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Hurricane Relief: Giving Beyond Cash

Lily Seltz

October 12th, 2017


The natural world has not been happy with us recently. From the earthquake in Mexico, to the wildfires in Northern California, to the roll-call of hurricanes that have hit the US this season (Harvey, Irma, and Maria, and more recently Nate), the past weeks and months have seen an unprecedented cascade of natural disasters.


First off, let’s not forget: despite the rapidly rotating cycle of new top stories, hurricanes in reality don’t go away as soon as the first round of damage has been assessed. The casualties and consequences of each event have been enormous, and the impact will only grow. Puerto Rico, for instance, is still largely without power and clean water.


As they should -- although inadequately in places -- families, schools, communities, cities and the government have jumped to assist the victims of these disasters. Widespread drives for food, medicine, toiletries, and batteries have been set up. Names of organizations accepting donations for relief efforts have circulated quickly; The Hispanic Federation, Global Giving, various GoFundMe pages, the Salvation Army, to name a few. My school, Hunter College High School, is involved in both a high-school specific drive for Puerto Rico and a campus-wide drive with Hunter College, while grade term councils, clubs, and individual students have been motivated to host luncheons and sell candy and baked goods to benefit the island. Earlier in the year, a ninth grader organized a medicine drive for Mexico City.


It is encouraging to see the level of involvement and generosity in my school community. Especially in the early stages of hurricane relief, cash and supplies are often the most needed. These drives and fundraisers are parts of relief efforts that can’t be done away with, ever. But there’s one gaping issue in this stream of giving: each of the methods I have just named for helping affected communities rely on financial contributions. Even if the donations don’t take the form of straight cash, drives for medicine, batteries, and other commodities have monetary value. And this makes the type of giving exclusive.


Not all kids have money to spare at school. Broad-scale fundraising efforts that come from online, or drives for material goods, meet a roadblock for kids our age. Most of us certainly don’t have money saved that we can devote to making direct, substantial, and online contributions. And we don’t have the direct power to mandate that our parents buy extra batteries on the next trip to the grocery store. Absolutely, we can try to convince our parents to be as generous as possible, but in terms of personal financial contribution, direct and guaranteed, high school students are limited.


This doesn’t just apply to high school students; across the board, people lack the means with which to donate money and goods that they instead need for their own well-being. Generosity shouldn’t be restricted to the more affluent.


In response to this, I’ve compiled a list of the ways that high school kids like us -- of whatever financial means -- can work to help places affected by natural disasters. I’ve chosen to focus on Puerto Rico, mainly because of the unempathetic and inadequate response of our federal government towards Puerto Rico hurricane relief efforts despite the immense damage to the island and the suffering the hurricane has caused. But many of these ideas and resources work just as well with any affected community in mind.


1. Open Mapping


The OSM Tasking Manager is a collaborative mapping program that works to send valuable data to organizations that coordinate aid for Puerto Rico. Essentially, volunteers look at pre-storm maps of affected areas and label structures so that organizations have a clearer understanding of where to send or focus relief. The site divides mapping jobs into short, very doable tasks, and the work is simple. It’s a very concrete way to help Puerto Rico and only takes a couple of hours to make a real dent. Check it out!


2. Call your reps!


The question of federal aid might not seem to be the same kind of hot-button issue as health care or gun control, but believe it or not, it’s a great example of a situation in which your voice is important. It is in the job description that representatives work to send enough federal aid and oversee long term distribution, just as it is to keep their more immediate populations safe, insured, and treated fairly. Call and tell your representatives to push for more aid and the permanent alleviation of the Jones Act. This law makes it harder and more expensive to ship materials (including federal relief) to Puerto Rico. President Trump aptly waived the law until Sunday, allowing for faster and cheaper distribution of relief in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, but the disaster’s impacts reach far further into the future than his waiver does. The Department of Homeland Security did not extend the waiver after Sunday, and they really needed to. Pressure Congress, the White House, and the DHS to allow aid to be shipped unabated to Puerto Rico for a more realistic amount of time.


3. Fundraise


If you don’t have money to donate out of pocket, there are still other ways to send cash to places in need. You can sell products that don’t require money to create - like performance. Especially if you are already part of some sort of theater or music ensemble, ask your director about doing a benefit concert. Or, coordinate one yourself!


4. Advocate for spaces for displaced children in your school system


The devastation in Puerto Rico means that thousands of Puerto Rican people have been or will be forced to leave the island, and many will be headed for the mainland US. K-12 students have the right to enter the public school system immediately. However, there’s tricky paperwork that goes along with students enrolling in school. For instance, the DOE requires tuition for nonresident students, and proof of residency can be hard to attain quickly after a sudden move. WLRN reports that in Florida, Orange County has taken measures to waive requirements that mandate transcripts and proof of residence for displaced students in order to smooth the transition. They have also entered these students into the system as “homeless” so that they will automatically qualify for free lunch and discounted transportation. New York should do the same. Use your power as a high school student in the NYC school system to push for these measures.


5. Spread awareness


Spread accurate news about each natural disaster (social media can be filled with falsities; avoid spreading such information), and pass on the message of ways that everyone can help. Urge friends and family to take action, whether or not it involves a cash donation. In our 24-hour news cycle, communities can fall under the radar soon after the eye of the hurricane has passed. But the suffering of affected communities goes on, and victims of natural disasters need to stay in our consciousness so that generosity and relief can continue.

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