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Fort McMurray businesses say promised relief too slow in coming

The Red Cross and the Wood Buffalo municipality are finally delivering on funding promised to Fort McMurray small businesses hurt by May’s wildfire.

'I'm about to get kicked out of my apartment. My landlord gave me notice. If I don't pay ... I am out'

Fort McMurray small business owner Chris Hall said it's taken too long for him and others to receive assistance from the Red Cross and the Wood Buffalo municipality. 1:35

Tempers erupted Wednesday at a chamber of commerce meeting in Fort McMurray when the Red Cross announced small businesses affected by the wildfire in May can now apply for relief funds.

But some business owners say it's already too late for the financial help first promised in August.

"How are we going to feed our kids? How are we going to feed our families?" shouted Chris Hall, a local barber. "We have people walking out here now because they are so disappointed. We need the money."

Fort McMurray's small business owners gather for a Red Cross and municipal funding announcement. (David Thurton)

In August, the province, the municipality of Wood Buffalo and the Red Cross announced that grants of up to $20,000 would be offered to the 4,000 small businesses affected by the fire.

The Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce said it began discussions with the province in May.

"We're now in October," said president Bryce Kumka. "I just don't understand the amount of process it is to distribute funds."

Closing up shop

Hall said business at his barber shop has been down significantly over the last four months.

Because he's self employed, he can't access income support, such as Employment Insurance, he said.

"I'm about to get kicked out of my apartment," he said. "My landlord gave me notice. If I don't pay them the money, I am out."

Hall said he's been calling the Red Cross and the municipality for months asking about when he can get access to the promised grants.

Gareth Norris says two of his businesses have gone under after the Fort McMurray wildfire. (David Thurton/ CBC News)

"We've been waiting too long. It's been over four months now and we are still waiting.

"And now it's going into 2017. We are tired of waiting. We need the money and we need the support, else we are going to be on the street and losing our business."

Gareth Norris owns two tanning salons, a swim wear store and an Irish pub. Two of his operations have already gone under, he said.

"We had no money from the insurance (at first). It took such a long fight to get it. By the time we received anything the landlord had come in and seized the properties for outstanding rents," Norris said.

Financial assistance on the way

Wood Buffalo and the Red Cross will make available $45 million for affected businesses. 

The Red Cross has already distributed $1,000 cheques, but during a second phase of assistance — from Oct. 19 to Dec. 19 — small businesses can apply for more funding.

The Red Cross has already handed out an initial $1000 grant to over 4100 small businesses in Fort McMurray in the early days of the wildfire response. (David Thurton/CBC)

During this second phase, the Red Cross said it will provide immediate financial assistance of up to $8,000 for small business for expenses that occurred as a result of the wildfire while Wood Buffalo has allocated $5 million for immediate help.

"We will start disbursing as soon as we possibly can," said Melanie Soler, associate vice-president of disaster management Alberta with the Canadian Red Cross.

Why it's taken this long?

The Red Cross and Wood Buffalo said the wildfire was an unprecedented disaster and they've never had to provide business relief on this scale.

As a result, both organizations needed time to put a program in place that ensured they could properly account for the public money and donations they've received, said Andrea Haley, with the Wood Buffalo economic development department.

Andrea Haley with Wood Buffalo's economic development department urges small businesses to apply as quickly as possible and to all programs whether or not they think they qualify. (David Thurton/ CBC News)

"These are taxpayer dollars and so that accountability piece is huge in this program as we are accountable to all taxpayers in the regional municipality of Wood Buffalo," she said. 

The Red Cross and the municipality are urging small businesses to apply as quickly as possible to all programs whether or not they think they qualify as programs are flexible and rules could accommodate unique circumstances.

Once they have a sufficient number of applications, they will have a better picture of the amount businesses will receive.

The Red Cross said small businesses can expect cheques within 10 days of receiving approval.

Follow David Thurton, CBC's Fort McMurray correspondent, on Facebook, Twitter and via email.