In recapping ‘incredible’ response to fire, city officials also begin looking forward
Fundraising for fire victims was nearing $1 million when taking into account all sources of donations, city officials said Monday as they began looking beyond a Dec. 3 blaze to rebuilding, and to responding to future emergencies.
The biggest single source of money for the 167 people affected by the 10-alarm fire in the Wellington-Harrington neighborhood has been the Mayor’s Fire Relief Fund, which stopped at least temporarily Monday at $648,642, well over the goal of a half-million dollars. Another $100,000 has been received in person at City Hall or through the mail, City Manager Louis A. DePasquale said.
In addition, corporate pledges are at around $100,000 and could easily account for twice that amount, DePasquale said, though the actual donations await the city pinning down the best approach, such as creating a 501(c)(3) organization to accept the monies. “It’s a key piece of the puzzle we haven’t put together yet,” he said, though it was likely to come together before Dec. 31 – a day companies would find important for tax purposes.
City councillors noted other fundraising responses from throughout the area, such as by the Muslim community – Nadeem Mazen referred to calls for help online that have raised thousands in separate crowdfunding efforts – and at area churches. Mayor E. Denise Simmons said she was at a Sunday concert at Holy Trinity Armenian Church where a passing of the hat brought in another $1,700.
“In a devastating situation where so many people were put out of their house, we as a city should be very proud of the efforts we made,” DePasquale said, noting that the Fire Relief Fund began with a $200,000 goal before officials decided the same day to aim higher, and were surprised to see the goal met and quickly surpassed. “The more I think about it, I’m not surprised at all … The city of Cambridge came out of this the way I figured we would: Knowing that we were going to help these people.”
“I know that the people of Wellington-Harrington really felt supported,” Simmons said.
Shelter and housing
But it wasn’t just in the aftermath that the city shone. The city organized finding temporary shelter for every person who fled to the high school after the fire, so successfully that workers could close operations there by 1:30 a.m. Dec. 4, about five hours after the fire was knocked down. As of just before the Monday council meeting, 25 households had been handed keys to permanent housing, out of the total 34 needing that help, DePasquale said. (Another six families were displaced by the fire but didn’t need help finding replacement housing.)
“We believe that by the end of next week – I don’t want to jinx this – every person who needs housing will have found housing,” DePasquale said. “When this first started, we knew we could do a lot, but one concern we had was [there were] so many people who lost housing. How were we going to find that housing in this city? I’m happy to say it looks like we’ve done it.”
Credit went to a group of 60 to 70 city, state and agency workers who often stayed past expected hours to help residents, with Simmons and vice mayor Marc McGovern pointing to Maura Pensak, who has been applying her skills as director of housing supports for the Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership to the crisis facing Cambridge families, including throughout the weekend. “She said she’s not going to leave until the final family is placed,” Simmons said.
Disbursing and accounting
The city disbursed $186,800 in the first week after the fire and continues to distribute money in phases, mainly by bank card to ensure accountability on purchases, DePasquale said. Still, among the three councillors’ orders accepted Monday related to the fire was one by Tim Toomey specifying that “all money raised during this campaign is distributed to the Wellington-Harrington residents impacted by this incident” and that the council expected a report back when all funds were distributed.
“We’ve had similar situations in the past where not all the money was distributed to the families involved,” Toomey said.
“An incredible effort”
So far, the city response has drawn superlatives, including in fighting the five-hour blaze, an effort that involved some 150 firefighters from 25 fire departments spraying 3 million gallons of water, all without loss of life. One firefighter from outside Cambridge was treated overnight and released Dec. 4, and five police offers suffered from smoke inhalation, DePasquale said.
Despite the huge numbers of firefighters and departments and the complexity of the battle, “it was the most organized effort I’ve ever witnessed … they did not miss a beat. Everyone knew what they were doing from the start to the finish,” DePasquale said. “It was an incredible effort. I can’t tell you how much damage they must have [prevented].”
A representative of the American Red Cross’ Northeast Disaster Institute said Cambridge’s response to fighting the fire and helping its victims would be written up and used in training across the region, McGovern said.
But there may yet be ways to improve the city’s response, councillors said. The Internet’s role in communicating about the fire needed to be mined for lessons, David Maher said, and despite the success seen since Dec. 3 in raising money for victims, Toomey proposed that the city creating a “separate set of funds” for the purpose was a better way to go – only to find that Simmons and DePasquale had also discussed the creation of a city crisis fund.
There were also questions of what would become of the burned-out lots at 25-27 Berkshire and 35 Plymouth streets and other damaged properties (28 and 30 Berkshire St. suffered significant damage, as did a large part of St. Patrick’s Place at 40 and 50 York St., a former church converted to 32 affordable housing units in 1992-93). Similar orders by Toomey and councillor Jan Devereux wanted guarantees that the city would fast-track the rebuilding of homes damaged or destroyed by the fire, even if the structures no longer conformed with current city zoning.
But councillor Dennis Carlone, saying only 25 units had joined the city’s stock of affordable housing this year, saw an opportunity to go beyond putting back just what the fire took away.
“This clearly is a site to replicate or do better than that, ASAP,” Carlone said.