FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. — The Canadian Red Cross says three-quarters of the $323 million raised since a destructive wildfire struck Fort McMurray last spring has been spent or committed nearly a year after the disaster.
The fire, nicknamed "the beast" because it was so fierce and unpredictable, forced 88,000 people to flee the northeastern Alberta city last May. It destroyed about 10 per cent of the community's structures.
The Red Cross announced Monday that $244 million has been spent or committed, which means contracts or agreements have been signed for recovery projects or initiatives.
"For every single person affected by the fires, it will be a defining moment in their lives. There will always be a 'before and after' the wildfires of 2016," said Conrad Sauve, the charity's president and CEO.
"It was also a defining moment for the Canadian Red Cross."
The charity raised $189 million in donations on its own, bolstered by $104 million in matching funds from Ottawa and $30 million from the Alberta government.
Fundraising costs did not exceeded five per cent, said Sauve, who noted that only applies to the agency's own donations, not the government-matched funds.
Of the funds spent or committed, $183 million is for individuals and families, $24 million for community groups and $28.5 million for small businesses.
Another $2.8 million has been set aside for future disaster planning and preparation. Fundraising costs were $5.7 million.
The Red Cross had to act quickly after the fire. It fielded more than 147,000 calls at 13 call centres and registering 65,000 families for support.
Wood Buffalo Mayor Melissa Blake said the Red Cross was a huge help to residents who fled for their lives — many with few belongings.
"When the gravity of the situation was just starting to sink in for many of us, that's when the Red Cross funds began to be distributed," she said.
"Those funds are what helped carry us through the uncertainty of those days and the many beyond."
The charity's help with the ongoing recovery is happening at a much different pace, Sauve said.
"Although the emergency relief needs to happen fast, recovery will take time for Fort McMurray, and we need to be there — and we will be there — to accompany this region throughout its recovery."
The organization also said it is giving $10 million to the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo to help prepare for future disasters and for safety and wellness workshops.
It is no longer appealing for funds for Fort McMurray.
The Red Cross update infuriated Kate Bahen, managing director of Charity Intelligence Canada, an organization that researches charities with the aim of helping donors get the biggest bang for their buck.
Bahen said lumping spent and committed funds into one category does not provide enough information to donors.
"They've blurred two very important categories," she said. "When you are a charity of this size, you have to report your spending. Don't confuse that with what your promises for the future are."
She questioned centralizing so much of the relief effort with one national organization rather than local charities.
"For donors who want their money to help in the disaster phase and not in the sort of a long three-to-five-year rebuild, giving to local charities is much faster and you know how the money is spent."
— By Lauren Krugel in Calgary
The Canadian Press