$16M in Red Cross Fiona donations still haven’t been distributed to impacted residents

Click to play video: 'Storm Fiona: PEI officials say full extent of damage not yet known'
Storm Fiona: PEI officials say full extent of damage not yet known
WATCH: As Prince Edward Island begins to take stock of the damage left behind by post-tropical storm Fiona, officials say the full picture is not yet clear – Sep 25, 2022

Where is the Red Cross?

It’s a question many Prince Edward Island residents have been asking over the last two weeks since hurricane Fiona swept through the region in the early hours of Sept. 24, leaving behind a massive trail of destruction to homes, businesses and livelihoods.

The Canadian Red Cross wasted no time launching a fundraising appeal for donations to hurricane Fiona relief mere hours after the storm subsided. By 6:30 p.m. Atlantic on Sept. 24, the agency’s Canadian website landing page featured a large photo of flood waters inching toward the front doorsteps of several large white homes with a large red “donate now” button for a “Hurricane Fiona in Canada appeal.”

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As of Wednesday, the Red Cross had raised close to $16 million in donations for Fiona disaster relief in Atlantic Canada – funds that will be matched by the federal government until Oct. 23.

But to date, none of this money has been distributed to the hundreds of thousands of Atlantic Canadians and Quebec residents who have been dealing with significant costs and disruptions to their lives.

Read more: Tens of thousands in P.E.I. still without power 10 days after Fiona: ‘Doesn’t seem right’

Bill Lawlor, the Red Cross provincial director for P.E.I. and New Brunswick operations, says his agency has been trying to better understand the full scope of the storm’s impact before funds can start flowing.

“We need to have a good, clear picture of how many people have been impacted, coupled with how much money we’re going to have. Both of those numbers have adjusted significantly each and every day,” he said.

Since many people have had limited access to phones and internet due to ongoing power failures and mobile service disruptions, the rate of people registering for assistance has been slow. Registration is how the agency gauges what the needs in communities are, and more people have been registering every day, Lawlor explained.

P.E.I. residents have become the largest contingent from the region requesting Red Cross aid, now making up at least half of the 98,700 individuals who have registered to date.

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But the donated funds will be given out based on specific needs, which are still difficult to fully assess, Lawlor said.

Read more: IN PHOTOS: Scenes of damage as Fiona makes landfall across eastern Canada

“We know, again anecdotally, people have been without power for a number of days, have lost all food in their fridge, in their freezer. Some places have had some structural damage in some cases, or certainly their property has been damaged, their livelihoods have been tremendously disrupted,” he said.

“So we know that those needs are there, but we have a responsibility to our donors and we’ve been given this responsibility with a trust… these funds that go into this trust to make sure that we distribute it based on need as opposed to providing a mass approach to everybody who has registered.”

The Red Cross has been enlisted to distribute some provincial emergency financial assistance programs in P.E.I. and Nova Scotia, including a $250-per-household payment available in P.E.I. and up to $350 in payments for Nova Scotians who lost power for more than 48 hours and must remove trees from their properties.

These funds will not come from the money raised by the Red Cross in donations, but rather from provincial coffers in N.S. and P.E.I.

Click to play video: 'Trudeau announces $300 million in Fiona relief to Atlantic Canada'
Trudeau announces $300 million in Fiona relief to Atlantic Canada

The agency was involved in helping to set up a few shelters in Charlottetown in the days after the storm for some of the city’s homeless population and it also provided temporary accommodations to some people displaced by storm – as it would in any case of unexpected, emergency displacements such as house fires.

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But the tens of millions raised so far specifically for Fiona disaster relief, which will be doubled by Ottawa, remains unspent.

That’s not sitting well with some Islanders who were on Day 13 of no power Thursday.

“I’m really disappointed because the Red Cross is something I’ve always supported, but I’m just so disappointed to see how it actually rolls out when you’re the person who’s waiting to get some help,” said Maureen Blake, who has had no electricity or running water since the storm hit on Sept. 24.

Maureen Blake holds a fire hose to fill up her rain barrel to use due to lack of water from ongoing power failures following Hurricane Fiona in P.E.I. Submitted photo

Blake has no generator and lives in a rural area with her own well. She filled her bathtub in advance of the storm, but has since had to rely on a rain barrel for water to flush her toilet. When that ran out a few days ago, the local fire department came by to fill it up.

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Her family has relied on community warming centres, where warm meals and water have been provided to locals in need of assistance. But many of these centres have closed in recent days or have reduced their hours, even though around 9,000 customers – or about 20,000 residents – remained without power in P.E.I. Thursday.

