Donations to bridge collapse victims given out slowly, carefully

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 1, 2007 - 10:59 PM

Distributing the outpouring of donations has been slower than some would like, but there is a purpose behind the caution, experts say.

Minnesotans donated heartily to help those affected by the Interstate 35W bridge collapse. But two months after the bridge fell, much of the money hasn't yet reached survivors and victims' families.

About $725,000 remained in the Minnesota Helps -- Bridge Disaster Fund as of last week, waiting to be distributed. That's not unreasonable, one charity watchdog said. The bridge collapse presented unique problems connecting nonprofits with survivors who left the scene without major injuries.

Also, the fund was set up to distribute money in a way that is careful to guard against fraud.

Some bridge survivors had been frustrated in the weeks following the collapse, feeling confused about where they could turn for help. But the process has been streamlined and bridge survivors are now being contacted.

"The system is working," said survivor Brent Olson, who made inquiries on behalf of some frustrated survivors.

But it took some effort to get there. Three weeks ago, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak called a meeting of government agencies and local emergency relief organizations.

"It became apparent that the network for survivors of the bridge collapse needed to be better coordinated," city spokesman Matt Laible said.

"We're actively working to identify where those greatest areas of needs are," said Karen Kelley-Ariwoola, vice president of community philanthropy for the Minneapolis Foundation, one of several organizations that formed the fund.

"We certainly have no desire to be sitting on the money."

211 service playing a role

Formed by a group of Twin Cities foundations, the fund cannot give directly to survivors or victims' families, but instead grants money to the nonprofit organizations helping them. It has distributed more than $200,000 so far.

Shortly after the collapse, some survivors who didn't immediately feel hurt went to hospitals across the metro area to get examined. Nonprofits didn't know how to contact them because privacy laws prevented them from getting information on patients, organizers said.

In some cases, injuries didn't surface until well after the collapse, when aching backs or other sore spots prevented people from working and brought unexpected medical bills. Some survivors were also stretched financially to replace their vehicles. While some got help almost immediately, others weren't sure what assistance was available or how to get it.

The Greater Twin Cities United Way became the official point of contact, taking calls through its 211 telephone line and reaching out to a list of survivors compiled by the city, organizers said.

The United Way is assessing long-term needs and directing people to other organizations that can help with issues from paying medical bills to making mortgage payments, depending on the situation. The nonprofits will pay legitimate bills directly, officials said, or in some cases reimburse survivors for expenses they've already managed to pay. And the organizations will continue to assist with counseling needs.

Those organizations can request money from the Bridge Fund to do such things.

Paul Verrette, accountability program manager for the Charities Review Council in St. Paul, said two months isn't unreasonable for donated money to filter down.

"Sometimes the strength of philanthropy is in the way they will think things through and be very careful," Verrette said. "But flexibility is equally important."

Help through nonprofits

Many who call United Way are being sent to local Salvation Army and Red Cross offices.

The Twin Cities Area Chapter of the American Red Cross took in more than $1 million in donations or pledges in August, officials there said. About $850,000 of that was redesignated, with donor approval, so that the chapter could use it for other needs, including the nearly 400 other emergencies for which it provides aid every year.

With bridge donations, Red Cross Chief Executive Officer Jan McDaniel said the organization helped defray about $50,000 in funeral costs and provided aid in the form of gift cards, transportation, food and a place to stay for some out-of-town relatives.

Red Cross typically doesn't have to reach out to find survivors.

"In anything like this ... there's that gray area of confusion," McDaniel said. "We make it known that we're here to help and rely on them to contact us."

Annette Bauer, a Salvation Army spokeswoman, said her organization is working on 12 cases. The Salvation Army collected $56,000 after the collapse and could consider applying for Bridge Disaster Fund money if it runs out.

Chris Langer, vice president of communications for the Minneapolis Foundation, said the Bridge Disaster Fund is being handled carefully.

"People kind of learned from a lot of these disaster funds that have been set up in the past that being careful is better than ... shooting from the hip," Langer said. "It's perhaps a little more cumbersome, but on the other hand, people who have contributed money can be assured that the money is going to go where they intended it to go."

Olson said he and other survivors were thankful for all donations, and he assured givers that the aid would help survivors rebuild their lives.

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102

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