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What The Pileup Of U.S. Disasters Means For The World

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What The Pileup Of U.S. Disasters Means For The World


What The Pileup Of U.S. Disasters Means For The World

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Fires in California, hurricanes and flooding in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico - a devastating season of natural disasters for the U.S. And it comes just as a series of other catastrophes have threatened millions of people around the world. That complicates the response by U.S.-based charities and government agencies. NPR's Nurith Aizenman reports.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: When a disaster hits, one of the first things an aid charity does is to put out a call for cash. They need it to get on the ground fast with emergency supplies. World Vision International is one of the major aid groups across the globe. So when the first in this series of U.S. emergencies, Hurricane Harvey, struck Texas in August, they revved up their fundraising big time. Drew Clark is a senior director in the charity's U.S. office.

DREW CLARK: We've raised about just under $4 million in cash donations.

AIZENMAN: Two weeks later, Hurricane Irma roared through the Caribbean and Florida. This time, World Vision raised $900,000.

CLARK: Even though, you know, the number of casualties was higher in Irma, our cash fundraising was about a quarter of what it was from Harvey.

AIZENMAN: Then came the big earthquake in Mexico. That fundraising appeal netted $150,000. And for Hurricane Maria, which has left millions of people in Puerto Rico still without power and water, World Vision's call-out only raised $100,000.

CLARK: There is clearly evidence of donor fatigue. There's just a limit to the amount of responses that we can successfully fundraise for.

AIZENMAN: It's one of many ways that organizations and U.S. government agencies that handle disasters are feeling the pressure of a unique pileup of devastating events. It's not just that the U.S. has been clobbered with multiple disasters in a row. Since August, on top of the Mexico earthquake, there's been a massive landslide in Sierra Leone, then Muslim Rohingya refugees pouring from Myanmar into Bangladesh, hundreds of thousands of them.

LEISEL TALLEY: I would say it is somewhat unprecedented.

AIZENMAN: Leisel Talley is with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at a branch that handles the health consequences of overseas emergencies.

TALLEY: You know, this year has been particularly challenging.

AIZENMAN: The world was already grappling with some of the largest humanitarian crises since World War II. Twenty million people are at risk of dying from starvation and disease due to conflicts and drought in Yemen, South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia. So within the U.S. government, it's not just all hands on deck at exclusively domestic agencies like FEMA right now. At the CDC...

TALLEY: We have staff, really, around the world responding.

AIZENMAN: Similarly, at USAID, the agency that delivers U.S. assistance to poor countries, they have six separate disaster response teams deployed, including ones to help displaced people from Syria and Iraq. Alex Mahoney is a top official with that agency.

ALEX MAHONEY: This is only the second time that we've had six teams mobilize at once. So, yes, it's unusual.

AIZENMAN: Both Talley and Mahoney say their respective agencies are equipped to handle this multipronged challenge. But Paul Spiegel, who directs the Center for Humanitarian Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health - he has his doubts.

PAUL SPIEGEL: There was already insufficient humanitarian workers to respond, given the amount of emergencies.

AIZENMAN: He notes that for several years now, the total amount donated by governments, including the U.S., for international humanitarian assistance has fallen way short of what the United Nations said was needed - a 40 percent shortfall last year. And President Trump's proposed budget for fiscal year 2018 would slash U.S. overseas disaster assistance by a third. Now, Congress has seemed on track to restore those cuts.

SPIEGEL: But these are not normal political times.

AIZENMAN: And with the cost of rebuilding on U.S. territory mounting, Spiegel worries support for spending on disaster relief overseas could be one more casualty. Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.

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