EDMONTON — Carol Christian and her son fled the forest fire in Fort McMurray with little more than a suitcase, photo albums and their cat.
As it turns out, that’s all they have left. The fire destroyed their home.
Christian wept Wednesday when she heard the Red Cross is divvying up an immediate payment of $50 million to evacuees on top of emergency funds from the Alberta government.
Each adult is to receive $600 and each child $300. The money is to be electronically transferred within the next two days.
“The whole country has opened up their hearts to us,” Christian said from Ontario where she is staying with her mother. “It’s just amazing. Canadians have done themselves proud in lending that hand to us in our time of need.”
It’s the second time Christian has lost everything to a house fire. Her home was destroyed 28 years ago and the prospect of starting all over again is daunting.
The immediate cash transfer will help pay for toiletries, basic necessities and, perhaps, even a massage — a chance to briefly forget the panic of driving through flames and seeing pictures of their home reduced to rubble.
“It has been such a harrowing time,” Christian said. “It’s just (going to) help survive day to day.”
Red Cross CEO Conrad Sauve said the charity decided to give donations directly to evacuees since everybody has unique needs and individuals can decide how best to spend the money.
“This is the most important cash transfer we have done in our history and the fastest one,” he said Wednesday at a news conference with Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.
“(It’s) a combination of both the ability to raise money very fast in Canada and also use electronic means to transfer money directly into the hands of those affected.”
Sauve said a total of $67 million has been donated to the Red Cross so far and much of that will be matched by the provincial and federal governments.
“We know already that the damage resulting from the wildfire will be in the billions and it will take years to recover,” he said. “But we also know that the needs of those affected are immediate.”
Notley reminded people that the Alberta government is also providing immediate monetary assistance. Debit cards are being handed out at evacuee centres and other locations across the province.
Every adult evacuee is to receive $1,250 and each dependent $500.
“Our aim is to get help to the evacuees who need it the most as quickly as possible,” she said. “There will be long lineups, especially in the early days of distribution, so I am asking all evacuees if you don’t need emergency funding immediately, please let those in desperate need be first in line.”
The government anticipates the emergency funding will cost up to $100 million. The province is also matching donations made by Albertans to the Red Cross.
The move to provide cash directly to those affected by the evacuation was applauded by a group that had urged people to donate to local charities overshadowed by the Red Cross.
Kate Bahen, managing director of Charity Intelligence Canada, said the decision is unprecedented and welcome, and means the Red Cross won’t be sitting on the money several years later.
“These direct cash transfers are proven to be the most efficient and effective way to help people who need aid,” she said. “In a disaster, speed matters.”
Christian said she plans to return to the community and help it rebuild.
“Even though your home’s not there, it’s still your home.”