Hurricane Irma: Caribbean Disaster Relief

Hurricane Irma: Caribbean Disaster Relief

A human chain of residents in St. Maarten, passing supplies from a Dutch soldier after Hurricane Irma. Photo credit: Dutch Defence Ministry. September 11, 2017 


If you give, check out Samaritan's Purse Canada and Global Medic for St. Maarten and Barbuda, and consider Oxfam Canada in Cuba.

Updated: Virgin Unite Canada removed October 2, 2017 see below.

As we are seeing right now with Hurricane Irma, charities immediately issue appeals to raise donations to respond to high-profile disasters. These appeals went live before anyone knew the extent of the disaster, the capacity of local government and local charities to respond, and which charities are responding, or even the capabilities and areas of expertise of these charities.

This lack of information makes disaster response giving one of the hardest areas for intelligent giving; we give now without commitments on how the donations will be used, or when. Today we have only trust to go on, but we must follow up in a year’s time, note how donations were used, and give based on a track record. Charities need to report back to donors also in a year’s time on how much money was raised, how much has been spent, on what, on who, and plans for the remaining funds.

While Hurricane Irma dominated the media’s attention for the last week, the losses and damage were far less than initially speculated. The claims that Hurricane Irma would be the worst Atlantic storm ever, “the nuclear hurricane”, thankfully did not come to pass. Canadian Red Cross was estimating that 31.7 million people would be affected by Irma throughout the Caribbean[1]. In fact, between 3-4 million people were affected in the Caribbean, including those who had temporary power outages, with another 6 million affected in Florida.

Hurricanes give people warnings, providing people days to prepare. This results in significantly fewer fatalities than other natural disasters. Currently, Hurricane Irma has killed 37 people, compared with Hurricane Harvey’s toll of 70, and the Mexican earthquake that happened just last week that killed at least 90[2]. The good news is that, of the people affected, Hurricane Irma killed only 0.00037%. Disaster preparedness is good.

Donors, please be clear, disaster response to Hurricane Irma is not about “saving lives”, as some charities are advertising[3]. This is not a “life and death” situation. The material destruction is widespread and recovery will be costly. But by and large, human life is not at stake.

High-profile disasters present charities with the opportunity to raise donations.  16 Canadian charities have registered with Canada Helps, launching fundraising appeals for those affected by Hurricane Irma[4]. Charities with the biggest brand recognition, with the best celebrity endorsements, get the most donations.

“There may be too much money raised by charities that are incompetent and too little money raised by competent charities. It’s not the amount of money raised, but the distribution that’s the problem”[5].

- The Chronicle of Philanthropy, March 29, 2011

Canadian donors can “fix” this “donation distribution problem” by being informed.

  1. WHERE are the greatest needs? In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, the most affected areas are the sparsely populated outer islands, namely Barbuda, St. Maarten, and British Virgin Islands … and Cuba’s northern region.
  2. WHAT are the greatest needs? In these early days, the greatest needs appear to be infrastructure recovery – clearing roads, debris removal, and restoring power. This is not typical “charity work”.  Instead, in developed countries, it is handled by governments, military (the Dutch, French and British military have come in to help in the disaster recovery and restore law and order), and power companies (Alberta’s Fortis has deployed to Turks and Caicos)[6].

For Canadians who want to show their support for disaster recovery after Hurricane Irma (and we urge donors to think of other humanitarian crises that desperately need donations but are not capturing the media spotlight like Doctors Without Borders and UNICEF helping a growing 221,000 victims of genocide in Bangladesh)[7], for Hurricane Irma we recommend:

For disaster recovery in the British Virgin Islands, population 35,000, hit by Hurricane Irma on September 8, 2017, ERROR: Virgin Unite – Richard Branson’s Virgin Unite's Canadian registered charity is not part of the BVI Appeal, unlike Virgin Unite US and Virgin Unite UK. Canadian donors can give to these other charities but will not receive a donation receipt. Other Canadian charities are raising funds but these will be directed to relief efforts across the Caribbean not specifically the BVI. Charity Intelligence has no recommendations for Canadian donors looking for donations to support the BVI. Among charities, British Red Cross is leading relief efforts and is a distinct charity different from Canadian Red Cross.

For St. Maarten /St. Martin, a Dutch and French island, population 74,210, hit by Hurricane Irma on September 7, 2017, Samaritan’s Purse was on the ground on Friday September 8th. Samaritan’s Purse, well-regarded for doing the heavy lifting in disaster responses in Canada, sent a plane with 14 volunteers and 20 tonnes of supplies (blankets, tarps, hygiene kits) with plans to stay for as long as needed[8].

Donate to Samaritan’s Purse Canada 

Canada’s Global Medic arrived in St. Maarten with 4 volunteers on SundaySeptember 10 with water purification tablets to purify 1 million litres of water, hygiene kits for 1,700 people, and two water purification systems for a hospital. Global Medic will use drones to photograph the damage to help needs assessments[9].

Donate to Global Medic 

Barbuda, the outer island with 2,800 people is 140 kilometres away from St. Maarten. Disaster recovery efforts will likely be staged from St. Maarten.

For Cuba, population 11.1 million, where the north shore was affected, Oxfam Canada has been doing development work for over 30 years. Oxfam Canada helped in Cuba in the recovery from Hurricanes Ike and Paloma (both in 2008) focusing on supporting co-operative farmers[10]. Cuba is one country where Canadian donors may choose to focus recovery giving as Cuba is unlikely to benefit from generous American support as many American charities do not operate in Cuba.

