That’s how it goes when you work for the Red Cross. As director of the Calhoun/Cleburne chapter of the organization, Kirk is one of the people locals go to when they want to help with a major global disaster, like the earthquake in Haiti in January or the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
Since mid-August floods that displaced millions in Pakistan, Kirk has received just two calls from locals wanting to help.
“As an organization, the Red Cross is sending aid,” she said. “But locally, we haven’t seen a lot of people offering their help with the situation in Pakistan.”
Kirk’s silent phone is just part of a global phenomenon.
According to the Associated Press, more than 20 million people are in need of food, clean water and shelter after floods in Pakistan – floods that covered an area bigger than the land mass of England.
From the beginning, the AP reports, aid agencies were worried that aid would not be forthcoming, due to a troubled economy and disaster fatigue following a series of disasters. The U.S. military has sent helicopters in to rescue victims, and the U.N. made its initial goal of raising $460 million in aid after Saudi Arabia donated more than $100 million. But so far, projections of a slow charitable response appear to have come true – even in the Anniston area, where fundraising drives often meet with strong support.
A worker at the Anniston Salvation Army, who didn’t give his name, told The Star he hadn’t seen a single person walk in with an offer to help – a contrast to the traffic in the office after the Haiti earthquake.
Salvation Army spokesman Mark Jones confirmed that the nonprofit hasn’t seen the outpouring of support it got after past disasters.
“I think the awareness of the Pakistani situation just isn’t as great,” said Jones, who works in the group’s Jackson, Miss. regional office. “The Salvation Army hasn’t seen as much in the way of donations dedicated to this issue, but that doesn’t change our plans for responding.”
Jones noted that the Salvation Army had people on the ground before the floods, and the organization is currently in Pakistan feeding hundreds of people.
The Red Cross, in the form of its sister organization, the Red Crescent, has also been at work in the flood-ravaged area. Kirk said the organization gave $250,000 to the effort initially, and pitched in another $1 million as the U.N. pushed to meet its $460 million goal.
That money doesn’t come from nowhere. Eventually someone – donors – will have to replenish the funds the organizations have spent in Pakistan.
But so far, the phones aren’t ringing.
It was very different in January, Kirk said, when the Haitian earthquake hit.
In fact, it’s different almost every time the Red Cross asks for blood donations. Calhoun County residents donate more blood per capita than almost any county in the state, past Red Cross figures show.
Americans were living in a tough economic situation in January, as they are now. The difference this time, nonprofit leaders say, is visibility.
“Haiti clearly got a lot more coverage than the floods in Pakistan,” Kirk said.
After the Haitian earthquake, television reporters did interviews with survivors in front of the collapsed presidential palace. Newspapers ran photos of smoke rising from the ruins of Port-au-Prince.
After Pakistan’s flood, iconic media images were relatively few, and the flood rarely got the wall-to-wall coverage of other disasters.
“Awareness does play a big part,” Jones said. “We’ve had floods in Iowa and in Tennessee recently. After that, it has to be hard to convince people of the importance of this (Pakistan) situation.”
John Carvalho, a professor of journalism at Auburn University, said that coverage may be hampered by the difficultly of getting reporters to the scene.
“The fact is that newspapers and other news outlets have been cutting back on their international presence for years,” said John Carvalho, a professor of journalism at Auburn University. “I think it’s quite likely that there’s less reporting simply because they don’t have reporters on the ground.”
Haiti is virtually on the doorstep of the U.S., Carvalho noted. It’s relatively easy for a Florida newspaper to send a reporter to the Caribbean, he noted. Getting to Pakistan is another matter.
He wondered aloud if news agencies were weighing coverage of two wars – one surging, one officially ending – against coverage of the floods.
“You’d want to know if there’s talk of shifting reporters from Iraq or Afghanistan to Pakistan,” he said.
The situation stateside hasn’t helped either, Carvalho noted. With a struggling economy and midterm elections coming up, there’s plenty of domestic news.
“We talk about the agenda-settting function of journalism, and this is a good example,” he said. “For readers, there’s a tendency to say, well, if it’s not on the front page, it must not be that bad. But if you look at the numbers, it’s pretty bad.”
To Mark Jones, the lack of donations might also be due to something as simple as timing.
“As a donor myself, I know this is not my best time of year,” he said. “School is starting, and that’s an expensive time of year for a lot of families. It’s a time people are focusing on their own finances.
“But there is a real need here, and I hope people will find a way to help out,” he said.
How to help:
American Red Cross – http://www.redcross.org
Salvation Army – http://www.salvationarmyusa.org