As firefighters and rescue workers descended on Southern California this week, a parallel army of volunteers and donors gave of their time and money in ways that have encouraged and surprised relief agencies, those organizations said Thursday.
Though five days of wildfires have displaced nearly 1 million people from their homes, some agencies initially worried that the media's focus on the burning homes of celebrities and millionaires would discourage the public from donating.
Rather than spurn California victims perhaps considered less deserving than the thousands of people made homeless by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, agencies reported donors reacting the opposite way, attributing much of this week's donations to a "Katrina effect," whereby people became more attuned to giving after that storm devastated New Orleans.
"We are pleased with how the American public and corporate America are responding to people whose lives are being affected," said Kara Bunte, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross.
Both the Red Cross and Salvation Army said it was still too early to know exactly how much money had been donated, but already significantly more money has been raised than in the first week of the 2003 fires that struck much of the same area.
The Red Cross would not estimate how much money had already been raised, but Bunte said: "There were significant spikes in donations through our toll free number and redcross.org. It's still too early to tell the kind of donations we'll receive through the mail, but we've seen several large donations from corporations. Wal-Mart donated $1 million, Anheuser Busch, $500,000 and Bank of America, $500,000."
The Salvation Army estimated it had received $450,000 in the last five days, much of it from a telethon broadcast on local networks.
During the week of Oct. 21 to 25, the Salvation Army received $240,557 in online contributions, compared to $35,795 during the same week last year.
"We don't yet have a good handle on how much money has come in," said Lt. Col. Doug O'Brien, the Salvation Army's divisional commander for Sierra Del Mar. "But, we probably haven't received more than $450,000."
That money will only go so far. O'Brien said he had already authorized $500,000 for gift cards and vouchers that victims could use to buy food and supplies.
The San Diego Foundation, a local community charity, has raised $777,000 in contributions and pledges for fire relief, said spokeswoman Sara Napoli. That figure compares to just $10,000 raised in the first week of the 2003 fires.
Agencies were upbeat about fundraising in the first five days of the disaster, but cautioned that regular contributions in the coming months were necessary to sustaining the relief effort.
The Salvation Army had only recently ended the last of its programs supporting victims of the 2003 fires, O'Brien said. Much of the money used in that relief effort came from corporate donors like Eli Lilly and Co. weeks after those fires had been extinguished.
Thursday marked a transition, as relief workers moved away from providing emergency services and started moving toward finding new homes and furnishings for victims, an effort as expensive as it is complicated.
About 1,500 homes have already been destroyed and thousands more remain in danger.
O'Brien emphasized that it was not just the rich and insured whose homes were destroyed in the fires, but many people who would come to rely on charitable donations.