BASTROP COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) - It has been five months since flames took out more than 1,600 homes in Bastrop County, Steiner Ranch and Spicewood and left at least 5,000 people homeless.
As quickly as the flames spread across Central Texas -- help poured in.
Thousands of people emptied their closets and opened their wallets to help the survivors get back on their feet.
In the days and weeks following the Labor Day 2011 wildfires, nonprofit organizations raised nearly $4 million in cash donations. Central Texans have called and emailed asking "where did all the cash go?" And "is it really making a difference?"
KXAN tracked down three nonprofits that collected a large portion of the donations for fire victims.
The Salvation Army
The Salvation Army teamed up with Walmart and KXAN News for the "Neighbors Helping Neighbors" donation drive. A donation distribution center was set up for families to shop after the community filled up several semi-trucks with everything from clothes to toiletries to bedding.
According to Salvation Army officials, 100 percent of the $150,000 in cash donations raised went straight to affected families.
They cross-referenced the Federal Emergency Management Agency's official list and handed out $200 vouchers to every family whose home was damaged or destroyed.
Austin Community Foundation
Remember that star-studded night at the Frank Erwin Center where big name musicians helped raise more than $700,000?
The money went into the Austin Community Foundation's "Central Texas Wildfire Fund." The organization ended up raising $1.3 million for wildfire relief.
"We think people need to know where the money they donated went," said MariBen Ramsey, vice president and chief operating officer for the Austin Community Foundation. "We want to be as transparent as possible about what we are doing with it."
Early on while the fires were still burning, the ACF spent $45,000 on things that would cover immediate needs, like gift cards for victims, items to help stock food pantries and necessities for volunteer fire departments.
In December, the foundation divided a half-million dollars between the following nine nonprofit organizations who were working face-to-face with victims on the ground:
- Austin Disaster Relief Network
- Capital Area Food Bank
- American YouthWorks
- Texas Wildfire Relief Fund
- Spicewood Volunteer Fire Department
- Spicewood Long Term Recovery Committee
- Bastrop Pink Santa
- United Policyholders
- Society of St. Vincent de Paul
Each group applied for the grants and laid out exactly why the funds were needed and who would benefit. A committee was formed to decide who who receive money and how much.
The Austin Disaster Relief Network has teamed up with local churches who have adopted more than 400 families.
Carl and Maggie Conti and their four children are one of them. A concrete slab is all that is left of their home in Paige.
"For a long time we just didn't come out here," Carl Conti said, while standing on the bare concrete foundation where his home once stood.
The family had no home insurance, but flames spared the garage that stood a few feet away. Their family of seven moved in mattresses and slept in the 500-square-foot space.
The space was cramped and family members had little or no privacy. There was a carport on one end that the disaster-relief network decided to enclose to create four bedrooms. Donations covered the building materials to frame it and add four walls.
"It's amazing everything that we have is new or like new or just as good as or better than what we had before the fire," said Carl Conti. "We're way better off today than before this disaster and it's been through the generosity of for the most part strangers."
The ACF is holding onto a portion of money to help cover more long-term needs that arise. Donations are still coming in. The nonprofit staff said they are getting ready to award another round of grants.
Bastrop Christian Ministerial Alliance
The Bastrop Christian Ministerial Alliance also played a key role in getting Bastrop County back on its feet.
County Judge Ronnie McDonald encouraged people to donate to the association of ministers from local churches.
The group declined an interview. In an email they said it would be a "distraction" and directed KXAN News to its website to find out how the money was spent.
It states nearly $630,000 was distributed to 262 fire victims. More than half who applied did not meet their criteria and were denied. Those whose homes burned to the ground carried more weight in the decision making process than those who had one to go back to.
Lack of insurance, age and income were also factored in.
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