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On July 22, 2019, the Record Searchlight ran an article on Carr Fire funding spending by reporter Jessica Skropanic. I read with interest. The bottom line? Per Skropanic, the major organizations surveyed had received a total of $7.6 million in donations and have designated $2.75 million for disaster relief after the Carr Fire.
I was immediately curious: $4.75 million, or 62%, of Carr Fire funds still unspent? Does this mirror typical disaster relief spending patterns? And what’s the plan for the unspent funds?
Take a look at how donations and subsequent spending from these local organizations play out:
As shown above, the Asphalt Cowboys, Bethel Church, and Tri-Counties Bank have spent nearly all their donated funds. The United Way has spent approximately half, and per Skropanic, has a three- year plan in place for long-term spending of the rest of its disaster relief funds. Shasta Regional Community Foundation (SRCF), has spent the lowest percentage of its disaster relief funds, having spent about $1.59 million, or 32% of the $5 million raised under its “Community Disaster Relief Fund”.
Since I wondered most about unspent funds, I focused in on SRCF’s unspent donations of $3.4 million. I looked first at what they’ve spent so far. More than $500,000 went to the Shasta Builders’ Exchange for the rebuilding of eight homes. Another $500,000 was given in grants to the Salvation Army, mostly for installation and repair of septic systems, power poles and water lines of individual homeowners. The Hill Country Community Clinic was given $225,000 to address mental health and trauma of survivors. The rest of the funds were designated in smaller amounts for uses including erosion control, furniture giveaways, YMCA camp scholarships, replacement of library books, trail maintenance equipment, and gift cards for survivors.
Clearly, lots of good has been done. But with 68% still unspent, I spoke with Kerry Caranci, CEO of the SRCF, to ask why. Caranci reassured me that their slow spending pattern is not unexpected. “We’re running a marathon, not a sprint.” she said, citing the Bowles Fire recovery spending, which took three years. “Our purpose has always been long term recovery.”
This felt prudent. But what’s the plan for SRCF’s long term spending? Caranci was unhesitating and unapologetic about her answer: We don’t know. She related that SRCF plans to spend down its Carr Fire fund over the next five years, but since the road ahead is uncertain, their spending plan will remain fluid and flexible. She did offer a pretty solid clue though: “Construction is expensive” she said “and SRCF is here for the underinsured.”
I asked about SRCF’s $500,000 in grants to the Salvation Army, which represent almost a third of SRCF’s overall spending.
“Those funds went to preparing properties for rebuilding and allowing individuals to stay on their land during the transition,” she said. “The Salvation Army did an amazing job with those funds.”
Caranci added that this spending is very much in line with SRCF’s tentative longer-term goals of assisting with rebuilding for the uninsured and underinsured.
Also in line with this goal, she said, are SRCF’s recent significant donations (totalling almost $540,000) to the Shasta Builders’ Exchange Community Fund, for use by the NorCal Community Recovery Team in the construction of eight home rebuilds. Ground was broken for the first rebuild just a few weeks ago.
The Norcal Community Recovery Team (NorCal CRT) is what is referred to in disaster management as a “long term recovery group”. It’s a community-based coalition of local organizations and individuals who “assess recovery needs that continue to exist after initial federal assistance and community support have been distributed.”
The NorCal CRT aims to eliminate potentially costly duplication of efforts in fire recovery by “providing a coordinated and cohesive approach to donation management, case management, resource allocation and distribution, and spiritual and emotional counseling for survivors.” (www.norcalcrt.org) Partners of the NorCal CRT include the Shasta Regional Community Foundation, Bethel Church, the Salvation Army, Shasta American Red Cross, Shasta College, Don Ajamian Construction, The McConnell Foundation, Dignity Health, NVCSS and United Way of Northern California. Committee chairs include Kerry Karanci (CEO SRFC) and Captain Tim Danielson (Salvation Army), among others.
