Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Today is the LAST DAY of this Mid-Year Campaign. This is our hour of need.
If you value independent journalism, please support Common Dreams.

TODAY is the last day to meet our goal -- Join the small group of generous readers who donate, keeping Common Dreams free for millions of people each year.

President Donald Trump throwing paper towels to hurricane victims during a visit to Puerto Rico.

President Donald Trump throwing paper towels to hurricane victims during a visit to Puerto Rico.

The Sad State of Disaster Relief

Former presidents are cajoling individual Americans to donate for relief. Maybe they should lobby Congress instead.

Jill Richardson

 by OtherWords

Five former U.S. presidents recently came together to raise money for hurricane relief for the victims of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. This generous, bipartisan act is one of true generosity and statesmanship.

And yet, as former presidents, all five men know that there’s another way to help hurricane victims, or victims of any natural disaster. The federal government can quickly provide far more in money, personnel, and resources to help disaster victims than even the most generous outpouring of donations by Americans.

Congress recently approved $36.5 billion for disaster relief. That’s nowhere near enough given the scale of the crises from California to Puerto Rico. And further funding is going to run up against a GOP plan to cut $1.5 trillion worth of taxes — about 80 percent of which will go to the richest 1 percent.

It’s a sad comment on the current state of our government, when the current president and Congress aren’t doing enough to help disaster victims using the full weight and power of the federal government, so five former presidents have to cajole millions of Americans to give voluntarily.

I don’t want to demean those efforts. If you gave, you did the right thing. The victims of the hurricanes no doubt need your support and appreciate your generosity.

I’ve got only one friend in Puerto Rico and he’s relatively well off. He’s a professor, and he lives in a nice home in the capital, San Juan. He has electricity and Internet, so he’s been posting photos of the damage.

Enormous trees block roads. Buildings are damaged. After a month of clearing debris and attempting to clean up his own home and neighborhood, my friend is depressed. And, with electricity and internet, he’s one of the lucky ones — some 80 percent of the island still lacks power.

My heart hurts for those who are less fortunate.

As much as we complain about the federal government, it has an important role to play in natural disasters. Paying taxes is never fun, but by paying them, we can create a whole that’s worth more than the sum of its parts.

If your home is incinerated by a wildfire in Montana or California, or demolished by a hurricane in Texas, Florida, or Puerto Rico, odds are you can’t recover without some form of help.

The fortunate have insurance. Yet in my home of San Diego, many families who lost homes in past fires found that their insurance didn’t actually cover the cost to rebuild their homes.

Ultimately, if we are to recover from natural disasters in a timely fashion — before victims who survived the initial disaster lose their lives in the aftermath, and before children lose days of school and adults lose days at work — we need each other. We need our government.

Ideally, we need our government for more than just disaster relief. We need it for disaster prevention. The government can buy homes from people who live in places that will repeatedly flood, allowing them to move somewhere else.

It can work to prevent catastrophic climate change so that hurricanes, wildfires, landslides, and other disasters don’t become more severe or more common.

Individual, voluntary efforts are great, and they produce needed relief for disaster victims. But we need something more.

Those five former presidents could probably make a much bigger impact if they joined forces to lobby Congress and the White House to fully fund disaster recovery efforts and to then take the action needed to prevent these disasters from becoming more common.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.
Jill Richardson

Jill Richardson

Jill Richardson is pursuing a PhD in sociology at UW-Madison, where she studies natural resources and the environment.

TODAY is the last day of our crucial Mid-Year Campaign and we might not make it without your help.
Who funds our independent journalism? Readers like you who believe in our mission: To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. No corporate advertisers. No billionaire founder. Our non-partisan, nonprofit media model has only one source of revenue: The people who read and value this work and our mission. That's it.
And the model is simple: If everyone just gives whatever amount they can afford and think is reasonable—$3, $9, $29, or more—we can continue. If not enough do, we go dark.

All the small gifts add up to something otherwise impossible. Please join us today. Donate to Common Dreams. This is crunch time. We need you now.

Texas Supreme Court Allows Century-Old Abortion Ban to Take Effect

"Extremist politicians are on a crusade to force Texans into pregnancy and childbirth against their will, no matter how devastating the consequences."

Jake Johnson ·


'What's There to Even Discuss?' Omar Says Free, Universal School Meals Should Be Permanent

"We have an opportunity to prove that a government of the people, by the people, and for the people can still deliver big things. And we can feed tens of millions of hungry kids while we do it."

Jake Johnson ·


'Stark Betrayal': Biden Administration Floats New Offshore Oil and Gas Drilling

"This is the third time since November the Biden administration has announced new oil and gas leasing plans on the Friday before a holiday," said one climate advocate. "They're ashamed, and they should be."

Jake Johnson ·


As US Rolls Back Reproductive Rights, Sierra Leone Moves to Decriminalize Abortion

"I'm hopeful today's announcement gives activists in the U.S., and especially Black women given the shared history, a restored faith that change is possible and progress can be made."

Brett Wilkins ·


'Indefensible': Outrage as New Reporting Shines Light on Biden Deal With McConnell

The president has reportedly agreed to nominate an anti-abortion Republican to a lifetime judgeship. In exchange, McConnell has vowed to stop blocking two Biden picks for term-limited U.S. attorney posts.

Jake Johnson ·

Common Dreams Logo