This spring's severe weather that killed 49 people and damaged thousands of central Oklahoma homes produced a broad outpouring of financial support for storm victims. Music stars staged benefit concerts, corporate titans pledged assistance and schoolchildren emptied their piggy banks.
The two largest charitable organizations involved in the recovery, the Red Cross and United Way, so far have raised more than $50 million for storm relief. Untold millions more came from dozens of church groups, volunteer organizations and others.
The Salvation Army, for example, raised, $12 million. Catholic Charities raised $2.2 million.
So just where will all the money go?
Of the $50 million raised by the United Way and Red Cross, about $14 million went for disaster assistance in the first days after the storm. That included feeding emergency workers, operating shelters and providing storm victims with necessities like food, clothes and gas.
The vast majority of money raised by charitable organizations is being held in reserve for a second wave of need that officials expect to arise in coming months after insurance settlement checks are cashed and federal emergency assistance ends.
It's at that point that many Oklahomans quit seeking help, even though a large amount of charitable aid may still be available to them for everything from minor home repairs to medical care, said Debby Hampton, president and chief executive officer of the local United Way organization.
A coalition of charitable groups estimates storm victims will need at least $29 million in assistance beyond the money paid by insurance companies and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a figure that seems well within their reach. The question is whether it will get to all those in need.
“My biggest concern on this disaster is we are dealing with a lot of individuals who don't even know how to ask for help because they have never had to ask for help before,'' Hampton said.
Key to distributing the millions of dollars in long-term aid will be a case management system the volunteer organizations will use. The idea behind the web-based system is to ensure storm victims receive uniform treatment and the assistance they need with as little hassle as possible, said Patrick Raglow, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City.
After registering with FEMA — regardless of whether they qualify for FEMA assistance — storm victims can call a toll-free hotline at (866) 477-7276 where they will be linked with a case manager who can assist in tapping into the millions of dollars available from nonprofit agencies. Officials estimate that on average each family affected by the storm will need about $7,500 in assistance, some much more, some a lot less. The types of assistance provided vary considerably from family to family. A wide range of help is available, including rent and utility assistance, car down payments and apartment deposits.
“We match money, material and muscle with client need,” said Lura Cayton, a FEMA liaison to volunteer agencies.
Charities anticipate handling thousands of cases initially, including many that can be readily resolved. Families with insurance, high incomes and savings tend to recover fairly quickly.
“Obviously, the most difficult people are the people who were underinsured or already struggling paycheck to paycheck,” Raglow said.
Charity officials also are anticipating a tremendous need for long-term counseling services given that the Moore was hit by two tornadoes in less than two weeks and that schools were destroyed. A tornado also ripped through Moore in 1999 devastating parts of the city. All those events combine to create a lot of trauma, Hampton said.
Social services providers know from experience that suicides normally increase about eight months after disasters, along with things like spousal abuse and child abuse, Raglow said. In the case of the spring storms, that type of behavior would be projected to peak around Christmas, already a high-stress time when suicides typically increase, he said.
The United Way still has about $11 million in its tornado relief fund. That includes more than $6 million in donations and pledges from the Blake Shelton benefit concert. It's still not certain how much money a Toby Keith concert raised. All of the concert's bills must be paid before any proceeds can be donated to the relief fund.
“It takes awhile,” said Hampton, the United Way executive.
The Red Cross expects to have about $15 million available to help communities with their long-term needs. Agency officials are meeting with area leaders to determine just what those might be, spokesman Ken Garcia said.
Several people expressed gratitude for the help they received following the storms from volunteer agencies.
Jason Davis, 39, who lost his home near Plaza Towers Elementary in Moore, applauded the work of the Red Cross.
“I'll give props where props are due,'' he said. “They came by — it seemed like every thirty minutes — saying, ‘You need this? You need that?' They were great.”
In Cleveland County, where about 500 houses were damaged or destroyed, most during the May 19 tornado, the Red Cross recently sent outreach teams back into the area to search for anyone who might still need assistance, said George Mauldin, the county's emergency management director. That came after reports that some people were still living in tents.
“If there's anybody staying in a tent all the time, we couldn't find them,'' he said.
Meanwhile, church and community groups continue to help with debris removal and other needs.
“I have nothing but praise for the volunteer organizations, Mauldin said.
Heather Thompson, 40, also lost her Moore home in the May 20 tornado. She remembers feeling almost overwhelmed by the outpouring of aid in those first few days.
“It was almost like a supermarket popped up on every corner,” she said.
Thompson also received Red Cross help to pay for gasoline, a faith-based organization demolished her home for free and three other groups have offered to remove her slab at no cost. This week, she visited FEMA's Disaster Recovery Center at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in south Oklahoma City to get an update on a Small Business Administration low-interest disaster loan she hopes to use to buy a new house.
“There has been such a great pool of resources,'' Thompson said. “I know there's going to be some lapses. But this time, they were prepared.”
Regardless of how the money is spent or at what pace, aid agencies expect to be criticized for their response.
“Disasters are a very trying time for everyone,'' said Garcia, the Red Cross spokesman. “Everybody would like to snap their fingers and have everything be fine. When it comes to recovery, it's a marathon, not a sprint.”