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As Red Cross’ coffers fill, critics question efficiency

By MARK BIXLER
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 09/30/05
After Hurricane Katrina forced thousands of storm victims into metro Atlanta, Krista Brewer did something she had wanted to do for years: She volunteered with the American Red Cross.

“I’ll never do it again,” she said. “It was the most disorganized thing I’d ever seen.”

Brewer and other volunteers who helped the Red Cross care for 39,000 displaced families in Georgia describe an agency where no one seemed in charge at shelters and where rules for storm victims changed daily.

Their accounts raise questions about the agency’s effectiveness as it nears the halfway point in a national campaign to raise $2 billion to meet emergency needs of hurricane survivors, an amount equal to what all charities received after Sept. 11, 2001, and by far the Red Cross’ most ambitious fund-raising goal.

A month after one of the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history, the Red Cross finds itself scrutinized more intensely than at any time since its response to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington four years ago, after which the agency’s president resigned.

In responding to the hurricane, the Red Cross the nation’s most prominent domestic relief agency, founded in 1881 by Civil War nurse Clara Barton says it has given $521 million in emergency assistance to 530,000 families, marshaled a massive volunteer force to run more than 1,000 shelters and housed more than 300,000 people in hotels in 48 states.

‘Going to be some bumps’

But critics complain storm victims receive busy signals when calling a toll-free number for emergency assistance. Others say the agency was slow to open shelters in hard-hit communities, particularly black communities. They also are urging an agency historically focused on short-term relief to share contributions with organizations working on long-term reconstruction.

Responding to these and other criticisms, including accusations of fraud at several service centers in Atlanta and elsewhere, the Red Cross says it is overwhelmed by callers and regrets the busy signals. It says poor conditions on the Gulf Coast and the sheer number of people in need not race explain why it has taken time to provide service in some areas.

“We are a volunteer-driven organization,” said Renita Hosler, a Red Cross spokeswoman in Washington. “The work that we do is done by individuals who are willing to leave their families and loved ones.”

She acknowledged that “there are going to be some bumps along the way” but said the agency has raced to meet the needs of about 1 million people scattered across several states.

As of Wednesday, the Red Cross had received $977 million of $1.5 billion in hurricane-relief donations, according to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. That works out to 67 cents of every dollar donated by individuals, corporations and foundations.

Critics say it makes little sense for an agency that provides short-term relief to receive such a large share when the most pressing needs on the Gulf Coast are long term, such as rebuilding homes and providing job training and mental health counseling.

Smaller nonprofits have had a tough time raising money for the less-glamorous development and rebuilding work, said Stacy Palmer, editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy in Washington.

Some experts in charitable giving have urged the Red Cross to share money with organizations involved in long-term work. The agency’s president, Marsha J. Evans, dismissed that idea a few days ago, telling Palmer’s newspaper that “we’re just not in a position to be able to do that, given the fact that we have not even begun to reach, even remotely reach, the goal that we’ve set.”

Increased scrutiny

After the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Red Cross spokeswoman Hosler said, the Red Cross funneled some money to organizations that provided mental health services and help for people burdened by onerous medical bills.

The scrutiny accompanying the Red Cross’ response to Hurricane Katrina mirrors questions that arose after previous major disasters. After the 1989 earthquake in California, for instance, some officials criticized the Red Cross for its plan to spend donations earmarked for earthquake relief on other projects.

That happened after Sept. 11, 2001, too, when the public filled Red Cross coffers with $1 billion. The New York attorney general and others expressed outrage at a Red Cross plan to spend some 9/11 contributions to prepare a response to a future attack by freezing blood to treat future victims, for example.

The agency reversed course, and its president resigned.

This time, the Red Cross says, donations meant for Hurricane Katrina relief will be spent for that purpose, but tension has followed the agency’s response from the earliest days after the hurricane.

Dana James, a real estate investor who spent 14 years investigating Medicare fraud, spent a week and a half volunteering with the Red Cross.

Lack of leadership cited

“It’s a fair point to say they were overwhelmed, but they did not have enough people who were part of a leadership structure,” said James, who hopes to continue volunteering with the agency. “They would have a system in place one day and then change it the next.”

Some also have worried that money flowing through the Red Cross after Hurricane Katrina wound up in the hands of people posing as storm victims. The Red Cross says it takes steps to prevent fraud, by asking for identification, for example, but experts say no system is foolproof and that a thorough screening of each applicant would lengthen waits that already are frustratingly long.

DeKalb County’s chief executive, Vernon Jones, asked the Red Cross to leave a one-stop service center on Panola Road, citing “unwieldy and chaotic operations” that were a disgrace. A Red Cross spokesman, Bill Reynolds, said the agency left after DeKalb made “inappropriate requests” for money that “we did not feel was a good use of the donated dollar.”

Still others like Mary Parks, a volunteer who spent several days at a Red Cross service center in Cobb County, give the Red Cross high marks for its work in confronting such a massive problem as Hurricane Katrina.

“I think they did a good job,” she said. “They did the best job they could, given the scope.”


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