After Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, GiveDirectly gave money to survivors throughout the island.
Photo: AP

After natural disasters strike, families are forced to cobble their lives back together. However, federal aid may take months to reach the hands of those who need it. In the interim, organizations usually rally to send items such as food and water into hard-hit communities, but what if groups gave survivors cold, hard cash so they could buy what they actually need?

Google’s nonprofit arm is donating $3 million so survivors can do just that when the next natural disaster—be it a hurricane or wildfire—strikes the U.S. It announced Wednesday it’s donating to the efforts of GiveDirectly, a group that gives money to the extreme poor in seven African countries (and more recently, the U.S.), to support natural disaster survivors.

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This isn’t GiveDirectly’s first rodeo supporting Americans who’ve suffered from disasters. In 2017, the organization gifted nearly $10 million in cash to more than 6,000 low-income hurricane survivors in Texas and Puerto Rico after Harvey and Maria respectively. A follow-up report the group published showed cash helped most of its recipients avoid further debt and reduce their stress. People used the money in a variety of ways, including paying for home repairs, childcare services, and medicine. Giving them money with no strings attached allowed families to figure out how to best utilize it.

“We saw both a lot of need coming out of the hurricanes in Texas and Puerto Rico and a strong desire from people to help but also a strong demand for a way to help that would be more transparent, tangible, and direct,” GiveDirectly CFO Joe Huston told Earther. “So we wanted to set up a new way of more direct giving between people who want to help and people who need help.”

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This time around, GiveDirectly is prepared to support more than 2,400 low-income families whenever the next disaster hits. It plans to give each family $1,500—roughly the same amount this year as it did during the 2017 disasters—but that number could change. The group also plans to distribute the funds within the first five weeks after the event occurs. In 2017, the first families received money roughly two months after the hurricanes hit. Figuring out the communities that need these funds takes time to get right, Huston said.

With the peak Atlantic hurricane season beginning now and running until October, the odds of needing to dole out the money are increasing. Just last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration updated its season forecast to note that the likelihood of an above-average season is 45 percent, not the 30 percent it had previously forecast. California—which has seen a string of destructive wildfires in recent years—is also slated to have a “very active” wildfire season this fall.

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However, storms and fires don’t impact everyone the same. That’s why Google will use satellite and census data to pinpoint what communities need the funds the most. A key pillar of this project is to get cash in the hands of those who need it the most. The funds are limited, so the team has to be a bit picky about who gets it. Neighborhoods that were vulnerable—whether by suffering high-poverty rates or low-income levels—before the event will get priority.

The nonprofit wants its efforts to have the greatest impact, and that has traditionally meant focusing on helping the poorest. If a hurricane causes major flooding in a middle class community but a low-income community still suffers some impacts, it could create a tricky hypothetical for GiveDirectly. To ensure its giving money in the most effective manner possible, the group will rely on socioeconomic data and a door-to-door operation to verify the data to help weigh the decision for who to give money to when the moment comes. 

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In the age of climate change and failed government response, groups like GiveDirectly could play a key role in helping families get back on their feet.