At least $8 million has rolled into charitable coffers for the fires that swept Southern California in late 2017, and that’s not counting the individual GoFundMe accounts. In Santa Barbara, more than $1 million was still needed to house people or replace their lost belongings or wages from the Thomas Fire and flood, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Several of Santa Barbara’s largest charities provided a snapshot of how the money has been spread out.
Many of the benefits organized since the Thomas Fire crossed into Santa Barbara County on December 9 have relied upon the United Way to distribute the funds. All told, the Ventura and Santa Barbara groups raised $3.7 million and have given away $1.1 million. In Santa Barbara, $501,000 went to refund 16 organizations that had quickly used their own resources to help fire and mudflow victims with economic, housing, food, and other kinds of support. Santa Barbara’s second round of giving — to individuals and families in need of long-term recovery help — will occur in about a month, said President and CEO Steve Ortiz. United Way of Santa Barbara County has committed all funds received to support victims, and it is absorbing the administrative costs, he said.
Meanwhile, Direct Relief has taken in nearly $2 million — $1 million for the fire and close to $1 million for the debris flow, said the nonprofit’s spokesperson, Tony Morain. Of that, $200,000 has gone to first responders for equipment and to the S.B. Bucket Brigade; another $200,000 went to medical, social-support, and child- and family-care nonprofits; $155,000 has gone to individuals and the 805 UndocuFund.
Morain said they intend to allocate and distribute all at once the 1/9 Victims Fund, which is to receive some of the One805 Kick Ash Bash donations, somewhat tricky because it’s going from a nonprofit to individuals who aren’t a 501(c)(3). The Bash brought more than $2 million for emergency response agencies and fire and flood support. The vendor cost was about $400,000, Paul Cashman of the S.B. Firefighters Alliance guesstimated. The party brought together at least 4,000 firefighters, law enforcement personnel, their families, the public, and celebrities, such as Katy Perry, Kenny Loggins, and Ellen DeGeneres. The agencies will make a wish list of equipment requests, Cashman said.
Direct Relief’s Victims Fund participation is different from its normal operations, which ship medical supplies to places hit with disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes. It’s only the third time Direct Relief has handled financial supplies. “At this point, I feel like a day without surprises would be surprising,” Morain said.
Direct Relief has a 100-point rating from Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities by comparing revenues to distributions. Morain modestly described the perfect rating as a consequence of rounding. The nonprofit’s ratio is about $1 billion in funding — much in the form of donated medical supplies, Morain said — compared to $20 million in fundraising and administrative costs, much of which is covered from a $30 million endowment.
Morain defended other organizations with ratings in the 80th percentile, saying groups like United Way and Red Cross have heavier staff burdens as their mission is to help people rather than deliver stuff.
United Way of S.B. County’s Ortiz explained that his group is a separate entity from the national group and has set much of its work toward education. The higher costs are a reflection of choices like hiring teachers, for instance, instead of relying on volunteers in the student programs, he said.
The American Red Cross had no separate Montecito category, said area coordinator Jessica Piffero, but it has a fund for Northern and Southern California wildfires. That fund totaled $25.5 million as of January 9. Southern California’s December fire relief efforts had spent $2.4 million on items like shelters, food, and services for wildfire refugees; Northern California’s October fire relief had spent $7.6 million. Of the spending, 91 cents of each dollar went to programs, staff and volunteer travel and lodging, call centers, and full-timers. The remaining 9 cents were for continuous costs like communications, payroll, management, and fundraising.
At Santa Barbara’s disaster center, first opened on January 17, FEMA counted 1,429 people registered for assistance as of mid-March. (Registration ends on March 16, though FEMA is extending its deadline for Disaster Unemployment Assistance to March 19.) It had awarded $1.5 million in grants for housing damage and rental assistance, and given $114,050 for personal property losses. But it was unable to fulfill more than $1 million in needs, said John Chavez, FEMA’s voluntary agency liaison.
Santa Barbara will likely meet that need, especially with big headliner benefit concerts coming up. Early on, United Way’s Ortiz had confessed to the FEMA specialists that he felt Santa Barbara needed more coordination to manage the disaster assistance. “Their words to us were that they had never seen a community rally so quickly,” he recalled. “The support was so incredible, how we reacted and supported each other. All I can say is a big thank-you to the community.”