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Rebuilding Communities and the Humanitarian Efforts of The Canadian Red Cross

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On June 1, 2016 the first group of evacuees from Fort McMurray drove back into the paralyzed city. Residents waved excitedly back at firefighters standing above them on a bridge.  The firefighters stood in front of a fire truck with ladders fully extended and draped in flags which were fluttering in the breeze. The scene has become an iconic photo shared repeatedly on social media. This together with bill boards with slogans such as “We will rebuild” made for an emotional re-entry for many. As the days passed many more would return to the beleaguered city, and many have yet to return.  It has been more than three months since the wildfire nicknamed “the beast” disrupted the lives of residents and brought life to a crushing standstill for others.

The work of rebuilding this northern Alberta city has yet to begin.  Many await the go ahead to occupy homes in devastated areas; homes that were left standing with little more than smoke damage. Other homes sustained substantial damages and require a lot of work. Still others burned to the ground with only piles of ash and contaminated soil left to mark the places where they once stood. This debris must be removed before the work of rebuilding can take place. In addition to physical structures the work of rebuilding lives is also ongoing.

Into the fray stepped the Canadian Red Cross, the humanitarian organization intent upon offering help and support to the inhabitants of the region of Wood Buffalo, of which Fort McMurray is part. The initial response of the Red Cross was to answer the emergency needs for food, water, clothing, medicines, and shelter. That response has evolved as needs change and other priorities take the place of immediate survival needs. The organization continues to assess the needs of the communities at the individual, family, and community levels.

“When we think about rebuilding we think about rebuilding all components. Rebuilding in our world is a very broad term; it’s not a structural term from a humanitarian point of view. So, we talk about rebuilding at the household level, at the community level, and how we can contribute to the community for disaster preparedness in the future,” said Melanie Soler, the associate vice president, disaster management, Canadian Red Cross, Alberta.

The scope of the disaster in the Wood Buffalo region is daunting with a wide variety of needs such as the need for trauma counselling, health needs, and practical needs such as the replacement of household furniture, appliances, and goods, to name a few. The Canadian Red Cross has been instrumental in identifying and filling these needs.  While the organization does not employ staff for every conceivable need caseworkers are ready with a wealth of contact information of organizations where they can direct people to have their specific needs met, when those needs fall outside of the mandate of the Canadian Red Cross. A case in point is the difficulty many residents had with either insufficient insurance or no insurance at all. According to Soler, the Red Cross anticipated these issues early on and made contact with the Insurance Bureau of Canada in order to provide information to clients.

“The Canadian Red Cross absolutely are not experts in insurance, that is not our business. The Insurance Bureau of Canada are the experts in insurance and they play a mediator role between insurance companies and individuals who hold insurance coverage.” Soler said.

Rebuilding Fort McMurray has been frustrated by the need to remove contaminated soil and debris from burned-out sites. Once again residents are faced with navigating insurance contracts filled with legal language that many have difficulty understanding. Case workers with the Canadian Red Cross will direct people to the agencies and experts that can help. According to Soler, the organization has been working hand-in-hand with the Municipality of Wood Buffalo. The municipality has lists of contractors that are registered and offer the safe removal of soil and debris. The role of the Canadian Red Cross in such instances is to identify financial need such as those people who have either no insurance or insufficient insurance to cover the cost of removal of soil and debris. Working with residents on a case by case basis the Red Cross offers financial assistance to those who qualify.

Many residents have found themselves in the predicament of having to pay mortgage payments on homes that no longer exist, or are so severely damaged they are uninhabitable. Others are paying for homes they cannot legally live in due to health and safety regulations. Simultaneously those left homeless, whatever the reason, are paying rent on temporary lodgings. Initially the province of Alberta had offered help with the Wildfire Evacuation Temporary Accommodation program, but that program expired August 3. The Canadian Red Cross has implemented assistance for those affected offering a further 3 months financial support for housing.  For those who have fallen through the cracks and have no insurance coverage for living expenses, or are continuing to struggle financially the Red Cross may assist with mortgage payments.

“We have established an office in Fort McMurray and that office is staffed with case workers and advisors who have expertise in specific areas,” Soler said. “We know that we need to be prepared to be able to provide referrals and hand offs to local organizations who have expertise in whatever the client might be asking for. So one of the first things we craft is a referral and resource list.” 

Individuals and families are not the only focus of the Canadian Red Cross. Small businesses and community groups can also access help through the organization.  After the wildfire and subsequent evacuation many businesses and community groups are facing a shortage of staff. This reality has severely hampered the ability of not-for-profit organizations as well as businesses to provide services.

“We help families and individuals first and then we encourage community groups to apply for community organization grants whereby we can provide financial assistance directly to these community groups so that they can build up capacity and resume business continuity,” said Soler.

Pressures such as working prolonged hours, the stress of finding suitable housing, and dealing with the trauma of fleeing the wildfires has left many people feeling overwhelmed. Finding ways to deal with these stressors in a healthy way has added to the challenges facing health providers.

Local groups are experiencing a larger than normal volume of clients, according to Soler, and the Red Cross is instrumental in working collaboratively with local organizations to deal with these challenges and to ensure services are not duplicated. In order to ensure this the Red Cross meets with community groups such as the United Way as well with industries and funding groups to identify immediate and future needs. The Red Cross brings a wealth of information and experience to the table and although each community is unique, natural disasters such as the 2013 flood in Calgary and the 2011 wildfires in Slave Lake has given the Red Cross insight into needs that may arise in the Wood Buffalo region. 

On August 3, Conrad Sauvé, president of the Canadian Red Cross announced a fundraising total of $299 million, which included monies raised through the generosity of Canadians as well as $104-million in a matching contribution by the Canadian government  and  a $30-million contribution by the government of Alberta.

According to Soler, these monies will be held in trust and spent on various programs and initiatives benefitting the residents and communities in the region of Wood Buffalo.

“The thing that we are most proud of to date is that we have been able to provide more than $84-million in direct cash to clients in the first three months. In the forms of cash, electronic cheques, money transfers, prepaid credit cards. It’s never been done in Canada before, or for that matter anywhere else,” Soler said.  “It has not gone without its challenges but it’s certainly something that we think of when we talk about the $299-million,” she continued.

To date the distribution of funds includes $146-million allotted to families and individuals, $50-million to community groups, and $4.5-million for emergency support to small businesses. The Canadian Red Cross has also budgeted future allocations of funds with $50-million earmarked to help individuals and families with housing costs, furniture replacement, etc. A further $25.5-million has been set aside to aid small business and to support community resiliency such as emergency preparedness. For more information on the distribution of funds please go to these links provided by the Canadian Red Cross: