Where's the money? Harvey flood victims, donors want to know

By Amy Davis - Reporter/Consumer Expert , Dawn Jorgenson - Web - News Editor

HOUSTON - Where’s the money? That’s the question flood victims and donors have been asking since hurricane recovery efforts began.

Hundreds of millions of dollars went to local charities, including the JJ Watt Foundation and the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund, but so far, none of that donated money has been given to flood victims. And those groups still haven’t said who will receive it.

Almost as fast as the water rose, money poured in, from $10 donations to multi-million dollar checks.

"People are so generous. They just started saying, 'We want to give money,'" Judge Ed Emmett out of Harris County said.

Houston Texan JJ Watt helped raise more than $37 million through the Houston Flood Relief Fund.

Emmett and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner set up the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund on Aug. 27.

Almost a month later, the total sits at more than $67 million -- not a penny spent -- while homeowners of flooded homes, like Sally Johnson, are emotionally spent and tired of waiting for help. 

"I know people are donating all the time and benefits and money pouring in," Johnson said. "Where does that money go? How does it get distributed? How much do they keep?"

All of the donations from the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund goes to the Greater Houston Community Foundation. The group has managed money for similar fundraisers like the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund in 2005 and Turner's Tax Day Flood Relief Fund last year.

For that much smaller scale flood, the mayor collected $2.1 million. It was doled out to 10 charities. And $458,000 went to the city of Houston to pay bills it incurred housing storm victims and setting up a benefit concert.

"These donations should not cover operating expenses of government," Emmett said, adding that this time, that won't happen.

An agreement between the city and county puts it in black and white: "The fund shall not distribute proceeds to the city of Houston or Harris County to cover their operating or response expenses."

"City, county -- we can take care of ourselves," Emmett said. "We get FEMA reimbursements. We have tax revenues. In the county, we had a reserve fund set up just for emergencies like this."

So if it's not going to the city, where will it go?

As Nicole and Charles Lloyd are living with their family of five in a cramped travel trailer outside their flooded home, they too want to know who will get the funds.

"Is it really gonna go toward helping people?" Charles Lloyd said. "At the end of the day, that's what it needs to be for."

"In situations like this, not a lot of people get cash payments -- they get services," Emmett said. "They get supplies, and that's where the nonprofit groups are very helpful."

He said the majority of the funds will go to local nonprofits organizations like Baker Ripley, which ran the shelter at the NRG Stadium for more than 2,000 flood victims. Baker Ripley received $695,000 in donations after the Tax Day Flood. KPRC Channel 2 News asked for an accounting of where it all went.

"Most of it went to appliance and home repairs and items needed around the housing," Rene Solis, with Baker Ripley, said.

The nonprofit organization said it helped nearly 400 families last year. The money it received was reserved for families who had exhausted other resources, like FEMA and insurance, but still needed help.

After Harvey: Who gets the money and when? 

There is now a 12-member advisory board for the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund. Five members and a co-chair were appointed by Harris County Commissioners. Five members and a co-chair were appointed by Mayor Sylvester Turner. 

Another board will ask local non-profit organizations to apply for the funds and explain how they would use them for to help flood victims. That smaller board will choose the charities that get the money. 

The news that the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund money will go to local charities did not sit well with homeowners on Geneva Street in Friendswood. 

"I guess we need to set up as a smaller non-profit on this block," flooded homeowner Sally Johnson said. "The Geneva Street small profit group or something, you know- if that's what it takes." 

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said local government is just not set up to administer the millions it collected. 

"We'd have to set up a whole new bureaucracy for the thousands of people that would come in and say, 'We need this' or 'We need that.'" he told Davis.  "These other groups are already out there doing that."  

It could take months, even a year, for the majority of the money to be distributed to local groups. The advisory board has voted to speed up the process for the first 10 percent. About $6 million will go to charities already assisting victims in Houston and Harris County and some parts of Fort Bend and Montgomery counties.

To get help from any of the charities that will get the money, you should call 211 now. The United Way uses that number to start cases and track people who need assistance. While you may not get help now, when the grants are awarded, local charities may circle back around to find out if you still need help. 

J.J. Watt is still deciding how to use the $37 million he collected. A spokesperson sent us the following statement:

"A plan for distributing the funds is being put in place and will be announced in the coming weeks."

We can tell you the donation processor on the You Caring site Watt used to collect the money takes 2.9 percent plus 30 cents a transaction. With the amount currently in the fund, $1,139,646.13 will be deducted for the donation processor. 

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