$7 million spent in Oso relief; some critical of process

OSO — The large social services agencies responding to the Oso mudslide raised $9.5 million in donations and have distributed or otherwise allocated $7 million of it.

But nearly a year after the disaster that killed 43 people and damaged or destroyed nearly 50 homes, there are still questions about whether the money is getting to those who need it most.

The Snohomish County chapter of the American Red Cross accounts for about half the money raised and spent, with $4.8 million brought in and $3.7 million dispersed. The United Way of Snohomish County and the Cascade Valley Hospital Foundation together raised $4.7 million and have dispersed $3.3 million of it, with almost all the rest allocated.

Some survivors feel those organizations could have done better, however.

Julie Kuntz hopes that everyone will learn how better to support people who lose loved ones or homes in disasters.

“Let’s get better at how we react to disasters,” she said.

Julie and Cory Kuntz’s home was destroyed by the mudslide while they were attending their son’s baseball game that morning. After an initial meeting with the Red Cross, they were given a debit card with $390 — a $130-per-person clothing and shoe allowance each for Cory, Julie and their 16-year-old son.

The family went shopping for basic supplies to last three days — clothes, shoes, boots, coats, toiletries and medications. It cost about $800 total, Julie Kuntz said.

When Kuntz followed up with the Red Cross later to get a gas card, she was told they’d all been given out. She eventually got a $150 gas card after another local business owner interceded on their behalf.

In contrast, two weeks after the slide, they received $5,000 from North Counties Family Services in Darrington, which came from the United Way of Snohomish County, Kuntz said. They later received another $5,000 from the group.

Local sources like churches, businesses, friends, neighbors and even strangers in the community also gave them thousands of dollars in those first few weeks.

Red Cross public information officer Jacqueline Koch said there’s a distinction between those initial cash handouts and later support.

“Those initial funds are in the immediate emergency response,” Koch said.

“Then what you’re looking at is the next step, which is to work with case managers,” she said.

Those case managers form the front line of the Long Term Recovery Group, which consists of representatives from the Red Cross, United Way, the Cascade Valley Hospital Foundation, local churches and family services groups like North Counties and the Arlington Family Resource Project.

The case managers are those people who interact with the clients directly.

“If there’s an un-met need, they bring it to the table,” Koch said. “Those who can cover it, pick it up and cover it.”

In other words, someone might receive a larger amount of money down the road that originated with the Red Cross, but the recipient might not know who the source was, she said.

Another issue with relief funds has been transparency, with United Way and Cascade Valley Hospital Foundation taking a different approach from the Red Cross.

The United Way has published a running tally on its website, uwsc.org/recoveryfund.php, since shortly after the mudslide nearly one year ago and has made the commitment that 100 percent of individual donations would be passed directly to those individuals and families affected, with no additional overhead cost, CEO Dennis Smith said.

Corporate donations through United Way funded infrastructure projects and community groups, such as helping local governments offset the cost of extended emergency operations.

Of the $3.3 million the United Way and the foundation have distributed, individuals and families received $1.6 million, 88 percent of which went to those directly affected by the slide and flooding.

“Directly affected” has a very specific meaning, Smith said: “those folks that either lost a loved one or lost their homes or property within the bounds of the event.”

The remaining 12 percent went to those families and individuals more indirectly affected, such as those stuck behind the blocked highway with a two-hour commute to work.

That’s not a distinction the Red Cross makes, Koch said.

Koch was unable to say how much of the money the Red Cross dispersed got into the hands of those who lost family members or their homes, versus those who were affected less by the slide and the flooding.

“We opened up about 675 client cases in the immediate aftermath of the slide,” Koch said. “It’s hard to say how many were affected directly. We’re looking at ‘affected’ and ‘impacted’ in much broader terms,” she said.

“It’s really difficult to say one person has been directly impacted and one person has not,” she added.

She points to Darrington High School as an example of how lines get blurred.

“If you talk to a school principal or a teacher, they will tell you that every single child in that school has been directly impacted,” Koch added. “If they didn’t lose someone, they know someone who has lost someone.”

The Red Cross instead breaks down the $3.7 million it has distributed into four general categories.

The largest of the four, “Disaster Preparedness and Community Rebuilding,” amounts to $1.2 million of that total and includes such activities as community training, distributing more than 1,000 smoke alarms to area residences and 72-hour emergency packs that include items like flashlights, weather alert radios, blankets, ponchos, first aid kits, food bars, duct tape and other essentials.

That category is also the one that has grown the fastest in the past six months, since the last update. In September the Red Cross reported having spent $445,000 for disaster preparedness.

The Red Cross also distributed:

  • $1 million toward “Individual Recovery Planning and Assistance” (including recovery plans, clothing, groceries, and housing and transportation assistance).
  • $959,000 to “Physical and Mental Health Services” (including medical care and equipment).
  • $542,000 to “Emergency Food, Shelter and Relief Items” (emergency shelters and meals, cleaning supplies, shovels and hygiene kits).

The United Way and Cascade Valley Hospital Foundation have each allocated their remaining money. The United Way has $645,000 left, which will be dispersed entirely through North Counties Family Services in Darrington.

The hospital foundation has $562,000 left, which is dedicated entirely to housing needs and administered through the Community Resources Foundation, which operated the Arlington Family Resource Project until it was shut down, said foundation board member Heather Logan.

The foundation focused on housing, starting in October, when it became apparent that finding permanent housing remains one of the largest problems still out there.

Since then 17 families have accessed the fund to offset the loss of their primary home, for mortgages, rent payments, even a $30,000 down payment on a new house in Idaho, Logan said.

“We weren’t making value judgments on how the house disappeared, just that it did,” Logan said.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; cwinters@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

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