Big or small, efforts to help Harvey victims need accountability

The University of Houston Department of Intercollegiate Athletics, led by the football team and head coach Major Applewhite, held a Hurricane Harvey collection day.
(RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

It didn’t take long after the first images appeared of the destruction Hurricane Harvey caused for Texans to help those in need.

Good-hearted Americans quickly dug into their pockets and donated as much as they could. The options for donors have been plenty: from long-standing non-profits known for their relief work like the American Red Cross to new fund-raisers that popped up instantly and organically, like Houston Texans star J.J. Watt’s online efforts to raise money for the victims. The message to all donors is the same: No matter how small or large your donation, demand accountability from the organizations entrusted with your money to help those in need.

Accountability leads to trust. And trust encourages Americans’ willingness to give, especially after horrific disasters like the devastation experienced in Houston.

Hurricane Harvey killed 82 people and is estimated to have caused up to $160 billion in damage, impacting more than 100,000 homes and making it one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history. President Trump has approved $15 billion in disaster aid for victims.

The will to help was so overwhelming that non-profit organizations working closely with Houston disaster relief efforts stopped accepting non-monetary donations for a host of reasons, including that they lacked space to store donated items and they couldn’t distribute food with short shelf lives fast enough.

Texans and anyone else wanting to help were asked to donate money to their favorite organizations with troops on the ground along the Texas Gulf Coast.

The response was impressive.

More than 50 local and national charities have raised over $350 million in the nearly three weeks since Hurricane Harvey struck, the Associated Press reported.

Non-profit organizations consider monetary donations practical. To start, money under the watchful eye of trustworthy organizations can be easily tracked, lending a degree of transparency. Non-profits are required to keep a record of how each dollar is spent.

Through monetary donations, organizations also can better determine how much they can spend to meet the immediate needs of victims and how much to put in reserve to help later with needs that emerge as victims begin to put their lives back together, Monica Maldonado Williams, the founder and editor of GivingCity Austin, told me recently. Long-standing organizations like the Red Cross, Maldonado Williams said, have the resources — though limited — and the experience to get the job done.

In recent years, however, news reports have led to a distrust of some large charities like the American Red Cross. The reports have cited the Red Cross’ slow and lacking response in its relief efforts, including 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy and the Haiti earthquake. As a result, wanting to make sure that their money is well spent, many donors choose to give to smaller, local organizations.

Consider Watt’s online fundraiser: More than 200,000 people answered Watt’s social media call to raise money for Harvey victims. Watt initially set a goal of raising $200,000, but increased that amount incrementally as more and more people gave to the crowdfunding account he created on YouCaring.com.

Just hours before the site’s 5 p.m. deadline on Friday, donors had given nearly $35 million. Major corporations, athletes and celebrities made sizable donations. They included H-E-B ($5 million), the Houston Texans ($1 million), Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon ($1 million) and Rapper/songwriter Drake ($200,000), to name a few.

But it was the smaller donations — most under $100 — by thousands of people that drove the fundraiser’s success, Watt said.

Still, most of the money raised for Harvey relief has gone to the Red Cross, which has collected at least $211 million, according to the Associated Press. A Texas Department of Public Safety report showed that the Red Cross has already disbursed $46.4 million to 116,000 people, the Washington Post reported.

People want to feel that what they give will help those they see hurting, Maldonado Williams said. Even if the efforts are being led by a charismatic, well-respected celebrity, Texans need to ask the same questions they’d ask of larger charities, she said.

It is important for Texans and beyond to do their homework before they blindly donate. After all, disasters don’t just bring out the best in us, they also bring out the worst in those who exploit the misfortunes of others. For that reason, we should demand accountability from all organizations claiming to help victims.

How will the money be distributed? Does the organization have the infrastructure needed to get as many volunteers out to as many victims who need help? When will the money be distributed? How will the money be tracked?

These are some of the questions Maldonado Williams said should be asked of any charity organization.

She’s right.

As of Friday, Watt had yet to disclose a long-term plan for the nearly $35 million he helped raise.

Houston Texans communications director Amy Palcic told the Houston Press that a thorough plan with information on how people can apply for funds and how the money will be used, will be released soon. No date was specified.

What Watt has accomplished is truly remarkable. The sheer number of people who responded to his call to action is testament of the love people have for him.

How the work of the Red Cross, Watt and other organizations will ultimately help Harvey’s victims is a story still in progress. Americans will be watching and demanding accountability.

