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Black Summer donations from Australians nudged $640 million. Getting it to those in need was a miracle

By David Claughton, Saturday January 23, 2021 - 20:54 EDT
ABC licensed image
The devastation caused by the Black Summer fires left thousands of people needing the help of charities. - ABC licensed

The sheer scale of the bushfires that scarred so much of the country's east coast a year ago shocked millions around the world. But the enormity of what followed is almost as stunning.



From philanthropists to celebrities and corporations to ordinary people across the country, Australians rallied in their millions to help, and in doing so created a challenge like no other ? how to get the enormous sum of $640 million raised to people in need.

In unprecedented conditions, charities have had the Herculean task of assessing and distributing money to tens of thousands of recipients across NSW, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia.

St Vincent de Paul volunteers alone had to conduct 12,000 face-to-face interviews with applicants, many in harrowing conditions, to determine who was eligible for the Federal Government's hardship payment of $1,000.

Today, hundreds of volunteers are still helping to rebuild lives as well as homes among the charred debris of stricken communities.

Pandemic hampers efforts

All of this occurred against the backdrop of the pandemic, with lockdowns and border closures making a hard job almost impossible at times.

St Vincent de Paul chief executive Toby O'Connor said it had been a huge challenge for Vinnies volunteers to reach people.

"In the aftermath of the fires, in those remote communities where the roads were closed, it did take weeks," Mr O'Connor said.



When the pandemic struck, the charity had to ground its elderly volunteers.

"Most of those folk are in their 70s and therefore they're in a high-risk category and we had to stop them going out into the community," Mr O'Connor said.

But despite the logistical nightmare, 12 months on the charities are reporting a major success story.

Mr O'Connor says the public can be confident their donations have reached the hands of those who lost so much, and the charities have been able to keep their costs to a minimum.

All the major charities reported administration costs of 5 per cent or less ? much lower than the level regarded as acceptable by regulators.

"Every dollar donated has gone 100 per cent to those in need," Mr O'Connor said.

The Red Cross, St Vincent de Paul and the Salvation Army raised $435 million between them and have so far delivered more than 80 per cent of those funds.

A full list of Fire Aid charities, donations received and amounts distributed is at the end of this article.



In just three days in early January 2020, comedian Celeste Barber's campaign to raise money for rural fire services generated $30 million, with questions later raised about the distribution of that money when it was revealed it would not be able to benefit fire services outside NSW.

The final figure that went to the NSW Rural Fire Service Trust from the Barber fundraising campaign was $51 million, but donations to the trust from all sources totalled $108 million by December 2020.

'People came from everywhere'



Farmer Rick Anderson was one of the many residents of fire-stricken communities who chose to rebuild, managing to do it with unprecedented help from volunteers.

He and wife Bev are now in their new home, after their old one was destroyed in the Palmers Oaky fire near Mudgee, in NSW.

That fire burned for almost two months, destroyed 12 homes and burnt 17,400 hectares of private property, State Forest and National Park.

Mr Anderson said the Red Cross, St Vincent de Paul and the Salvation Army all provided money for the materials he needed to rebuild.



The local Seventh Day Adventist Church raised money for the gyprock and installed it, while the local Lions club provided all the white goods.

He said other local businesses generously offered what they could, including Mitre 10 which donated all the roof blanket and insulation.

"An electrical firm donated wiring, switches and fans, and a builder from Orange donated the architraves and skirting boards; people came from everywhere," he said.

The local community helped with construction, including one builder who came late at night in a storm to assess the job by torchlight.



Whilst Mr Anderson says he feels fortunate, he is worried that so many others affected by the fires are still in temporary accommodation to pay out.

Most claims settled



With more than 3,800 homes damaged or destroyed, according to the National Bushfire recovery Agency (NBRA), the clean-up job was enormous.

But to date, 4,900 burnt properties have been cleared using Commonwealth money, with just a few remaining in NSW.

The exact number of is unknown, as the Insurance Council of Australia (ICA) doesn't keep those figures.

However, ICA figures show there were 9,478 claims for residential buildings, with claims averaging $131,848.

