Good old-fashioned American initiative often kicks in after natural disasters like hurricanes Harvey and Irma or the California wildfires, when regular citizens form their own ad-hoc relief organizations alongside established players like FEMA and the Red Cross. “It’s a very common phenomenon for new organizations to pop up during disasters,” says Bob Ottenhoff, who heads the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. It’s hard enough to marshal resources in your own county or state, like the “Cajun Navy” of volunteers rescuing stranded Houstonians by boat. Now groups founded in the wake of Harvey and Irma have crossed 1,000 miles of ocean to devastated Puerto Rico. (They are also organizing efforts for the U.S. Virgin Islands.)
At least three of these ad-hoc groups—American Black Cross, Cajun Airlift, and Veteran Disaster Relief—have each brought in tons of supplies by plane or ship and are navigating the washed-out and debris-clogged roads of Puerto Rico. They are often focusing on regions far from the capital San Juan, where regular air service has resumed. “The immediate disruption to the supply chain has been dealt with from mainland to island and the bigger issue is distribution on island,” writes Erik Dyson, CEO of All Hands Volunteers, which organizes cleanup after natural disasters, in an email to Fast Company.
Each group comes from a distinctive subculture, and reaches out through social media, especially Facebook pages. For instance, the American Black Cross (which I profiled last week) was founded by Black Lives Matter activists in Dallas. The group chartered a plane from Miami to Aguadilla in the northwestern corner of Puerto Rico, where it’s unloaded water, food, and generators to power dialysis clinics around the island. More supplies are coming by ship.
Veteran Disaster Relief, headed by Charleston, South Carolina-based former Army cavalry scout Jason Maddy, has also worked in Aguadilla, as well as Quebradillas on the north shore. It’s delivering water and other supplies to the mountainous interior, like the remote town of Utuado, as well. The group has put out a call for medical professionals to provide aid on the ground. Cajun Airlift, which is made up of pilots from New Orleans and has flown medical supplies in private planes to the southern city of Ponce, hasn’t yet responded to a request for comment. A Veteran Disaster Relief spokesperson declined to comment but its mission statement on its Facebook page says it all: “Utilize resources to help and support people in disaster zones. We get there before FEMA and RedCross.”
Though they started as spontaneous efforts, these groups now appear to be in it for the long haul. All of them say they intend to become 501(c)(3) charitable organizations that can accept tax-deductible donations—and are prohibited from engaging in political campaigns. (American Black Cross currently operates under a nonprofit run by its cofounder, civil rights attorney S. Lee Merritt.) The three groups “show there is an amazing pent-up demand to help and a huge gap in providing support,” writes Erik Dyson. “So normal folks are stepping in and I thank them for working to fill that gap.”