Experts say the best thing people can do to help after a natural disaster is to donate money that will be distributed by a responsible, local nonprofit.
Hours after a tornado spun through tiny Smith Island on Aug. 4, hitting 17 buildings and severely damaging three, that’s exactly what began to happen.
Jay Fleming, a photographer and frequenter of the island, started a GoFundMe campaign the night the tornadic waterspout struck. So far, about 1,200 people have donated that way to the island’s relief efforts.
The money will soon be controlled by Smith Island United, a tax-exempt charity on the remote island in the Chesapeake Bay. That group has formed a seven-person panel to begin the task of fairly dispersing $116,000 in relief funds to an island of 200 well-acquainted people.
“It’s dealing with a lot of money, and we want to make sure we get it right,” said Eddie Somers, president of Smith Island United.
The island is most commonly traversed via golf carts, rather than cars. Locals have to ferry to the mainland to grocery shop, see doctors, or attend high school. It’s a small, isolated community, “about as small as you can get,” said Somers.
Everybody knows everybody. So much so that it can complicate a procedure as delicate as impartially allocating a six-figure amount of money.
The seven-person group first met a week after the tornado and tentatively decided to identify a single arbiter to approve claims and allocate the funds objectively.
“We all know each other so well, and we want it to be transparent and to make sure money goes where it’s supposed to go,” Somers said.
There has been concern, however, by some on the island that people who weren’t drastically affected would seek an outsized portion of the funds.
Doris Bradshaw, 88, was injured more severely than anyone and her mobile home was destroyed. She spent five days in the hospital. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, her son, Lindsey, teared up when discussing how much he loved Smith Island. But a few days later, he felt that some on the island were seeking more of the GoFundMe than they needed.
“Everybody wants a piece of it,” he said.
Fleming said the seven-person committee was formed to make sure the money is distributed as fairly as possible.
Fleming, who has a large social media following, lives in Annapolis but often visits Smith Island and is essentially an adopted community member. When he started the GoFundMe appeal, its goal was $5,000, but money continued to accumulate.
By the time it reached $30,000, he reached out to Somers, a longtime friend, for help in figuring out what to do with it.
Fleming, Somers and five others, including the island’s pastor, form the committee responsible for overseeing the allocation of the money.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s going to be done right,” Fleming said. “Distributing money like that, even if the government were to do it, it’s never going to be 100% perfect — there’s always somebody who might say, ‘Oh, I should’ve got more.’ But you can’t please everybody with that type of thing. You just have to do the best to make sure it’s fair.”
Recovery from a natural disaster is slow and complex. For some people, like those who had substantial damage to their home, the need is apparent. But for others, like the bulk of the island which lost electricity, the need could be harder to see. Perhaps the post-storm power outage, even if it was brief for some, caused food to spoil or people to lose wages.
Lauren Clay, a disaster scientist and public health researcher at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said that sometimes following a natural disaster, people who were not overtly impacted still may suffer. And people who were already struggling before a storm could be disproportionately affected, she said.
“I think that evaluating need is something that takes a lot of care and attention and needs to be done from a very equitable place with a lot of understanding,” she said.
It’s a complex process with much to consider. Fleming pointed out, for example, that people without insurance on their damaged property may have a greater need than those who do.
Smith Island received an outpouring of supplies, in addition to the GoFundMe and other financial donations.
The materials have helped, but experts generally discourage donating supplies to areas affected by natural disasters. Oftentimes, clothes, toys, water and other supplies can overwhelm a community’s ability to handle them, something experts refer to as “the second disaster.”
“The best thing that the average citizen can do when they hear about a disaster and they want to help is to donate money to reputable organizations with a history in the area,” Clay said.
Smith Island has been impacted by wildfires and hurricanes before, but many islanders said they’ve never seen anything quite like the tornado. It left much of the island physically undamaged, but buildings in its path bore the brunt. In addition to Bradshaw’s mobile home, the third floor of a vacation rental — a newly constructed building which Fleming called “the crown jewel of Smith Island” — was swept away.
“For the places it touched, it was the most intense I’ve ever seen,” Somers, 65, said of the tornado.
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Still, the island’s recovery is well on its way. Bradshaw is doing well and in “good spirits,” her son, Lindsey, said.
“She seems to be taking this pretty well. I don’t even think she’s shed a tear over it yet,” he said, “and I give the credit to God.”
Cleaning up debris remains the focus of recovery efforts, which are complicated by the fact that the island is only accessible via a 10-mile helicopter or boat ride. Volunteer groups from Cutting Crew Lawn Care, Oak Ridge Baptist Church and Christ United Methodist Church, all in Salisbury, as well as many islanders, have collected and piled debris, which crews from Somerset County have removed.
Smith Island is a tourist destination and although tours from the mainland paused for a couple of days, they have restarted. Life on the island is returning, a bit, to normal.
“People are crabbing,” Somers pointed out.
Fleming said he’s looking forward to the GoFundMe money being officially deposited into Smith Island United’s bank account and it being allocated to islanders.
“That’ll be the day that we can all celebrate,” he said.