When the fires started in Orange County, George M. Chitty went into action. As head of the Red Cross' Orange County chapter, Chitty, the son of a firefighter, directed a team of 1,200 volunteers who served more than 17,000 meals and found emergency shelter for 1,784 people. Companies also played an important role: Coast Hardware in Laguna Beach donated tarps, gloves and dust masks; Crown Suites gave 500 blankets; and Evian donated 100 cases of water for parched firefighters. Chitty, 55, recently spoke with correspondent Debora Vrana.
How did the Red Cross help Orange County's fire victims?
Immediately, we set up headquarters in Santa Ana and opened shelters where they were needed. We had shelters opening and closing as the fire moved and as the wind shifted. When I say we, I mean the 1,200 volunteers who were active in this disaster and our 43 staff members. The shelters, by the way, are opened by youth--we have a program called Youth in Emergency Services, which we coordinate through all the high schools. These kids did a fabulous job.
We help the victims immediately with getting medicine, eyeglasses, whatever. We also help with mental-health needs. So the first thing we do is (staff) shelters and then work on recovery needs.
How much did all this cost the Red Cross in Orange County?
We expect to spend about $265,000, but there is still a lot more work to do. Because as people begin to settle in, they know what the government and insurance will or will not do. So for more help, the Red Cross is where they come.
Have businesses in Orange County come forward to help?
We have raised $509,000 from corporations and the public at large, but some of that money goes to other Red Cross chapters. We've also had local companies give gifts in kind. One business, HomeBase (Inc., based in Fullerton) gave us shovels, trash cans and gloves. It was just amazing. That meant so much to the victims. Because the Red Cross comes in with not only food, coffee and juices, but here they come with these big trash cans and the shovels. And Kodak stepped forward and gave us 800 of those throw-away cameras so we gave those to the victims and they could go home and take the pictures they needed for insurance purposes.
What does corporate assistance mean to your organization?
Their help means the difference between success and failure. Orange County gets a bad rap once in awhile--you'll hear that people aren't givers, and that's not true. We didn't ask. The only thing we said was if you'd like to give some assistance, here's our address. And businesses just started standing up and coming forward with $50,000 and $25,000 donations and it was very inspiring. And then the checks we got from people for $5 and $10 saying, "We always know the Red Cross is there. We don't know how you get there but we know you are there." So business and industry and people in Orange County in general should not feel bad about their giving. They are very benevolent, and when there is a need they come forward. But there has been an economic downturn as you know.
Tell me about that. How has the recession impacted the Red Cross?
It was tough for us, because back in 1986 we received about 85% of our income from the United Way. And now we receive about 28% of our income from the United Way. This is no way being negative about the United Way. Because of the industries laying off and moving, it has lost the givers who were giving. We've also had companies who once gave directly to the Red Cross who can't afford it. So yes, we've been negatively impacted, but we're trying our best to correct that.
What did you learn from this in terms of disaster preparedness?
We learned a lot. We learned we're going to need a better communications system. We need cellular communication. PacTel and LA Cellular both donated phones, which helped immensely. Not only did they donate the phones, they donated the time. We learned that communications can be a major problem. If it had been a major earthquake, it would have been even greater. So we know that. We know that we need more depth in our volunteers to have well-trained people. This is where business and industry can help by giving their workers paid time off.
The fires are over now. Will businesses forget about the Red Cross?
No. We now have a role to play of going back to those business and saying we need your help. We need to say OK, we got through this one. But El Nino is still out there and it brought all those rains last year. It could do the same this year, and we need to be prepared. We need your assistance, not only with money but with gifts in kind. And one of the most important elements we need from businesses is that we have a lot of volunteers, some in middle management who volunteer for the Red Cross. We hope that businesses will say that the company has a commitment to the community, so it will tell workers: "The time you spend at the Red Cross, we will pay for." Once businesses and industries do that, we will do a better job.
The 1980s was considered the greed decade. Now, we're in the 1990s, with companies like the Body Shop, which advertises its community awareness. Will we start to see businesses more concerned about the community?
I think we already are seeing that. I think a very positive part of the recession we've been in and the way it has impacted Orange County so dramatically is that leadership has stopped and said, "Wait a minute. It's not only hurting us, more people are being impacted." So business and industries are stepping forward and saying, "What can we do at our company to help? What can we do as a corporate family to help the larger family?" And we're seeing a lot of that. So the positive aspect of this recession is that the community really is looking at itself and saying we can do something to make it better.