Local tornado relief group steps up when Red Cross disappoints

A charity watchdog says the experience of people in Dunrobin is evidence that small, local organizations are frequently better at delivering aid quickly.

West Carleton Disaster Relief delivered $500 to tornado victims within weeks

A Toronto-based charity watchdog says local organizations are often better at delivering aid faster than large national charities in the wake of natural disasters such as the September tornadoes in the Ottawa area. (Jennifer Chevalier/CBC)

Large national charities get the lion's share of donations when disasters hit Canadian communities, but a charity watchdog says the experience of people in Dunrobin is evidence that local organizations are frequently better at delivering aid quickly.

Kate Bahen, managing director of Toronto-based Charity Intelligence, said she was "shocked" by the complaints of Dunrobin tornado victims denied help by the Canadian Red Cross. 

"After (the) Fort McMurray (wildfires), which was probably the fastest Canadian Red Cross disaster response yet, I'd thought we'd stepped forward," Bahen said.

"We're seeing a step back to the old ways of doing needs assessments."

In a statement, the Canadian Red Cross said it has raised $1.3 million for Ontario tornado relief, with $720,000 allocated for family financial assistance.

However, in an interview on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning on Friday, the Red Cross's Ontario vice-president Tanya Elliott was unable to say how much money had already made it out the door to families.

The Red Cross has raised 1.3 million dollars for tornado relief in Ottawa but victims in Dunrobin say that cash isn't flowing to them fast enough. 11:02

Community leaders in Dunrobin told CBC that five weeks after the tornado hit, they believe no more than five families have received cash payments totalling $3,000.

The delays fit a worrisome trend in disaster response, Bahen said, where the message from large charities including the Red Cross is that they're planning for "the long haul."

"This is not development. This is disaster response, and in disaster response, speed matters," Bahen said.

"If you have an emergency (and) you call an ambulance, you don't want them to say we're going to assess your needs and we'll send the ambulance in two years."

Small local organizations fill the gap

The response of the Canadian Red Cross appears to contrast starkly with that of West Carleton Disaster Relief, a volunteer organization that sprung up in the days following the tornado and which says it's already delivered $500 cash payments to 137 families in the Dunrobin area.

Len Russell, the group's secretary, said the money was delivered within about two and a half weeks, to help people meet basic needs without red tape.

Many were left with nothing and faced long waits for insurance payments, he said.

Dunrobin residents grilled the Red Cross at a tornado relief meeting on Oct. 25. They say the Red Cross hasn't disbursed aid quickly enough, while a local organization created post-tornado has already delivered $500 payments to 137 families in need. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

Russell was very critical of the response of the Canadian Red Cross, saying the short-term assistance has fallen far short of what was provided to residents affected by flooding last year in nearby Constance Bay.

"The reaction of people is, 'I needed you in the first week,'" Russell said.

"We don't need you three years from now, and yet you're going to hold on to this money for years.'"

In addition to the $500 payments to families, Russell said the group has been helping to cover the cost of re-connecting utilities and leasing shipping containers for farmers who need storage after buildings were destroyed. 

A volunteer board approves new programs as they're needed.

When a disaster hits, the Red Cross is where most people choose to donate but a charity watchdog says that might not be the wisest decision and the recent tornadoes are evidence of why. 7:47

'We need to trust our neighbours'

One thing the West Carleton group lacks is registered charitable status, which would allow it to issue tax receipts.

"We've only been in existence for five weeks, so that's not really going to happen," Russell said.

That shouldn't necessarily deter donors, Bahen said.

She recommends when a disaster happens in Canada, donors should give to smaller, local organizations whose knowledge of the community allows them to react quickly, even if they don't have elaborate safeguards to prevent money from being misspent.

"If fraud is maybe one per cent of the people who register (for help), to try to detect that one per cent of fraud you may be holding up payments for months and months to the other 99 per cent," she said.

"It's mind-boggling, that. And I do think we need to trust our neighbours, especially in times of disaster response."

About the Author

Susan Burgess

Associate Producer

Susan Burgess is an associate producer on CBC Radio's All In A Day. You can reach her at or on Twitter @susanmburgess.