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Aid after Haiti earthquake: Faster, but will it be bigger?

Americans gave more aid to Haiti in the first four days than for any other disaster, including hurricane Katrina.

By Husna HaqCorrespondent / January 26, 2010

Michelle Obama greeted Red Cross workers at an operations center in Washington. Her YouTube aid-appeal video helped raise awareness of Haiti’s urgent needs.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP


In the first days after the massive Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti, American charities were grappling with a happy aftershock: Unprecedented levels of donations were pouring in at record speed.

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Despite a withering recession, near 10 percent unemployment, and a substantial loss of personal wealth, Americans demonstrated an outpouring of support. Within the first week, US charities had raised $275 million for Haitian relief, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Even more surprising was the speed of the generosity.

"We knew early on that donations were coming in quicker than for the tsunami and for Katrina," says Jonathan Aiken, spokesman for the Red Cross, which collected $112 million for Haiti in the first week. "It's astounding. The truth is, we ran out of adjectives a few days ago – it's been just remarkable."

In the first four days of the crisis, major US charities had raised $150 million for Haiti, far more than the $30 million raised in the three days following the Asian tsunamis or even the $108 million raised in the four days after hurricane Katrina, which hit much closer to home.

"It's coming in at a faster pace than [for] any other natural disaster so far," says Stacy Palmer, editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

This rapid response may be the new face of disaster relief, a particularly welcome phenomenon for aid groups dealing with developing nations, which have few if any emergency stockpiles to help victims in the critical hours after a natural disaster. The question is whether this accelerated giving actually increases donations overall or merely compresses the time in which help is given.

Technology is a factor in the speedup.

"I think the most striking difference [in this disaster] is the volume of money raised by texting," says Claire Gaudiani, a philanthropy expert at New York University (NYU). "We have never had anything close to the volumes we've now raised through texting. We're seeing the power of individual acts of generosity – that is a stunning reaction to a disaster."

The Red Cross raised more than $24 million – more than a fifth of its total Haiti relief in the first week – through texting. All that would-be donors had to do was press five numbers on their cellphones and the Red Cross received $10, which was billed to the users' phone accounts. By contrast, the organization for all of last year raised only $190,000 through text-message donations.

With some 280 million cellphones in the United States, sending hundreds of billions of text messages a year, the appeal to charities is clear.

Americans poured out record levels of aid to provide relief for earthquake victims. Will rapid response continue to characterize charitable giving? Talk to us about this article on Twitter.