COLUMBIA — When Candace Benton came home at 7:45 Friday night after driving back to Columbia from the Amtrak station in Jefferson City, she knew right away that something was wrong. She could see flames in her living room through the picture window. She immediately dialed 911.
But it was too late to save many of her belongings. The Columbia Fire Department extinguished the blaze, but not before it caused an estimated $40,000 in damage.
Those who want to lend a hand to Columbia families affected by recent fires can contact the Mid-Missouri Chapter of the American Red Cross.
Address: 1805 W. Worley St.
Web site: redcross-midmo.org
“Pretty much everything was either burned or had smoke damage,” Benton said.
Benton is one of 16 Columbia residents in five separate families that have been the victims of a spate of fires in recent days. Those victims include 10 children younger than 5. Fortunately for them, the Mid-Missouri Chapter of the American Red Cross has stepped in to help, providing emergency shelter at local hotels and money so they can buy necessities such as food, clothing, winter garments or prescription medication.
Benton, the mother of a 4-year-old daughter, Jamilah, and 2-month-old son, Noah, had lived in her east-Columbia duplex at 1513 Olympic Blvd. for about two years. Jamilah was at her grandmother’s house at the time of the fire.
Firefighters told Benton the fire was electrical and started around the computer area of her home.
“I lost a file box full of important documents such as birth certificates,” Benton said. “I took it from the scene, but it’s in pretty bad condition.”
Benton rented a U-haul so she could take the items she salvages to store in an extra room at her mother’s home, where she is staying now. Most everything at the duplex is covered in ash and water, Benton said, but she has been able to recover canned food and personal hygiene items that were sealed back to her mother’s to clean them off and use them.
Benton said Jamilah has seen pictures of her room after the fire and realizes that something isn’t right. She immediately recognized her table and chair set, which was black with debris and ash. Benton said that while the money from the Red Cross has been helpful, she knows she can only buy what she and her family absolutely need.
“I got some onesies for my son, and my daughter got some new ‘High School Musical’ outfits, so she was pretty excited about that,” Benton said.
The fact that Benton has family in Columbia has helped tremendously. If her mother had not been here, she said, the Red Cross could have extended her three-night stay in a hotel, but she doesn’t know for how long.
“I’m extremely grateful and am impressed with the timing and the speediness of their response,” Benton said of the Red Cross.
Benton lost her job this September just as she was going on maternity leave, but she said she has every intention of giving back to the organization that is helping her through this difficult time.
“I do plan to give back and volunteer,” Benton said. “They have been great and have called me to ask what I needed. I didn’t have to reach out to them.”
The Red Cross has provided various types of assistance for all five families left homeless by recent fires. Shelter is particularly important because it enables people to feel safe and secure as they sort through the stages of recovery, according to a Red Cross news release.
Mike Odneal, executive director of the Mid-Missouri Chapter of the Red Cross, said the group tries to tailor its assistance to the people who need it.
“What we do is verify the case and then talk with the victims and see what they might need,” Odneal said. For example, “if they come out of their house without a winter coat, we give them the funds to purchase one.”
While there is no set amount of money given to families in the wake of tragedies, all American Red Cross chapters must follow national guidelines when it comes to calculating how much a single family can receive. Factors that go into this process include the individual situation and the number of people in the family.
The Mid-Missouri chapter has received many phone calls from local people and organizations who want to donate kitchenware and other household items for the families affected. Although the chapter lacks enough space to store a large number of items, it will help connect donors directly with the families.
Odneal said in the news release that he often sees a small spike in donations around the time of a local fire or emergency, especially when they occur around the holiday season or toward the end of the year. He said the people of Columbia and mid-Missouri have always been generous.
“These sorts of family fires, as well as other disasters like ice storms, floods, tornados, often serve as wake-up calls for people who are not affected directly by the disasters,” Odneal said.