3 charities raise $7 million to help 52 families, neighbors after Washington mudslide

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Two months after a deadly mudslide destroyed a Washington community, three nonprofit organizations have raised more than $7 million and have already spent about half of that to help about 50 families and their neighbors begin to rebuild their lives.

The money flowed in from across the United States mostly in $10 and $20 checks.

"It's been humbling to see the incredible response that we've received," said Neil Parekh, spokesman for United Way of Snohomish County, which has raised about $2.4 million for mudslide relief without actively fundraising.

The American Red Cross has received more than $3 million. The Cascade Valley Hospital Foundation based in Arlington, Washington, has raised $1.7 million.

Those three organizations are working together to coordinate distribution of all the local money raised, in an effort to avoid some of the problems associated with recovery in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and at disaster sites around the world. They have met regularly with service providers, government officials and other nonprofits in Arlington to avoid duplication of efforts or unfair distribution and come to agreement on how to prioritize their work.

About half the money was distributed immediately, mostly in direct help for victim families including checks totaling $450,000 given directly to 52 families who lived on Steelhead Drive, the street destroyed by the mudslide. More dollars will be given directly to families as more money comes in, Parekh said.

Plans made for most of the rest of the money raised so far will address long-term needs such as economic development and mental health services.

In addition to the official fundraising efforts, individual families have used crowdsourcing to raise money for a variety of needs. A handful of efforts on a crowd-funding site called GoFundMe have raised a total of nearly $100,000 so far.

The official and unofficial efforts haven't had to work very hard to get the money flowing.

"It's just been pretty incredible how generous people from all over have been," said Nichole Webb Rivera, who has raised more than $25,000. Rivera lost her parents, her 19-year-old daughter and her daughter's fiancee in the March 22 mudslide that killed 43 people.

Rivera said she and her husband have been so inspired by what has happened since the tragedy that they are in the process of moving from Houston to Darrington, Washington, to use the money they've raised to help rebuild the community. Rivera is debating whether to start a charity or a business cooperative to incubate small-business startups in Darrington.

From the official fundraising efforts, checks of $5,000 to $10,000 have gone to everyone who either lost a home or a family member in the disaster. About $150,000 worth of gas cards have gone to people stuck behind the mudslide because they have had to drive long distances to get to work. More than $25,000 will send Darrington kids to camp this summer. About $200,000 is aimed toward economic development and relief.

Nonprofit officials expect the community will have long-term economic, physical and psychological needs and some of the money raised will go toward long-term needs in Oso, Darrington and Arlington, said Colin Downey, spokesman for the Western Washington region of the American Red Cross.

Although the Washington state attorney general's office has not received any complaints involving charitable solicitations for victims of the Oso slide, state officials hope people will continue to be vigilant about reporting problems and checking out groups that ask for money.

"Disasters typically bring out unscrupulous activity," said Rebecca Sherrill, charities program manager for the Washington Secretary of State's office, which also keeps an eye on Washington charities.