How to help those affected by Hurricane Laura

On Thursday, Hurricane Laura hit Cameron, Louisiana, as a Category 4 storm, bringing 150 mph winds and damaging storm surges to an area that's still recovering from previous storms such as Katrina and Harvey. 

State officials in Texas and Louisiana ordered over 1.5 million residents to evacuate, but some of the communities in the evacuation zones are among the poorest in their respective states — forcing many residents to make tough decisions. Texas' Jefferson County, which was in the path of the storm, has a poverty rate that's more than 18%, higher than the state and national average, reports Texas Public Radio. 

Adding to the complications of this storm is the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. States have fewer shelters available and already-stressed medical systems. In fact, some shelters were already full ahead of the storm and officials were scrambling to secure more rooms for evacuees in hotels.

As the full scope of the damage starts to emerge, nonprofits and government agencies are mobilizing to offer disaster relief assistance. Monetary donations are important for disaster relief organizations to fund recovery efforts, experts say, and should be prioritized over contributing physical items, unless an organization asks for specific things. 

Here are 10 organizations that are working on the ground or in concert with those in communities affected by Hurricane Laura. 

All Hands and Hearts – Smart Response

Founded in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, All Hands and Hearts focuses on both the immediate and long-term needs of towns and communities that have undergone a natural disaster. In the past, that's meant building earthquake-resistant schools in Nepal and doing home repairs in Texas after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

The nonprofit has a four-star rating, the highest available, with Charity Navigator, which evaluates nonprofits on two main components: the financial health of the nonprofit and the accountability and transparency with which they handle funds. 

Direct Relief

Nonprofit Direct Relief has a long history of assisting those affected by hurricanes in the U.S. by providing medical supplies and care. Most recently, it was involved in efforts after Hurricanes Barry, Michael and Harvey. The organization reported Wednesday that it's in contact with over 80 partner health facilities in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, as well as coordinating efforts with  primary care associations and free clinics ahead of Hurricane Laura.

The organization is rated a four-star nonprofit on Charity Navigator.

Family Promise

A nonprofit focused on helping homeless and low-income families, Family Promise has seven of its local programs in Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas standing by to provide shelter and assist those who have been impacted. Family Promise has set up a fund to directly help families in the Gulf Region who have been impacted by Hurricanes Marco and Laura.

The nonprofit has a four-star rating with Charity Navigator.

Houston Food Bank

The Houston Food Bank said Wednesday that it was already starting to prep pallets and identify partners to serve as disaster sites in the wake of Hurricane Laura. The nonprofit is also collecting water, cleaning supplies and ready-to-eat-food. In addition to monetary and physical donations, Houston Food Bank is also accepting volunteers. They already have some supplies and you can volunteer here to help sort and organize the items.

The nonprofit has a four-star rating with Charity Navigator.

Operation USA

Founded in 1979, Operation USA specializes in disaster relief. The organization reported on Wednesday that it was mobilizing to deliver aid through its established partnerships in Houston and New Orleans. Operation USA said that donations will help the nonprofit quickly deliver materials and cash grants to community-based organizations affected.

The nonprofit has a three-star rating with Charity Navigator.

Rescued Pets Movement

This Houston-based organization is working to help pets that have been displaced by the storm. On Wednesday, Rescued Pets Movement reported they cleared out a shelter to make space for animals that may come in after Hurricane Laura has passed. Rescued Pets is also encouraging local residents to check back for the new dogs and cats who may need sponsorship and fostering.

Rescued Pets Movement isn't rated by Charity Navigator. 

St. Bernard Project (SBP) 

Louisiana-based SBP is a nonprofit focused on shrinking the time it takes from when a disaster hits to recovery. The organization has teams that are staged in Houston and New Orleans, "ready to deploy as soon as it is safe to do so," SBP reported on Wednesday. About 200 volunteers have been pre-registered to assist those impacted. In addition to donations, SBP says in-person and remote volunteer opportunities are available.

The nonprofit has a four-star rating with Charity Navigator.

Team Rubicon

Founded by former U.S. Marines in 2010, California-based Team Rubicon employs military veterans to form emergency response teams that help with disaster relief and recovery. Currently, Team Rubicon has three teams on the ground to assess the initial damage caused by Hurricane Laura, spokeswoman Joy Moh tells CNBC Make It. Additionally, the organization has two dozen volunteers activated in Texas and Louisiana.

The nonprofit has a four-star rating with Charity Navigator.

Texas Diaper Bank

The Texas Diaper Bank says it is planning on delivering diapers, incontinence supplies, feminine products and hygiene kits to evacuees in shelters in 20 Texas cities and those sheltering in San Antonio. The nonprofit is also assembling 1,000 kits with hygiene supplies, including masks. The Texas Diaper Bank is accepting monetary donations, as well as supplies purchased off the organization's Amazon wish list.

Charity Navigator gives this small nonprofit a score of 100 out of 100. Last month, Charity Navigator rolled out a new rating system that ranks less established and smaller nonprofits.

United Cajun Navy

Based in Louisiana, the United Cajun Navy is a nonprofit focused on disaster relief and search and rescue. The organization says it's deployed for Hurricane Laura, and in addition to monetary donations, is accepting water, gasoline and generators. Those who are interested in volunteering can sign up on the website.

United Cajun Navy isn't rated by Charity Navigator. 

Do your homework before donating

The easiest way to verify a charity's legitimacy is to look it up on a watchdog site such as Charity Navigator, CharityWatch, BBB Wise Giving Alliance and Great Nonprofits. These sites rate nonprofits and allow you to find out more about the organization and how donations are spent.

There are many small, community-based initiatives that will likely also be responding to this natural disaster, so they may not be rated. If that's the case, you can usually find information on their website about their effectiveness and how funds are used. CharityWatch recommends only working with organizations that spend 75% of their budget on program services. Additionally, they should spend no more than $25 to raise $100.

The Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance says it's best to stick to donating to experienced disaster relief organizations, particularly immediately after a disaster occurs.

"See if the charity has an on-the-ground presence in the impacted areas," the BBB advises. "Unless the charity already has skilled operations in the affected areas, it may be difficult to provide assistance quickly and effectively. See if the charity's website or appeal clearly describes what the charity can do to address immediate relief needs as well as longer-term recovery needs."

When donating to a campaign on GoFundMe and other crowdfunding options, you should have a clear understanding of where the donations are going and what the money will be used for. Look closely at who is collecting the funds and how they are related to the cause. The Federal Trade Commission offers more tips here.

GoFundMe has a team that works to verify each campaign and ensure the funds get to the intended recipient. If the funds are not delivered, GoFundMe offers a donor protection guarantee.

If you suspect someone is running a scam relief effort, you can report it to your state regulator or file a complaint with the FTC.

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