Charity: The Untold Story of Katrina

Haunting images from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina include flooded streets, people huddled on rooftops, a parking lot full of school buses that could have the ferried New Orleans citizens to safety. We recall the horrors of the Superdome and the Convention Center, and city, state and federal government incompetence – all to the soundtrack of R&B artist Kanye West claiming, “George W. Bush doesn't care about black people.”

But there's another, remarkable story that has gone largely untold. Where government fumbled the ball, businesses and charities picked it up. Since Katrina, American individuals, churches, communities and companies have helped their fellow citizens to the tune of $6.5 billion, as reported by Charity Navigator. More than $4.5 billion of that was donated in 2005 alone. Just three weeks after Katrina, corporate donations exceeded $500 million.

Yet, the stories aired on broadcast networks focused relentlessly on the tragedies of Katrina, and largely ignored the outpouring of concern and aid from all corners of the United States.

A Nexis search revealed that only 39 transcripts from ABC, CBS and NBC news programs in the month following Katrina discussed either the charity shown to hurricane victims or the volunteer efforts to provide relief. A total of 59 transcripts in the same time period discussed race or violence.

As the years have gone on, broadcast networks have failed to highlight the charity shown during that terrible time of Katrina's aftermath. CMI researchers found just one transcript from ABC on Katrina's first anniversary that discussed charity. Nothing appeared in searches of NBC or CBS transcripts. In 2007, the second anniversary of the hurricane, only CBS discussed charity. Nothing appeared for the third anniversary in 2008, and only one mention of charity appeared for this year's anniversary of the storm.

Charity from Individuals


A search of the local coverage in the month following Katrina revealed a host of generous people who did what they could to provide comfort and relief to New Orleans residents in the storm's aftermath.

For Chris Broussard and Jenny Reynolds, that meant organizing donations of clothing, food, toiletries, household items, toys and shoes in a vacant Wal-Mart building. Arranged like a typical store, evacuees could come in and “shop” for what they needed, free of charge. The Times of Shreveport, Louisiana, noted the other help Broussard and Reynolds received in keeping the center open.

“Wal-Mart, which owns the building housing the center, is covering utility bills,” reported the Times on September 14, 2005. Beyond that, Broussard and Reynolds saw help from all over the nation. “More than $15,000 in donations – 90 percent from out-of-state residents or businesses – have been spent on evacuees' needs … donations filling the center have been trucked in from Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, Kansas and Missouri.”

Elsewhere, Kenny Ballau, a professional racing cyclist and New Orleans native, returned to his city to aid rescue efforts.

Bellau “offered boat-driving skills and in intimate knowledge of the city streets and neighborhoods,” reported the Times-Picayune on September 15, 2005.  Bellau worked with the Alpha Company of the California Army National Guard and “served as the Guard's native guide, visiting house after house in Uptown and Central City enclaves, helping pull out survivors.”

The unit's Capt. Gerald Davis told the paper that Bellau “had beads on people in their houses, people who were in need, he saved us a lot of time. Every day he would come out and take care of us.”

Bellau stated, “It just hurts to see the fabric of the city torn apart and know it'll never be the same.”

Others, like Jeff Pace from Shreveport, helped a young boy celebrate his birthday in the midst of the destruction. As reported by the Times on August 31, 2005, Kenrin Robertson II turned 6 the day after Katrina hit New Orleans, and was in a shelter in Shreveport. He told his father he wanted a bike for his birthday. After hearing about it, Pace bought Kenrin a Wal-Mart gift card so he could pick out his favorite bike, while Shreveport residents Rachel Sexton and Kelly Padgett dropped by the shelter with a cake and other birthday presents for the boy.

Pace told the Times, “All I could think about the whole time was that this little boy was going back to St. Bernard Parish and many not have one thing left when he got home.”

Padgett stated, “We both have family who were in New Orleans. We wanted to do something for the (evacuees). And when we saw this story (on the The Times Web site), we knew this was it. We just wish we could do something for everybody.”

Churches in and out of the impacted area did their best to care for victims. Rev. James Brown, of the St. Mary's Church in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans, opened his church the day after the storm hit to provide water, food and other supplies to the people in his neighborhood. His selfless work garnered donations from churches from all over the nation, aid from the military. He told the Times-Picayune on Sep. 21, 2005, “The needs motivate me. I see needs. That's why I didn't leave (during Katrina.) I knew there would be a lot of needy people.”

ABC's “Nighline” profiled Brown on September 12, 2005. But for others, their kindness was known only to the people they helped.

Charity from Corporations

For all that the media has dumped on large corporations over the years, there is no denying that they played a large role in Katrina relief efforts.

