Confronting Crises When They Hit Home

By Giving List Staff   |   October 28, 2021

Hurricane Katrina was a major turning point in the history of Direct Relief. Until then, the Santa Barbara-based nonprofit that provides emergency medical assistance and disaster relief had primarily been responding to international crises. That changed with the 2005 hurricane that killed more than 1,800 people and wreaked $125 billion in damage to New Orleans and the surrounding region. Since then, natural disasters have struck the United States with increasing frequency. So much so that in 2010, Direct Relief removed “international” from its name.

“It no longer made sense to be called Direct Relief International because the country that we were supporting the most was the United States,” says Vice President of Communications Tony Morain. “And that’s still true, even more so today.”

Sixteen years since Katrina, Direct Relief is now one of America’s most recognized charities for efficiency and effectiveness, having provided more than $8 billion of medical aid around the world. Charity Navigator routinely gives the organization a 4-star rating and a top ranking on its list of “Best Charities Everyone’s Heard Of.”

Direct Relief’s commitment to responding to far-flung crises remains core to its mission (it deployed staff and supplies within minutes of the August 2021 earthquake in Haiti). But the natural disasters the organization confronts today aren’t just across the country, they’re even across the street, with more frequent and ferocious wildfires ravaging California and storms becoming more intense and more destructive.

Over time, Direct Relief has become an organization that anticipates emergencies as much as it responds to them. Throughout the U.S. and the Caribbean, it has outfitted several medical clinics with backup batteries and refrigeration to ensure they have power and useable medical supplies when crises hit. 

“We recognize that climate change is testing a lot of the infrastructure that we’ve relied on to do what we do,” Morain says.

Direct Relief has also evolved into a grantmaking organization, whether it’s solar panels or emergency equipment that could save lives. In the last two years, it helped the Santa Barbara County Fire Department raise $1.5 million to upgrade and convert a Blackhawk helicopter into a firefighting aircraft. Once commissioned, the new “Firehawk” will be able to fly at night and at high winds and drop water on any wildfire.

“We’re keenly listening to our partners and organizations to understand what the needs are to improve the health and lives of people,” says Vice President of Partnerships and Philanthropy Heather Bennett. 


Direct Relief

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Vice President – Partnerships and Philanthropy: Heather Bennett


Direct Relief is a humanitarian aid organization, active in all 50 states and more than 80 countries, with a mission to improve the health and lives of people affected by poverty or emergencies – without regard to politics, religion, or ability to pay.

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I’m Ukrainian American and my parents were Ukrainian refugees who met at a displaced persons camp at the end of World War II. I just have to say a big thank you to Direct Relief for all the work that you are doing over there. I know Direct Relief does so much all over the world, but this means so much to me. I so much appreciate and admire Direct Relief and thank you for all that you do.
Ana A. Taras
Chief of Strategic Development,
Ryan Health

The Power to Save Lives

Many vaccines and other medications need to be refrigerated, something severely complicated amid war and natural disaster. Recently, Direct Relief installed almost 1,000 Tesla solar panels with both battery and generator backup at their headquarters in Santa Barbara to store insulins, vaccines, and other temperature-controlled medications, even during power outages. But the healthcare facilities that receive these lifesaving medicines also need reliable power.  

Now, with the Power for Health initiative, Direct Relief is helping these facilities install solar power arrays, complete with battery storage. They have already begun installing backup power systems in high-risk areas, including the Mendocino Health Center and Marin Community Clinic.

Direct Relief plans to continue these installations throughout California and other high-risk regions with 20 more sites in development. The average cost is $400,000 per system, which is rated to last 20 years. Supporting the Power for Health initiative can help ensure that these facilities continue to operate when the community needs them most. 

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