By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 23, 2010; B06
After Erin Allweiss saw thick, black oil sludging up on the coast near her native New Orleans, she decided to do something. The 27-year-old Capitol Hill staffer scooped some of the sand, like melting fudge, into a Ziploc bag to take back to Washington, and she started organizing a fundraiser with friends.
"We wanted to make sure people were getting money quickly," she said after co-hosting an effort to try to make a dent in a problem that hasn't galvanized enormous support.
Some people are trying to help make that happen. CNN raised $1.8 million in a telethon Monday night on "Larry King Live," with Robert Redford, Cameron Diaz, Justin Bieber, Sting and other celebrities urging donations to help families and wildlife affected by the spill.
A similar event this year for earthquake relief in Haiti raised $10 million.
This month, the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that more than $4 million had been raised since the deadly tanker explosion in April and resulting oil leak, a fraction of the more than $6 billion donated to the Gulf of Mexico region in the year after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. The oil spill has been called the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.
For many, the idea of shelling out for a manmade disaster is tough to swallow; some say BP should cover the damage, even as the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund, the National Audubon Society, AmeriCares and other organizations have been pumping money into the area for wetlands restoration, animal rescue and help for fishermen and others who have lost jobs.
"It's a challenge in terms of fundraising," said LaTosha Brown, director of the Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Ecological Health, adding that the more people see the impact of the spill, the more likely they are to give. But, she said, there has been debate in philanthropic circles about whether a disaster blamed on a corporation should be the focus of private donors.
The United Way Gulf Recovery Fund will help with immediate and long-term needs in the region. United Way has reported a spike in calls to its help lines from thousands of families asking for help paying for food, rent, mortgages, utilities, clothing and health care, said Sal Fabens, a spokeswoman for United Way Worldwide.
People can give $10 by Twitter or by texting from a cellphone: UNITED to 50555 for United Way, COAST to 50555 for the Nature Conservancy or NWF to 20222 for the National Wildlife Federation.
Grass-roots efforts have sprung up in the Washington area. Reed Sandridge of Dupont Circle started by raising $150 at an event last week and hopes to take it directly to people in the gulf.
Chef Jose Andrés donated a portion of proceeds from dinners at his Oyamel, Jaleo, Cafe Atlantico and Zaytinya restaurants one weekend to Dine Out for the Gulf Coast, part of a national effort to promote gulf seafood. Johnny's Half Shell also participated.
Mike Gravitz of Environment America will host a Gumbo for Gulf event in Chevy Chase next month, one of a series of more than 150 house parties across the country (including several in the Washington area) to raise money for environmental advocacy groups supported by the organization.
Allweiss, the Hill staffer, wanted to help after flying to Louisiana to see the damage. Although she had steeled herself for it, the sight of goopy black oil slopping onto the beach -- and the knowledge that it was just one of many beaches affected -- was heartbreaking, she said.
Allweiss and her friends said they were gratified to see how many people attended happy hour Thursday at the Louisiana-themed Acadiana restaurant in the District after they sent invitations through e-mail, Facebook and Twitter.
"Everyone thinks BP should be held responsible, there's no doubt," she said. "But I think people also just have an innate desire to do something to help."