I spoke with Peter Griggs, Public Information Officer for NorCal CRT (and Shasta College’s Director of Marketing and Outreach), who kindly responded to my extensive questions. He explained that NorCal CRT is mostly focused on helping uninsured or underinsured homeowners who lost their homes in the Carr Fire to rebuild. Based on FEMA numbers, NorCal CRT estimates the total number of such homes at 300 and the total financial need for these home rebuilds at $15 million, or $50,000/per home.
Suddenly SRCF’s remaining $3.4 million in Community Disaster Relief funding is feeling pretty small.
I tried to picture a $50,000 home. Mr. Griggs explained that NorCal CRT’s Construction Committee, with the help of Don Ajamian Construction, has developed floor plans for 1,2 and 3- bedroom stick-built homes. Actual costs for these homes hover around $180,000 per home, depending upon size. The $50,000 per home cash cost given by NorCal CRT is based on the expectation that community donations of labor and materials will be raised to cover 70% of the cost of each home.
I felt a little excited (but mostly skeptical) about NorCal CRT’s ability to complete 300 such ambitious projects at such low costs. And, sensing that some of the underinsured will be left out as money dwindles, I immediately wondered how home rebuilds are triaged. According to Griggs: “first come, first served.” Disaster Case Managers (DCMs) work with individual survivors to determine need and eligibility for various kinds of support and have approved seven home rebuilds thus far. It’s not clear what parameters are used by the DCMs to determine eligibility other than that they “thoroughly assess all resources available to the survivor.”
Assuming this vetting process is fair, the multi-million dollar question remains: funding for the hundreds of home rebuilds. According to its website, the NorCal CRT is a 501(c)3. The organization raises money of its own through a second fund at SRCF titled “NorCal CRT.”
Griggs was unsure how much has been raised or spent by NorCal CRT thus far, but mentioned that only about $1000 is currently held in the NorCal CRT fund. I did not receive responses when I reached out to several other NorCal CRT members for more information on funds ,and I found no publicly available accounting for NorCal CRT, so we’re not sure how much of the $15 million needed for rebuilding has been raised so far.
So many more questions . . . and NorCal CRT’s FAQ page did not begin to answer them. I wanted to know: what’s a reasonable timeline for rebuilding 300 homes on a very cheap budget using extensive donations? Will the money and donated labor needed for these homes fully materialize? Will the people who need these homes still live in Shasta County by the time they’re built? Will everyone get a home?
A little more of what we do know: The number of homes built each year is contingent upon available resources. This includes not only financial funding but donations of material and labor. According to Griggs, the CRT hopes and plans to work with their community partners to rebuild 20 to 30 homes each year over the next three to five years.
I did some simple math: At the rate of 30 homes each year, rebuilding all 300 will take about 10 years. At a minimal $50,000 per home, it will necessitate at least an additional $11.6 million in funding, even if SRCF chooses to spend all its remaining funds in partnership with the NorCal CRT. Above and beyond that, community donations of labor and materials totaling $3.9 million would need to be provided EVERY year at an additional overall cost to our community of $39 million.
To this humble writer, those numbers represent a heavy annual burden on CRT community partners, and one that appears unsustainable. NorCal CRT has an enthusiastic and optimistic plan and must surely have courageous and generous partners and leaders, but is their goal realistic? Can our community accomplish it? And while a list of their community partners (an impressive who’s who of local churches, non-profits, and businesses) exists on their website, the site offers no indication of the structure of the organization, who is leading the decision-making processes, or what specific committees might be in place.
The bottom line? Overall, NorCal CRT’s current lack of accessibility and transparency, both organizationally and financially, creates a confusing picture for those of us concerned about Shasta County’s long-term recovery process.
With approximately 300 homes to be rebuilt, and 292 still pending funding, our community has a long way to go. One year in, and it appears SRCF is situated as the key funder of underinsured rebuilds, with NorCal CRT situated to be key manager of the rebuild process.
All that remains now are a few pesky details, like instituting accessibility and transparency in NorCal CRT’s processes and finances.
Oh yeah, and looking for funding for 292 more homes.