Wal-Mart donated $17 million in cash, in addition to another $3 million of products. According to a Consumer Affairs article, the corporation also gave store managers in the affected areas the power to make decisions independent from upper-level management.

Official word from CEO Scott Lee to his regional, district and store managers stated, “A lot of you are going to have to make decisions above your level. Make the best decision that you can with the information that's available to you at that time, and, above all else, do the right thing.”

Noteworthy decisions included the Marrero, La., employees who allowed police officers to use the store as headquarters and a place to sleep, since many had lost their homes. Jessica Lewis, an assistant manager at a Waveland, Miss., store, bulldozed her way through the store to collect undamaged goods which she gave out to residents as needed. She also broke into the store's pharmacy to provide drugs to a hospital. Another employee in Kenner, La., knocked open a warehouse door to find water for a retirement home.

Campbell Soup gave $2 million in food products, donated another $25,000 in cash, and offered to match employee donations up to $150,000. General Electric donated $6 million to the Red Cross, matched employee donations up to $1 million and gave $10 million in medical devices, power generators and water purifications.

And charity has not dried up, even four years later. The New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau Center offers a Web page that encourages attendees of conferences and conventions to devote time during their stay to assist in recovery efforts. Links direct visitors to a list of volunteer opportunities that would best fit their talents and interests. Dozens of conventions have donated hundreds of hours of service and thousands of dollars in cash to rebuilding efforts.

Story the Media Wanted to Tell


Charity was not on the minds of the heads of the broadcast networks during their coverage of Katrina. They were far too busy spreading falsehoods to exploit the sympathy of the American people. 


NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams revealed to the Los Angeles Times in September 2005 that Hurricane Katrina deeply affected him. Reporter Matea Gold wrote, “The experience has also moved him to consider other areas of coverage that he says need to be addressed.”

Williams told Gold, “I will be asking my network to lead a discussion on the issues of class, race, energy, the environment, disaster planning, Iraq – all those things and more. This encompasses so many of the major issues of our time.”

Earlier that month on Comedy Central's “The Daily Show,” Williams implied that there was a racial component to the lack of government relief sent to New Orleans residents left in Katrina's wake. He told host Jon Stewart, before being cut off by audience applause, he heard “a refrain” from “everyone watching the coverage all week” that “had this been Nantucket, had this been Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, Miami, Los Angles, how many choppers would have – ”

Others in the media shared Williams' opinion.

CBS' “Sunday Morning” contributor Nancy Giles stated on September 4, 2005, “If the majority of the hardest hit victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans were white people, they would not have gone for days without food and water.” She also blasted then President George W. Bush for how he “has put himself at risk by visiting the troops in Iraq, but didn't venture anywhere near the Superdome or the convention center, where thousands of victims, mostly black and poor, needed to see that he gave a damn.”

The only problem was that the charges made by Williams and Giles were false.  


CNS News found that proportionally, whites suffered more casualties as a result of Katrina than African-Americans. Reporter Nathan Burchfiel explained that based on the 2000 census, “whites make up 28 percent of the city's population, but the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals indicated that whites constitute 36.6 percent of the storm's fatalities in the city.”

Burchfiel continued, “African-Americans make up 67.25 percent of the population and 59.1 percent of the deceases. Other minorities constitute approximately 5 percent of the population and represented 4.3 percent of the storm's fatalities.”

Popular Mechanics devoted its March 2006 cover story to destroying the myths the media created about Katrina.

Staff writers listed seven myths, including then-New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin's claim that lawlessness ruled the city for days after the storm hit, that Katrina and the government's response will forever blight the American conscience, Katrina was a “once in a lifetime event” and that the levees were purposely destroyed. 

But despite the good work of Popular Mechanics and others, by March 2006, these myths held so much currency that that they remain the talking points of Katrina.

Don't Let a Liberal Mindset Get in the Way of a Good Story


Chris Matthews argued on August 27, 2006, that the “media told us what we needed to hear” about Katrina. He didn't say that the media told the truth and he didn't say the media reported the facts. He concluded his statement, “It's not about journalists expressing political opinions, it's about showing up, getting the story and telling it to the public.”

There's no doubt that some things went very wrong in the aftermath of Katrina. But the media missed an opportunity to point out that in the midst of the very worst catastrophes, individuals, churches, communities and businesses cannot and, thankfully, do not wait around for the government to act. They take it upon themselves to help their fellow citizens simply because it's the right thing to do.

Charitable donations set records in 2005, surpassing even the vast outpouring that followed September 11. It was the worst of times to be sure, for many people on the Gulf Coast. But many also showed the very best America has to offer.

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