Almost two months after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, prompting an outpouring of financial aid from the Jewish community, a fuller picture is first emerging about how the United Jewish Communities has spent about one-fourth of the $21.5 million it has raised.
That picture reveals the difficulties the organization has had in determining where the money would best be used, the thinking behind the allocation process, and the complexity of working with the federal government and other relief organizations.
The first allocation was made Sept. 9, a week and a half after the UJC established its Humanitarian Relief Fund. It sent $1 million to the Houston area as part of an interfaith effort to feed hurricane evacuees there.
Soon after UJC allocated another $1 million to help the Jewish federations of Greater Baton Rouge and Greater New Orleans provide emergency aid: including food and short-term housing, counseling, senior medical and transportation needs, and longer-term needs such as Jewish education aid for evacuees and developing social services. An additional $50,000 was allocated to Jackson, Miss., to help evacuees.
But it was not until late last week, a full month later, that UJC announced the awarding of an additional $2.1 million, the bulk of which ($1.5 million) went to help the New Orleans federation and its social service agencies through the end of the year.
Barry Schwartz, UJC’s senior vice president for emergency response, said in an interview Sunday that he expected the committee overseeing the allocations to authorize another $1.5 million this week. That would bring total allocations to more than $5.6 million, just over a quarter of the total raised to date.
Asked about the apparent slowdown in allocations following the initial $2 million outlay, Schwartz replied: "It didn’t slow down; the circumstances became more complicated. We had to identify where the government was not involved, where the need was, whether [that need] was going to dissipate, and we had to get some people who had evacuated [resettled] into small communities," including Monroe and Lafayette, La., and Jackson.
"Disasters develop in stages," Schwartz added. "We go from immediate relief efforts to recovery to intermediate and long-term needs. So as the circumstances change, we change."
Although the American Red Cross has raised $1.2 billion and already allocated more than $1.1 billion, primarily for emergency financial assistance, Schwartz said the UJC cannot be compared with either the Red Cross or the Salvation Army.
"We’re not in a position to respond the way they do," he said. "We try to target our dollars in a way that makes a difference for the general public and the Jewish community. As we identify ways in which we can make a difference, we act accordingly. We are also guided by the impacted local communities. We had communities that were impacted by the storm directly and those that became evacuation communities: the first time that has happened in North America on such a grand scale.
"So as needs emerge, we work with the local communities and make decisions. Baton Rouge and New Orleans and Houston needed help and now we are developing a strategy for intermediate needs. People are returning to New Orleans and we are trying to sustain general life and Jewish community life there. And in Dallas and other communities we are trying to assist with their efforts [at resettlement]. And we sent staff teams" to the affected areas to help identify the needs.
Although Schwartz said he believed almost all of the $21.5 million in donations came from Jews, he said allocations would be made to everyone based on need.
One Jewish leader who has been in close contact with the UJC termed its delay in allocating relief funds "surprising," but said many other relief agencies have faced similar problems because of the scope of the disaster.
"There appears to be a lot of disagreement [within UJC] about exactly how the money should be allocated," the source said. "The process is much slower than some people expected."
Schwartz, who is heading the disaster response, refuted that assertion.
"There is a real consensus that we should allocate [funds] as needs emerge and become identified," he said. "As the potential areas of funding are identified, we discuss them. … There has been no confusion at all."
Schwartz said members of the allocations committee, called the UJC Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Mitigation Committee, are scattered throughout the United States and speak with each other through conference calls.
"We also talk with other Jewish organizations and institutions and collaborate with all sorts of institutions," Schwartz said. "The religious streams and other national organizations are all talking to each other. We’re all identifying needs and telling each other about them. We talk about who is best suited to fund them or we partner with each other [to provide funding]. All of the religious streams are raising money. … We’re looking at intermediate and long-term needs."
Although the allocation process may appear slow to some, Sheila Consaul, director of media relations for United Way of America, said her organization’s allocation process has been even more deliberate. The United Way waited until Oct. 14 to make its first allocation: $4 million.
"The entire system brought in a little more than $24 million through local United Ways, individuals and corporations," she said, adding that the Oct. 14 allocation was made to local United Ways.
"It’s a pretty good pace because you have to keep in mind that there is a system involved," she said. "We had a volunteer committee and [those seeking help] had to fill out applications for assistance."
Consaul said local United Ways involved in disaster assistance have in some instances spent their own money, but that "primarily we are giving them money to help them provide services in their communities."
She added that the United Way has helped in other hurricanes, most recently last year after Ivan, Charlie and Jeanne.
In a statement, UJC said the organization and its federation partners in the impacted areas "are sorting through the complex process of determining the best ways to allocate further aid. United Way, for example, found that the original funding for Houston evacuees was ultimately unnecessary because many evacuees left temporary shelters earlier than expected and food banks were full. United Way is now surveying evacuee needs by talking to evacuees themselves, NGOs [non-governmental organizations], federal agencies and the American Red Cross."
The UJC allocations announced last week include:$350,000 to the San Antonio Food Bank to help feed evacuees;
# $123,000 to the Nashville Jewish Federation for emergency cash distributed to victims in Alexandria, Lafayette and Lake Charles, La., and in Biloxi, Miss.;
# $49,600 to the Jewish Federation of Northern Louisiana to provide $50 gift cards to evacuees;
# $38,278 to Chabad to help establish a chevra kadisha, or burial society;
# $15,000 to the Birmingham Jewish Federation for the aid it gave to the St. Thomas Catholic Church to help victims.