Estimating the numbers of people served during a crisis is extremely difficult. Often records were not kept on the number of people helped, and for those organizations that did keep records, definitions of units of service are unclear, do not easily translate into individuals served, and are often not comparable across organizations. Providers who offered highly professionalized services, such as in a health clinic, or services that require liability waivers, for example for volunteers, are likely exceptions.
Survey respondents provided rough estimates of the number of people helped. About a quarter of the respondents reported serving fewer than 50 people, and almost a fifth reported more than 1,000. The median number was 112. These numbers may represent multiple services to the same individual.
The case studies illustrate that some emergency services, such as food, water, or cleaning supplies, might be provided to the same people over and over for example, an organization might distribute thousands of cases of water within a neighborhood of 100 or fewer people repairing their homes. A few organizations housed hundreds of volunteers for very short stays, and the numbers that received home repair assistance might be fewer than 100 for any organization in a year.
Determining who received assistance can also be problematic. Survey respondents most frequently described recipients as low income and families with children. For case study organizations rebuilding houses, determining who was eligible to receive services was often not well thought out and likely to be based on personal judgment without uniform standards about need or deservedness. Such organizations often made no attempt to use income levels or prospects for insurance reimbursement or other assistance as a screen for service. Income and other assistance received was typically a part of a long-term recovery committees review process, but some in the field complained about the lack of transparency in needs assessments.
Neither the survey findings nor the case studies provide a clear picture of how individuals were triaged for help. Some in the case studies gave accounts of unprecedented generosity regardless of race or class. But these stories contrasted with other recounts of chaos and heavy-handed response by some law enforcement units. These conflicting perspectives speak to the need to better understand how assistance is distributed and how order can be maintained with equanimity in a major crisis.
Some in the field noted that oversight took a back seat in the emergency response because of the magnitude of need and to allow for more flexibility in the delivery of assistance. The lack of guidelines and specificity for designated use of funds, populations served, service units, or standards about what constituted need raises questions about equitable treatment among those in need and how to balance accountability and flexibility in the context of an emergency.