Republicans are politically correct, too

When they’re not crying “political correctness” to divert legitimate criticism from themselves, Republicans use the phrase to portray Democrats and liberals as thought police out to squash free speech and the truth. Yet Republicans practice their own brand of political correctness, which keeps them just as firmly bound to their own party line.

A recent op-ed by the Hoover Institution’s Victor Davis Hanson, headlined “The politicization of the English language,” illustrates my point. Hanson begins by writing about the deletion of French President Francois Hollande’s use of the phrase “Islamist terrorism” from the official White House video of his meeting with President Barack Obama last week in Washington (see above). The deletion prompted several conservative publications to charge the White House with censoring Hollande.

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French President Francois Hollande, speaking during a March 31 meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington. (Dennis Brack / Getty Images)

The White House blamed the deletion on “a technical issue,” and the phrase was restored on an updated video. And it must be noted that the phrase was never omitted from the official White House transcript of the Obama-Hollande meeting.

I’m not here to defend the Obama administration, however. The deletion is indefensible if it was intentional. If it was a mere technical glitch, it was one that should have been noted and fixed immediately. I understand why Obama and members of his administration avoid saying “Islamic terrorism” or “radical Islamic terrorism” — they don’t want to grant legitimacy to terrorists who see themselves as defenders of Islam, nor do they want to promote the idea that the West is at war with all Muslims — but I don’t agree with their stubborn refusal to ever utter the phrase.

At the same time, Republicans such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz have turned the phrase into a linguistic contortion of their own, to borrow wording from Hanson’s op-ed. They’re not primarily interested in speaking clearly about the nature of Islamic terrorism, but in using a political cudgel against Obama to advance their own ideological agenda.

We should denounce euphemisms that disguise, distort or soften political realities. In his own commentaries, however, Hanson has used such Republican euphemisms as “death tax” for “estate tax,” “enhanced interrogation” for “torture” and “Democrat” as an adjective rather than the grammatically correct “Democratic.” Obama, liberals and Democrats are fair targets for linguistic criticism, but one cannot condemn them as Orwellian while ignoring how one’s own side of the political divide also twists language to its benefit. In fact, from “activist judges” to “right to work” to “religious liberty” — their latest cause de la guerre culturelle — Republicans are the undisputed champs when it comes to grand abstractions, dog whistles and obfuscations of the language.

It’s also one thing to argue against political doublespeak. It’s another to be deliberately, willingly wrong.

“Obama has said the greatest threat to future generations is ‘climate change,’ a term that metamorphosed from ‘global warming’,” Hanson continues as he cites other examples of “politicized euphemisms to reinvent reality.” “The now anachronistic term ‘global warming’ used to describe a planet that was supposedly heating up rather quickly. But it did not account for the unpleasant fact that there has been negligible global temperature change since 1998.

“Rather than modifying the phrase to ‘suspected global warming’ or ‘episodic global warming,’ the new term ‘climate change’ was invented to replace it. That way, new realities could emerge. Changes of all sorts — historic snows, record cold, California drought, El Nino storms — could all be lumped together, supposedly caused by man-made carbon emissions.”

You can go here or here or here for articles debunking the myth that global warming stopped in 1998.

As for the phrase “climate change,” it has been around for decades in one form or another. Just consider, for an obvious example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the international organization created — in 1988 — to study the effects of global warming. Or read the 1965 report prepared for President Lyndon Johnson that warned of “climactic changes” from the burning of fossil fuels. Or scan the titles of scientific papers published in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s that explore the effects of atmospheric carbon from the burning of fossil fuels on global temperatures and note how often “climate,” “climactic change” or “climactic variations” appear in their titles. What you won’t see in any of these early climate-change papers is the phrase “global warming,” which was first used in 1975 and entered the public environmental conversation only in the 1980s.

But wait! There is an Orwellian aspect to the phrase “climate change.” It’s just not the one many conservatives allege.

In a confidential party memo in 2002, Frank Luntz, Republican minister of language manipulation, urged conservatives and their fossil fuel allies to use the “less frightening” term “climate change” rather than the more catastrophic-sounding “global warming” to sow doubt and confusion about the growing scientific consensus on the issue. Sure enough, by 2003, “climate change” had become the George W. Bush administration’s phrase of choice. Ironically, Luntz’s memo accelerated into common usage something that was already happening — the interchangeability of “climate change” and “global warming.”

Censorship and the control of language are essential to Big Brother’s tyranny in George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” But before anyone hyperventilates about one’s political opponents politicizing the language — “We are now 32 years beyond 1984, but we are at last living Orwell’s nightmare,” Hanson writes in his op-ed — one should take a look at their own group’s doublethink.