How groups are managing millions in Oso mudslide aid

Two weeks after the Oso mudslide wiped out a neighborhood, relief and social service agencies are starting to disperse some of the millions of dollars still pouring in.

Corporate donations have provided a significant boost, such as the money contributed by the Boeing Co., a $75,000 gift that was coupled with a potential additional $25,000 match of employee donations, plus another $25,000 from the Employees Community Fund of Boeing Puget Sound.

Local Native American tribes have also been major contributors, with the Tulalips, Stillaguamish, Sauk-Suiattle and Snoqualmie tribes all donating money to relief efforts.

At the same time, there are stories of individual gifts, such as an unemployed man donating $100 to the United Way of Snohomish County. Money is coming from coin jars, piggy banks and bake sales.

The United Way alone has recorded more than 9,000 individual contributors in addition to organizational donors. With such a myriad mix of donors, tracking the money and accounting for its use has become a complicated task.

The three largest recipients of donations, the United Way, the American Red Cross of Snohomish County and the Cascade Valley Hospital Foundation, which together have raised approximately $4 million, have been coordinating with smaller organizations, local governments and elected officials, to determine the best possible use of money and how to get it into the hands of the people who need it most.

“Some of these dollars are going to get pushed out to directly help the families, and others to help the social service agencies that will be helping those families,” said Dennis Smith, president and CEO of the United Way of Snohomish County. “We want there to be as much local control as possible.”

One of the front line organizations entrusted with distributing financial help is the newly established Arlington Family Services Project, a temporary center modeled on other social services programs like the North Counties Family Services in Darrington.

The Arlington program is operating under the umbrella of the Stanwood-based Community Resources Foundation, whose executive director, Christie Connors, will work out of Arlington until that center is up to speed.

“The work that we do is in supporting families and communities, so we have experience helping people in day-to-day life as well as in crisis,” Connors said.

Some of those services might be as simple as providing money to cover day-to-day expenses like groceries or gas, or as complex as connecting with several different agencies to help find and pay for temporary housing for a large family.

With 22 years of operations, Connors says the foundation is up to the task. In a typical year, the foundation distributes about $30,000, plus another $20,000 from partner agencies, to serve 6,500 people in the Stanwood-Camano Island area.

Slide recovery efforts are an order of magnitude higher in terms of cost, but so far encompass a more acute need.

The Arlington program is funded with a $25,000 grant and will distribute $200,000 in donations from the United Way over a four month period.

As more medium- and long-term needs are identified, there may be funding to extend the program longer, because Arlington does not have a permanent family resources center.

Establishing a front-line presence in Arlington was one goal the various larger “bundlers” of donations needed to achieve, because typically groups like the United Way or the Cascade Valley Hospital Foundation rely on those smaller groups to reach the individuals and families in need.

The board of the hospital foundation, which has raised about $650,000 so far for slide relief efforts, this week identified six groups to support with an initial outlay of $235,000: the new Arlington program, the North Counties Family Service Center, the Oso Volunteer Fire Department, the Darrington Volunteer Fire Department, Stanwood-Camano Incident Support (which helps first responders with essentials like bottled water as well spiritual help in the form of chaplains), and Catholic Community Services, which is helping to pay for funeral services as needed by victims’ families.

If having more than a dozen relief organizations handling millions of dollars sounds unwieldy, it’s important to realize that most of these organizations have long histories in Snohomish County of working with each other.

“So many people know these organizations from their day-to-day life,” said Heather Logan, a board member of the Cascade Valley Hospital Foundation.

“The board was absolutely confident that these were the places to make the first gifts,” she said.

“We never would have stepped up if we thought we wouldn’t be good stewards of the money, and that is the ultimate goal,” Logan said.

One significant issue facing everyone, from corporate contributions to individual donors, from large fundraisers to the social services groups handing out gas cards, is accountability and transparency.

Donors want to know their money is getting to where they want it to go, Logan said. The foundation’s disaster fund isn’t earmarked for any specific purpose other than supporting the relief effort in the context of the foundation’s mission.

“People can call and say they want to support ‘X,’ and I can have a really good frank conversation with them whether this is the best place for their donations,” Logan said.

Ensuring the money is used correctly is another step, which all groups said they are diligent about.

The Red Cross knows that it needs to regularly report on how money raised for the disaster is spent, said Colin Downey, spokesman for the organization.

“We survive by the donated dollar. We must be as transparent as possible. That’s a major obligation of our agency,” Downey said.

In previous disasters, such as Super Storm Sandy, the Red Cross produced periodic reports on how much money was raised and how it was spent, Downey said.

The United Way of Snohomish County has been periodically posting its fundraising totals on its website, but it is also requiring recipients to report back how the funds it has donated are being dispersed.

“There’s got to be a direct link to the issue, the struggle that they’re dealing with in that moment, which was created by the mudslide,” Dennis Smith said.

