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Following the money from cell phone text to Haiti

Click on map to see more information about text donations to the American Red Cross.

People have already donated more than $130 million to the American Red Cross for Haiti relief. Almost a quarter of that money came by text message. WFAE's Julie Rose takes a closer look at that process: By now you've seen the TV ads or Twitter messages. And maybe you've heard the skeptics, too, like Steve Czaban. He's a sports talk radio host. "So this is the new rage - total scam! - text your 10 dollars to Haitian Relief - can I follow that 10 dollars from my monthly billing all the way through the food chain, and what will it purchase?" asks Czaban in a recent segment. That seems a fair question. So I sat down with Kate Meier to find out. She's with the American Red Cross here in Charlotte. While sitting with her in the studio, I make a donation right on my cell phone. I dial 90999 and Meier instructs me to "text Haiti to that number." Moments later my cell phone beeps. "You should be getting a confirmation text message back. And that should be it." "Now how long is it gonna take for my $10 donation there to get to Haiti?" I ask Meier. "It's gonna depend on your mobile provider," says Meier. I have Verizon Wireless, so I called Jeffrey Nelson for this next part. He's executive director for corporate communications at Verizon Wireless. And he says the $10 donation will show up on my next cell phone bill. Normally Verizon would wait until I pay the bill to forward my donation. Nelson says they're making an exception for Haiti, "Essentially advancing the pledges of Verizon Wireless customers directly to the American Red Cross. It can otherwise take a couple of months, and that might be fine for normal charitable giving, but this is really an exceptional case where dollars on the ground matter very much." So far, Verizon has advanced almost $8 million in Haiti text donations. The other major wireless companies say they plan to follow suit. And all the normal fees donors and the Red Cross would have to pay in this process have been waived for Haiti. Every few days, Verizon has been wiring money to a special bank account set up for Red Cross Haiti relief at JP Morgan Chase. From there, Kate Meier says American Red Cross volunteers in Haiti spend it almost instantly. "One hundred percent of the money that's raised through mobile giving is going right to our Haiti disaster relief fund," says Meier. "So once that money is in those coffers, our volunteers who are on the ground - or our staffer members who are on the ground in Haiti - have credit cards linked to that account and they can go and swipe them and get whatever they need to get supplies down there." She says there are about a hundred American Red Cross staff and volunteers in Haiti right now. They're getting most of their supplies in the neighboring Dominican Republic and trucking them in to Haiti. We got one of those volunteers on the line by satellite phone from Port au Prince. Her name is Winnie Romeril. She's a medic and a veteran of international disasters like the Asian tsunami. "Winnie, can you help us understand what the actual impact of a $10 donation is there on the ground there in Haiti?" I ask through the phone static. "Oh my gosh," says Romeril, chuckling. "Yeah, I can. I would say $10 stocks one first aider's kit. That one first aider is going to be in touch with about 15 - 20 people in a day. And some people we actually clean their wounds every single day they come to the Red Cross office and sit on the lawn and wait their turn. And we peel the bandage off that's stuck to their skin with pus and infection and we clean it with antibiotic ointment and we given them some antibiotic pills to prevent the spread of disease and infection into their circulatory system. And this is saving lives. So $10 does a lot here in Haiti." The American Red Cross says a $10 donation to Haiti breaks down like this: Five dollars is spent on food and water for victims. Three dollars go toward medical supplies and the other two pay for logistics like training and deploying volunteers.