Resilience NSW, which has been coordinating support for bushfire victims in that state, said only half of the people who lost their homes were planning to rebuild.

Many people lost holiday homes and some have decided to sell the block and look for something elsewhere; others are taking cash payments and doing something completely different.

The ICA said insurers received 38,000 claims related to the Black Summer fires and was forecasting payouts of around $2.32 billion.

That is expected to trigger .

Landholder costs will rise for other reasons too.

The ICA estimates about 50 per cent of homes damaged or destroyed in the fires were under-insured and said the cost of building to had increased significantly.

A significant shift out of the major cities into regional areas was also pushing up the cost of housing, making it difficult for some fire victims to rebuild or even find affordable accommodation just as their insurance payments for temporary housing is coming to an end.

12,000 interviews

By November 30 last year, the NBRA had spent $1.2 billion of the $2 billion set aside for fire relief, plus a further $660 million from existing disaster support, including disaster recovery payments and allowances.

St Vincent de Paul was one of several charities used by the Federal Government to distribute Commonwealth funds, but the criteria attached to that money made it a challenge to distribute, according to Mr O'Connor.



He said, aside from the donated money, the organisation also received $12 million in Commonwealth funds to distribute.

However, every person had to be interviewed face-to-face and the maximum amount of money that could be given was $1,000 per person.

Mr O'Connor said Vinnies had to conduct 12,000 interviews, sometimes in remote areas, and during the pandemic when meeting in person was especially difficult.

"Getting the money out fast just wasn't ever going to work, so it's taken us months to get rid of that money," he said.

The Red Cross's manager of Australian operations, Noel Clement, said of the $241m it raised, $201m had been distributed by the end of last year.

"We focussed on people who'd lost their homes, people whose homes were damaged, and the families of deceased and people who were injured," he said.

Philanthropists open pockets

Philanthropy played a significant role in the recovery process with many businesses and companies donating millions.

The Mindaroo Foundation put up $70 million to supply the accommodation pods crucial to many families during the rebuilding process.

The Paul Ramsay Foundation contributed $30 million for immediate relief and long-term recovery, while the Fay Fuller Foundation in South Australia provided $15 million to develop mental health programs for regional towns.

The Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewa (FRRR) received $11 million from corporate donors, and is allocating small grants based on requests from fire-affected communities around Australia.

Geoff Wilson, the founder of finance company Wilson Asset Management, helped raise $1 million.

He was on a road trip in Queensland at the height of the drought and as fires were sending smoke across the east coast.



"We were up in Toowoomba, driving through farm areas which looked like they'd been burnt, but hadn't," he said.

"There was just no grass and it brought it home, how devastating the drought had been and the bushfires."

Mr Wilson's company matched contributions from his clients to FRRR.

Many ordinary Australians felt compelled to act in the face of the disaster.

A survey undertaken by the Fundraising Institute of Australia between January 16 and 19, 2020 indicated that 53 per cent of Australians had donated to a bushfire appeal, with a median value of $50.

Lessons learned along the way

Foodbank Australia chief executive Brianna Casey says there needs to be a national database of people affected by emergencies to avoid them having to repeat their stories multiple times to different agencies.

"They don't need to be re-traumatised telling their same story to five different charities, six different government agencies and the media one after another," she said.

She said it could also reduce the amount of fraud.

According to the Charities Commission, the Red Cross received more than 1,000 applications lodged by 'bots', which are fake submissions generated electronically.



Some of those were approved but later identified as suspicious when the Red Cross obtained more information.

Mr Clement agreed that establishing a national database was a high priority for the sector and the Government.

"The 'Register.Find.Reunite' system, which the Red Cross implements to register people evacuated from disasters, is one possibility," he said.

Foodbank said it also had trouble buying food around Christmas time due to panic buying when more COVID-19 lockdowns were implemented.

Ms Casey said supermarket shelves were stripped of household staples, meaning the charity wasn't able to deliver food to the most needy.

"It is vulnerable Australians that are affected the most," she said.

She is also calling on the Federal Government to set aside $2.5 million in the next budget so Foodbank can create a non-perishable food stockpile for use in future emergencies.


- ABC

© ABC 2021

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