“The fact that people from Darrington have to drive two hours instead of half an hour is a direct affect of the mudslide,” Smith said.

That’s the case at the hospital foundation as well, Logan said. Reporting on results will happen primarily through the foundation’s web page and Facebook accounts, she said.

“And there’s the old fashioned way of people calling me, because everyone seems to know my number these days,” Logan said.

“We are mailing out tax receipts every single day so people know” the foundation has received the donations, she said.

The ground-level organizations also know they are in the spotlight for accountability.

“We want everyone to know our records are transparent,” said Wyonne Perrault, executive director of the North Counties Family Service Center in Darrington.

Perrault added that a 10-member committee makes decisions about which services are supported.

“We’re making house payments — those kinds of things ­— for people who lost loved ones,” Perrault said.

The Red Cross estimates that the cost of its initial response to the Oso disaster will hit $1.5 million. As of Friday, $1.4 million has been raised in pledges and donations.

“I think we’ve provided more than 17,000 meals and snacks, more than 4,000 mental health-related contacts and nearly 140 overnight stays in shelters,” said Downey, the Red Cross spokesman. “Those are some of the things that money will pay for.”

The Red Cross has deployed more than 350 people to help with disaster response.

Longer-term plans include having people work one-on-one with those affected by the disaster. The Red Cross also is working with other area nonprofits to figure out how they can work together to meet specific needs and avoid duplication.

“Local nonprofits and community leaders have already met and are actively collaborating on how best to address both the short- and long-term needs of the affected communities,” Downey said.

A report on how the money spent on the Oso disaster “will be forthcoming,” he said.

Other communities hit with fatal disasters said that public donations were generally channeled through existing nonprofits and that reports on how the money was spent were posted online.

The devastating 2011 tornado cut such a destructive swatch through Joplin, Mo., that some neighborhoods looked like war zones. The tornado, nearly three-quarters of a mile wide, traveled 13 miles. Overall, 1,615 homes were demolished and property losses totaled nearly $2 billion.

Money from private donations was just part of the response that included nearly $150 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency sent to local governments and school districts, another $21 million for home repairs and nearly $41 million from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

The Greater Kansas City Community Foundation worked with the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, which is closer to the disaster area, on how to spend public donations, said Denise St. Omer, a spokeswoman for the Kansas City foundation.

Grants from the Kansas City foundation helped pay for a legal aid organization to help disaster survivors navigate the paperwork and bureaucracies of insurance companies and FEMA, she said.

Money was sent to local nonprofits helping fill the increased demand for child care, she said.

When families were able to get back into houses, some didn’t have money for such necessities as beds or refrigerators, she said. “All those kinds of support systems help a community get back on their feet, ” St. Omer said.

Grants for such services went to existing nonprofits in the community that already had income guidelines in place, and caseworkers to help determine those most in need, she said.

In the Joplin area, 21 different funds raised about $11 million. The money was set aside for longer term needs, said Louise Knauer, a spokeswoman for the Community Foundation of the Ozarks. A web page was launched to list donors and where grant money was spent.

Money for new housing went to groups like Habitat for Humanity and the nonprofit Rebuild Joplin. Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Boys &Girls clubs and a domestic violence shelter received grants to respond to a sudden surge in the demand for services, she said. And an art therapy program was funded for kids.

Programs continue as the third anniversary of the disaster approaches and could continue to be funded for another year or more, she said.

“One of the things we learned is when we got to the one-year anniversary, there was a significant reemergence of mental health needs in the community, said Laura Howe, a spokeswoman for the national Red Cross. “Reliving that for some people was very, very difficult.”

The massive flooding that hit the Boulder, Colo. area in September killed six people and destroyed several hundred homes. More than 15,000 property damage claims have been filed, said Sue Anderson, manager of the Long Term Recovery Group, which is coordinating ongoing relief efforts.

The local Foothills United Way established a special fund for public donations within the first 12 hours of the disaster.

More than $1 million was sent to evacuation centers to help people with a variety of needs, said Heather Spencer, a spokeswoman.

“We were warned by FEMA and other disaster recovery experts that the long-term recovery needs will be so huge that you don’t want to spend all your money on immediate relief,” she said.

A long-term flood recovery group was set up to help with those needs. This includes a committee to coordinate counseling for traumatized survivors. “Oftentimes, people aren’t prepared to seek counseling until six to nine months later,” she said.

Overall, about $4.2 million was raised in private and corporate donations, Anderson said. Information on how donation money is being spent is posted online.

“This will be a process that will go on potentially for years,” Spencer said.

“The biggest thing is to have patience,” Spencer said. “I think there’s this real sense of urgency at the outset. Recovery is a long-term process. You need to be thoughtful about what the long-term needs are. Those are not apparent until the immediate relief packs up and goes home.”

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165;; Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486;

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