Donations Pour in for Calif. Fire Victims

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 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.

"Clearly that [only the rich were affected] may be a perception for some. Some people will find any excuse not to give. The sheer numbers of people — thousands of people from San Bernardino to San Diego — have been impacted and they're not all wealthy people," he said.

Ret Boney, an assistant editor at the Philanthropy Journal, said that Americans have consistently proven to be charitable in the face of a crisis and that as they continue to hear stories of people in need of charity, they will continue to give.

"There might be an impression that not a lot of these folks are in real financial need, but there are many in the area who do need help — lower-income folks, the uninsured, immigrants who don't speak English — these are the populations hidden from view," she said.

Some major corporations have already made donations. Bank of the West, Moss Adams LLC, Cox Communications, Invitrogen, Amgen, the Eli Lily and Co. Foundation and the Irvine Foundation have all donated to the San Diego Foundation.

The Walt Disney Co., ABC's parent company, has pledged $2 million.

"It is good business sense for local companies to make sure employees are taken care of and can be productive again. It is hard to be productive when you're worried about your health, home or children," Boney said. "Furthermore, studies show that consumers and employees look to corporate America to give back."

In addition to corporations and individuals giving money, many too are volunteering their time.

According to CaliforniaVolunteers, a division of the California Governor's Office, about 8,000 people have registered to help with the state. Hundreds more are estimated to be volunteering through nonprofits and religious groups.

"Absolutely, the response has been much more enthusiastic than it was in 2003," said Karen Baker, executive director of CaliforniaVolunteers. "Katrina knocked sense into people and we realized we're all in this together."