“I feel totally abandoned by the government. I don’t feel like they had any plan in place,” Blake said. “The things they’re doing just aren’t helping people get through this.”

Cornwall resident Meghan Freeborn says she too has found it “extremely demoralizing” to go 13 days with no electricity, watching houses lighting up all around her while she remains in the dark.

A tree rests on Meghan Freeborn’s home in Cornwall, P.E.I. – damaged caused by Fiona. Submitted photo.

“Every normal task is a challenge without electricity and I’m getting worried about the weather,” she said.

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“The house was just freezing on Monday and Tuesday and my mom, who has a heart condition, has had a hard time with just trying to stay warm. I’m just so tired of living in survival mode.”

Any work on the ground by the Red Cross has not been visible, she said, and she questions why donations haven’t yet been made available to people struggling with the many added costs of going almost two weeks with no power.

“They’ve raised millions and millions of dollars and had funds matched by the federal government, so it would be nice to see some of that cash actually get into the hands of people on the ground,” Freeborn said.

P.E.I. resident Meghan Freeborn has gone 13 days without power following hurricane Fiona. Submitted photo.

“To hear that none of the money has actually started being distributed is extremely frustrating … it’s been almost two weeks and whether people have had damage to their homes or not, the cost of losing food, gas for generators, having neighbors over to use power or water for showers, it’s all significant.”

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Hannah Bell, a Green party MLA for Charlottetown, says she is deeply dismayed by the gap that she sees between the efforts the Red Cross has placed into fundraising for Fiona relief and what is being offered to people on the ground in aid.

“They’re an organization that does have the money and the resources and paid staff, but they’ve been incredibly inept with both their communications and their response,” Bell said.

People around the world are seeing images of the devastation Fiona has inflicted on P.E.I. and across Atlantic Canada, and their donations should be flowing more immediately to people who need this money now, Bell said.

Read more: Fiona reminds us climate change is here – and Canada must adapt now: expert

“I do not think it’s appropriate that they are gatekeeping, that those funds that have been donated in good faith by people from all over all over the world who genuinely gave money because they wanted to help,” she said.

Gord McNeilly, another Charlottetown MLA who paid out of his own pocket to bring food to low-income seniors left without power for more than a week, says he believes it’s “not acceptable” that the Red Cross money hasn’t yet started going to people in dire need of help.

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“Islanders need this money now, they need this money to survive but also to get back on their feet,” he said.

“We’ve been through an incredibly traumatic event and I’m worried about how it’s affecting our seniors, our low-income people and the middle class. Everyone in Prince Edward Island was affected by this.”

Read more: ‘I felt like I was forgotten’: P.E.I. residents, farmers, fishers reeling in Fiona’s wake

Lawlor says he understands people are frustrated with a perceived lack of response by his agency to the immediate needs of Islanders following the storm.

Ordinarily, the Red Cross would have sent in teams of volunteers to help with on-the-ground responses in the communities affected, he said. But a lack of accommodations following the storm due to the number of people displaced in addition to out-of-province electric crews sent to help with power restoration prevented this from happening, he said.

Meanwhile Red Cross personnel in the province were dealing with their own personal situations of Fiona damage and disruption in the days after the storm, he added.

“So, it was really a bit of a double whammy factor,” he said.

Click to play video: 'Nova Scotia still dealing with power outages after Fiona'
Nova Scotia still dealing with power outages after Fiona

“Partly because of that, we took the approach to offer immediate assistance as virtual as we could. Otherwise, if we didn’t have the virtual option, we may have been extraordinarily limited in what we could have provided.”

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Now that the immediate pressures have eased, the Red Cross will be opening up locations in Charlottetown and in eastern and western P.E.I. to allow residents to register for aid in-person and to provide on-the-ground assistance, Lawlor said.

As for when the donated money will start to flow, Lawlor says an announcement will be made Friday or Saturday on a program that will see money distributed to households based on need.

In a statement to Global News, federal Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair’s office said Ottawa established the fund-matching program for Fiona relief because the Canadian Red Cross has experience in coordinating interim housing, clothing, food and other essential supplies for those in need, and has previously supported the government’s response to events like the 2021 flooding in British Columbia and the Fort McMurray wildfires in 2016.

It noted, however, that the federal government expects transparency from partners like the Canadian Red Cross.

“We have been in touch with them to request an update on the administration of the funds collected through the Hurricane Fiona Appeal to ensure that they reach individuals who have been impacted as soon as possible,” Blair’s office said in a statement.

“We have been advised that more information on the distribution of these funds will be shared publicly very soon.”

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