Donate to Oxfam Canada's disaster appeal

Charities doing development work in poor Caribbean countries are launching Hurricane Irma disaster response appeals. Charity Intelligence is concerned that disaster aid money will fund regular development work. Disaster response is fundamentally different from long-term development work. This disaster region had good incomes, high vaccination rates, low child mortality rates, long life expectancy, and jobs before the disaster. Recovery is getting those affected to where they were before Hurricane Irma.

The Caribbean is a tourist destination rather than an area of ongoing charity development work. Canadian charities’ Caribbean bases are in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Panama. These countries were largely unaffected by Hurricane Irma. It will be a logistical challenge to quickly deploy to the affected outer islands over 1,000 kilometres away.

Credit is due to World Vision Canada, with its development operations in Northern Haiti (missed by Hurricane Irma) and a great track record in disaster response, for NOT being opportunistic and launching a disaster appeal fundraising.

Similarly, Doctors Without Borders is not responding but focusing on major humanitarian disaster responses in Bangladesh, Yemen, Nigeria and others.

Just reading through some of the charities’ Hurricane Irma fundraising appeals comments:

“…wherever children need us” – in a disaster response, everybody needs help. The young, the old, men and women, boys and girls. Please avoid donating to charities that just focus on children or girl’s education.

“… emergency teams are on the ground and preparing to respond” – Donors need to know where on the ground you are, your plan for getting to the disaster area, and do you have local partner agencies/church congregations to work with? What are your areas of expertise in disaster responses? Being prepared to respond is good intentions, actually responding matters more.

“Tarps for shelter” – lessons learnt in Haiti 2010 “tarps are useless”, “transitional shelter is a waste of money”[11], particularly in hurricane-affected countries that get tropical rains, reiterated in Nepal earthquake disaster response. Corrugated steel roofing, rebar, cinder blocks, concrete homes are more impactful shelter relief. These people affected had houses with roofs, walls, kitchens, and furniture. Living in a tarp tent is not appropriate “recovery”.

Hygiene kits are a go-to charity handout in disaster response. The Gates Foundation’s evaluation on Haiti’s earthquake relief found minimal impact of hygiene kits[12]. Hygiene kits include laundry powdered soap, disposable razors, shaving cream, toilet paper, toothbrushes, toothpaste, 100g bar of soap, dishwashing liquid, shampoo, nail clippers, a face towel, sponges for washing dishes, and boxes of tissue. What else is the charity proposing to do in the disaster-affected area beyond distributing hygiene kits? 




1. Canadian Red Cross, “Red Cross prepared to respond to Hurricane Irma”, September 5, 2017 

2. Christopher Sherman, “Death toll now at 90 as aftershocks rattle Mexico” Chicago Tribune, September 10, 2017

3. British Red Cross, “You can save lives” Hurricane Irma appeal, September 7, 2017 and others 

4. Canada Helps, Hurricane Irma appeals, September 11, 2017

5. Saundra Schimmelpfennig, “The Dirty Truth About Disaster Fund Raising”, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, March 29, 2011

6. Kim Smith, FortisAlberta helps restore power in Turks and Caicos following Hurricane Irma, Global News, September 10, 2017

7. Doctors Without Borders Canada “MSF Scales Up Aid to Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh, Raises Concerns About Conditions in Myanmar, September 6, 2017

8. Canadian News Wire, “Samaritan’s Purse to help victims of Hurricane Irma, September 8, 2017

9. Muriel Draaisma, Canadian charity sends team to St. Maarten after Hurricane Irma: GlobalMedic has deployed 4 aid workers armed with a drone, water purification tablets and hygiene kits. CBC News, September 10, 2017

10. Oxfam in Cuba

11.  DRR expert identified only as Cebu Pagligon Task Force

12.  Haiti Humanitarian Assistance Evaluation: from a Resilience Perspective, Tulane University, May 2012 



If you find Charity Intelligence's research useful in your giving, please consider donating to support our work. Being entirely funded by donors like you maintains our independence and objectivity to help Canadians be informed in their giving. Canadians donate over $17 billion each year. This giving could achieve tremendous results. We hope Charity Intelligence's research helps Canadians give better.

Legal disclaimer:

The information in this report was prepared by Charity Intelligence Canada and its independent analysts from publicly-available information. Charity Intelligence and its analysts have made endeavours to ensure that the data in this report is accurate and complete but accepts no liability.

The views and opinions expressed are to inform donors in matters of public interest. Views and opinions are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, organization, individual or anyone or anything. Any dispute arising from your use of this website or viewing the material hereon shall be governed by the laws of the Province of Ontario, without regard to any conflict of law provisions. 

Print   Email

Charity Intelligence researches Canadian charities for donors to be informed and give intelligently. Our website posts free reports on more than 800 Canadian charities, as well as in-depth primers on philanthropic sectors like Canada’s environment, cancer, and homelessness. Today over 500,000 Canadians use our website as a go-to source for information on Canadian charities reading over 1.6 million charity reports. Through rigorous and independent research, Charity Intelligence aims to assist Canada’s dynamic charitable sector in being more transparent, accountable and focused on results.


Be Informed. Give Intelligently. Have Impact


Charitable Registration Number: 80340 7956 RR0001