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Where's the Wildfire Benefit Money Going?

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Photo by KUT News
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Monday night's star-studded concert at the Erwin Center benefiting Central Texas wildfire victims raised more than $500,000. 

We sat down with MariBen Ramsey of the Austin Community Foundation – the beneficiary of the fundraising proceeds -- and asked Ramsey to explain where this money's going to go.

MariBen Ramsey:  This is what we do know: the Austin Community Foundation cannot make donations directly to individuals.  So we're going to give the money to the non-profits who are working with the families and the communities that were impacted. 

We don't know exactly who those non-profits are today, because some of the needs are starting to show up for the first time.  For example, some of the mental health issues wouldn't necessarily have been clear on the first days after the fires.

Recovery is a process – a longer-term period.  Accordingly, the money won't go out the day after we receive it.  We're going to be very thoughtful and gather information from the communities that were impacted, because they'll know better than we will.  They'll know the work that's being done in their community and who's doing a good job.

KUT News:  There are some who argue that, given the $250 million in damages across the affected areas, raising $500,000 is just a drop in the ocean.  Aren't there already institutions in place (i.e. homeowner's insurance, federal disaster relief) that should take care of the victims?  And are these fundraisers capable of helping those in need in a real way?

Ramsey:  There are a couple of things: FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) doesn't cover everybody who loses everything.  Basically, FEMA tends to provide support for the property owners.  So, if you were a renter and your home burned down, you're without a place to live. (Update 10/19 at 10:10am: FEMA contacted KUT News to clarify federal disaster coverage.  See note below)

Just finding another place to live is a challenge for those families.  You may have people who lived in trailers, and FEMA is not going to cover that situation either. 

There's also a group of people who've lost jobs directly due to the fires.  One family we spoke with, the mother was a housekeeper and the houses she took care of burned down.  She currently doesn't have an income. 

Another woman worked from her home.  All of the equipment she used for her job got burned up, so she's lost income as a direct result. 

Government funding won't pay for everything.  They're not going to pay for school supplies or clothes for the kids.  

Really what we're looking to do with the $500,000, where I think it will go a long way, is to cover needs that are covered neither by insurance nor public dollars.

KUT News:  You've spent time with individuals affected by the wildfires as well as charity organizations on the ground.  Is there a sense of hope?  Is it too soon to tell?

Ramsey:  Everyone we talked to was very clear about this being an opportunity for the community; not only for the community to pull together, but when they do pull together, to decide how to make it better. 

You don't always get the opportunity to rethink something because, well, it is the way it is.  All of the families we spoke to plan on rebuilding in some form or fashion.  

For example: one family is going to rebuild their house where it was.  One family is not going back to their former house site, but they intend to be back in Bastrop.  And another family says "my family is here, my children's friends are here and we're not leaving." 

That says a lot.  There really is hope.

Note: FEMA representative Ericka Lopez contacted KUT News to clarify that FEMA does "provide assistance to renters, help families that live in mobile homes and homes of all types, and [works with] the Texas Workforce Commission to fund disaster unemployment assistance and crisis counseling.  Also, clothing can be covered under [FEMA's] Other Needs Assistance."  Lopez urges disaster victims to register with FEMA.