Brisk Disaster Relief (Alabama and Missouri)

  • Local Projects
  • 2011

Jessie duPont’s foundation, located in Florida, hadn’t devoted much energy to neighboring Alabama until more than 60 tornadoes struck the state on a single day in 2011, killing 248 people and devastating a 1,100-mile-long, 20-mile-wide stretch of property. Americans always respond generously to disasters, and the initial outpouring from individuals and foundations had been strong. But after the crisis passed, the tough work of rebuilding remained. That was when the duPont Fund stepped in with helpful strategy and smart grantmaking.

On her death in 1970, duPont left behind the $42 million Jessie Ball duPont Religious, Charitable, and Educational Fund. Investment growth brought its assets to more than $250 million, allowing it to distribute $12-18 million a year to causes Mrs. duPont had backed for years. In the years leading up to the tornadoes, that included about $1 million of grants in Alabama for housing and education in rural areas, and to help jumpstart a community foundation serving the poorest communities of the state.

After surveying the tornado wreckage, duPont started a special fund focused exclusively on Alabama’s long-term recovery. It co-hosted a conference, 90 days after the storm, that mixed community leaders and non-local experts to plan solutions. Then it began to distribute support to scores of organizations to overcome specific sticking points. The fund became increasingly sophisticated, and eventually published a manual, “Creating Order from Chaos: Roles for Philanthropy in Disaster Planning and Response,” to help other donors give intelligently when they swoop in to assist after calamities.

Just a month after these southeastern storms, a smaller but even more intense tornado tore through Joplin, Missouri, killing 161 people and destroying 4,000 homes in a town of 50,175 people. A massive outpouring of voluntary assistance was central to the immediate coping and long-term recovery of Joplin. At least 182,044 volunteers descended on the city from all over America, and over the next months and years they put in more than 1.5 million hours of service.

In the first weeks after the disaster, volunteers removed half of all of the storm debris (749 different groups organized by churches, colleges, and other sponsors pulled out 1.5 million cubic yards of mess). The Joplin YMCA provided free daycare for a year for survivors busy rebuilding. Habitat for Humanity quickly built 95 new homes at no charge. Samaritan’s Purse brought in 6,400 volunteers to tarp houses that lost their roofs, and otherwise protect the damaged property of low-income survivors. Local churches became focal points of the recovery.

The Margaret Cargill, Greater Kansas City Community, and Tulsa Community foundations supported families, offered legal assistance, and bought school supplies. Businesses like Walmart, Home Depot, Walgreens, Proctor & Gamble, Stanley, Chick-fil-A, and hundreds of others also made extraordinary contributions, donating millions to charitable groups, offering groups of employees as volunteers, providing crucial supplies, and rebuilding needed retail facilities on a crash basis. Local banks worked with customers to pause and restructure mortgage and loan payments.