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For Now, Rich Sit on Wallets in Sandy's Wake

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Natural disasters in recent years have often been followed by big charity checks from the wealthy. From Hurricane Katrina to the Haiti earthquake and Asian Tsunami, all these events have featured millionaires and billionaires giving time, checks — and even private jets — to help speed along the recovery process.

So far, however, the philanthropic response to superstorm Sandy has been relatively muted.

Of course, Sandy wasn't nearly as devastating those other tragedies. And it's still early, with the true impact of the storm still emerging. Large donors could still emerge in the coming weeks, once recovery efforts start to take hold.

Yet four days after Sandy blasted through the East Coast, high-profile checks from individual wealthy donors have been few and far between.

Philanthropy consultants say one reason is that the region's wealthy are themselves pre-occupied with putting their lives back together – with homes in Manhattan, Connecticut, Long Island and New Jersey still without power or badly damaged. (Read more: Cuomo Snarls at Power Companies as Lights Stay Out.)

For that reason, some observers think any criticism of the wealthy's initial response to Sandy could be premature.

"With Sandy, many of these (donors) are still reeling and are in need of assistance themselves," said Claire Costello, Executive for Philanthropic Management at Bank of America. "Some of them still don't have power or can't get to work. So it's a little soon."

Because large swaths of the region are still in turmoil, some say it could be delaying the wealthy's response to Sandy.

"I think the philanthropy side (of Sandy) is just starting," said Melissa Berman, president of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, which advises wealthy families. "It's too early to know that the outpouring will really be."

Another reason is that federal, state and local governments in the region have been highly involved in organizing and coordinating the reaction to the storm, leaving less of the burden on private funds — at least for now. In Haiti, for instance, philanthropies jumped in to fill the void left by a dysfunctional government.

Berman said that individual wealth donors are still trying to determine where to focus their giving. She said she is advising individuals and families to focus their giving right now on food, shelter and helping the elderly who can't re-locate. (Read more: New York Harbor Reopens, Bringing Hope to the Fuel-Hungry.)

"In the short term, you want to be focusing on the basic needs," she said. "It's shelter services and organizations distributing food."

Beyond shelter and food, Berman added donors want to wait to determine the longer-term needs of the region after Sandy. She said some wealthy donors are looking at bigger-picture issues, like evacuation procedures or whether climate change is causing more volatile weather.

At a minimum, however, many businesses have written checks. Walt Disney is giving $2 million to the Red Cross and other organizations dedicated to Sandy relief efforts. Citigroup nd Citi Foundation gave $1 million to the Red Cross for Sandy Relief and an additional $500,000 to the Red Cross for disaster relief efforts. The New York Yankees gave $500,000 to the Red Cross.

News Corp and Viacom are both giving $1 million, with some of the money with to the Mayor's Fund for NYC and half going to other groups.

"The devastation from Hurricane Sandy is unprecedented and has left so many struggling to rebuild their lives," said Viacom Chief Executive Officer Philippe Dauman. "Viacom has always had a strong relationship with the communities it serves and we are proud to step forward once again to help those in need."

Philanthropy experts say rich donors need to take their time to make sure their giving has an effect and meets their standards of philanthropy. Rushing to give, they say, rarely serves the donor or the cause.

"Giving is easy, giving well is hard," Costello said. She added that "The mega checks will be there."

-By CNBC's Robert Frank
Follow Robert Frank on Twitter:
@robtfrank

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