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Companies step up to help victims of Sandy

Courtesy Duracell

Duracell's Rapid Responder truck gives out free batteries Wednesday in Manhattan. The truck also provides a charging station for mobile devices.

As the East Coast assesses damage from superstorm Sandy and focuses on rebuilding, corporations are opening their wallets to help with the recovery efforts. Beside donations of five, six and seven figures to the Red Cross and other organizations, companies are also creatively deploying mobile relief efforts. It's a time for goodwill — and for burnishing civic credentials.

As Sandy bore down, Home Depot stationed trucks preloaded with supplies in strategic locations, the Wall Street Journal reports. This allowed additional inventory to get delivered to stores even when normal routes were disrupted. The home improvement store also pledged an $250,000 to the Red Cross on top of their regular annual donation, $100,000 to Team Rubicon, a volunteer relief brigade composed of U.S. military veterans and $150,000 to Operation Homefront, an emergency relief fund.

The Verizon Foundation is donating $100,000 to the Red Cross. Verizon Wireless stores are letting people come in and charge their phones, hop on wi-fi and make free domestic phone calls. In the New Jersey towns of Sea Girt and Howell, the company set up mobile stores on wheels, and at Monmouth University and two spots in Toms River, the company established Wireless Emergency Communication Centers with free device charging, phones for free calls, and computer workstations.

Dispensing free batteries and offering a mobile device charging station, Duracell parked a Rapid Responder pickup truck in Hoboken and Little Ferry, N.J., on Thursday. Last night it was stationed in lower Manhattan. It's no doubt appreciated by the people lined up to charge their devices, but the area could probably use a whole army of them right now.

Other companies also stepped up to the challenge:

  • AT&T and T-mobile agreed to let each other's customers roam on their networks, helpful as cell service took a hit during the storm and capacity has been slowly returning. AT&T is also sending out roving charging stations and RVs throughout the city, and waiving late-payment windows for people behind on their payments. They're also not disconnecting anyone's service who was unable to make a payment.
  • 100 trucks are arriving at Sears and Kmart stores from 42 distribution centers, filled with the most-needed items like generators, sump pumps, batteries, and flashlights. Some items are going directly from the warehouses to speed delivery.
  • Chevrolet donated 50 cargo vans, full-size SUVs and crossovers to the Red Cross for use in disaster relief. "It is during disasters like this that we all need to pull together as a country," said General Motors CEO Dan Akerson in a press release.
  • Walmart has committed $1.5 million to disaster relief. Then there's the stories of difference made on the ground. For instance, a Wal-Mart employee in Tappahancock, Va., donated dry ice to save an organ at a local hospital without checking up the chain of command. "At Walmart, we empower our store managers to help the communities they serve," said spokesperson Tara Raddohl. "They don’t have to ask for permission to do what is right."
  • Con Edison gave out free dry ice at seven locations in Brooklyn Thursday so utility customers without power could save their refrigerated food.
  • U-Haul is giving 30 days of free storage to victims of the storm.
  • eBay set up a special Hurricane Sandy site where 10 percent, and in some cases, up to 100 percent of the item's final price would go to a seller-designated charity.
  • Kohl's made a $1 million donation the Red Cross. The department store also encouraged its workers to volunteer in recovery efforts, offering additional corporate grants to the nonprofits their employees were supporting.
  • CVS donated $50,000 in bottled water and snacks to New Jersey areas hit hard by the superstorm. The goods were distributed via the Red Cross through their shelters. CVS also made a $100,000 donation to the Red Cross.
  • The New York Yankees donated $500,000 to the Red Cross.
  • NBC Universal is hosting a big benefit concert tonight at 8pm ET, featuring Bruce Springsteen, Christina Aguilera, Jon Bon Jovi, Sting, and Billy Joel. Hosted by Matt Lauer, viewers will be encouraged to call in and donate to the Red Cross by visiting visit RedCross.org, calling 1-800-RED-CROSS or texting the word REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation. (NBCNews.com is owned by NBC Universal.)

Some companies helped out by helping their customers to get involved. Through Nov. 30, American Airlines is giving frequent flier members 250 AAdvantage miles for donations of $50 to the Red Cross, or 500 miles for donations of $100 or more.

Airbnb.com, which matches travelers and people with extra rooms, encouraged members in storm-affected areas to lower their nightly prices. The site also announced it would temporarily waive fees for guests in the affected areas. One host is letting people use the service to stay at her place for free.

"I saw video coming in of water pouring in," said Shell Martinez, 36, "and I thought, 'People are going to need a place to stay.'" She posted her offer on Facebook and Twitter but it didn't get much traction until the site included it in an email blast to members, encouraging them to open their homes to the storm-stricken. Now Martinez has a full house and an inbox full of other hosts asking how they can do the same.

Companies who get involved in disaster charity have a chance to help out the communities they service, and also get a boost to their brand image. It's important that they walk the line when getting the word out about their efforts and are careful not to appear like they're captitalizing on tragedy.

David Meerman Scott, author of "Newsjacking: How to Inject your Ideas into a Breaking News Story and Generate Tons of Media Coverage," is a proponent of companies jumping into the newscycle. At the same time, a misfire can quickly turn into a social media backlash, especially when Google indexes in real-time, letting journalists and customers see your how companies are responding quicker than ever.

"The biggest danger is trivializing such a major disaster," Scott told NBC News. "When retailers like American Apparel offer a Hurricane Sandy sale, it crosses the line. People lost their lives, or their homes, and are living without power or food and they're trying to sell clothes."

Bottom line, says Scott, "It is generally not a good idea to newsjack a story that includes death and destruction unless you are helping victims."

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