recovery effort. 

Pallets of water fill one of Feed the Children's Oklahoma City warehouses.
Pallets of water fill one of Feed the Children's Oklahoma City warehouses.
Credit Kate Carlton

Whenever a disaster strikes, Oklahomans and people from across the country generally pitch in and do whatever they can to help.  But in the final part of our series,  we find despite people’s best intentions, oftentimes the help that arrives is not the help that’s needed most. 

When Feed the Children’s Erin Engelke looks back on the community response to the May tornadoes, she recalls the outpouring of support from around the nation.

“People felt so called, personally touched, either they knew someone who had been impacted by the tornadoes or they themselves had been,” Engelke said. “So we all felt so called to do absolutely everything we could to support the victims and the families that were affected.”

The desperate desire to help often resulted in donations of tangible goods rather than cash. People called Engelke wanting to give bottled water, Gatorade and diapers. But she says people’s perceptions of what was needed didn’t always line up with what survivors were asking for.

“When victims are met with a disaster of this capacity, water only gets you so far,” she said. “A lot of what we saw on the ground was, for a lot of these families, they didn’t have cars to go to a donation site to pick up the donations that had been collected. Or they didn’t have the cookware, let’s say, to cook food in their home. Or they just needed a place to go.”

Feed the Children received $2 million in cash donations, but roughly $11 million worth of in-kind products for the tornado relief effort.

University of Central Oklahoma Marketing Professor Stacia Wert-Gray understands society’s reluctance to give cash rather than goods.  It’s a reluctance she feels herself. 

“So I would never contribute to the American Red Cross,” Wert-Gray said. “But I don’t mind contributing to an effort locally that’s going to be targeted to something I’m interested in. If I were to give $100 to the Red Cross, where is that going to go?”

According to the American Red Cross, they donate 91 cents of every dollar. But Wert-Gray’s skepticism of non-profits and the overhead cost is common among donors following a call for monetary donations.

“Obviously you’ve got to have the means in place to track and make sure everything is above board,” said Houston Hunt, VP of Marketing for News 9’s parent company Griffin Communications.  News 9 was one of many media outlets that helped put out the call for donations after the tornadoes.

“But the thing with cash or check or gift card is that it is flexible and it can do a multitude of things and help them towards recovery that a lot of in kind donations can’t,” Hunt said.

Erin Engelke with Feed the Children agrees. She wants people to understand how much further their help would go if they were willing to make monetary donations.

“They can buy the bleach or the work gloves and feel like they’re tangibly doing something to make a difference,” Engelke said. “But it’s also important to realize that cash is king. We can do so much more with someone’s financial donation than if they were to go purchase it themselves.”

And in addition to cash, Engelke says what’s really needed at this point are some more helping hands. The influx of volunteers that flooded into the area immediately after the storms has now petered out, but she says they’re still very much needed to help residents replace furniture, organize their finances and move into new homes.

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Ahead of the Storm: The Oklahoma Tornado Project stories are produced by KGOU News, with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Reports may be used in any media with appropriate credit given to KGOU and CPB. For details, refer to our Terms of Use.