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Red Cross' Huge Effort Not Without Critics

Defenders say the scope of the storms pushed the short-term aid expert out of its league.

October 07, 2005|Josh Getlin, Nicole Gaouette and Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writers

BELLE CHASSE, La. — Amid the destruction and dislocation caused by Hurricane Katrina, the American Red Cross has undertaken a relief effort unlike any in its history. So far, the charity has spent $811 million on emergency cash aid and $110 million on food and shelter.

The results have been mixed.

Despite the ambition of the charity's efforts and the money spent, evacuees in several states complained in interviews last week that Red Cross aid had been slow and unreliable. Other charity groups and relief workers contend that the agency is in over its head.

Guy Richardson, a New Orleans waiter who made it to Atlanta with his family, said he encountered chaos in trying to get cash assistance from the Red Cross. He waited in line for eight hours at a center, without success; the charity later pulled out of the center.

Others, including Liz Tadlock, have grumbled about their inability to get through on a toll-free phone line set up to help evacuees register for emergency cash assistance. The Belle Chasse teacher said she spent two days at a center dialing the Red Cross number.

Relief workers like Latosha Brown say the Red Cross has yet to reach many people in remote, impoverished areas, weeks after the Aug. 29 storm. Angered by what she calls the charity's lack of outreach, Brown and others formed and funded their own organization -- Saving Ourselves -- in Mobile, Ala.

There have also been allegations of discrimination in some Red Cross shelters, and complaints that some volunteers have been insensitive to the needs of evacuees.

Several relief agency leaders argue that the Red Cross has become mired in a protracted recovery effort that it is not designed to handle. The charity traditionally provides short-term aid and is gone from the scene of a disaster within days.

Critics also say the charity's fundraising success -- it has collected $1.3 billion, more than 75% of all Katrina-related donations -- is undercutting other agencies.

"The Red Cross is a brand name, and people automatically pick it for donations," said Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, which monitors how charities spend their money. "But there are a lot of local groups who could use assistance and reimbursement, and the Red Cross isn't willing to do that."

Marsha J. Evans, president and chief executive of the Red Cross, said in a phone interview that the agency had put "thousands of people in the field who understand these concerns and are trying to do the right thing."

But she would not discuss whether the charity would share its donations. Nor would she comment on specific complaints. She said the organization had "no desire" to expand its mission beyond immediate relief into long-term community redevelopment, and that the Red Cross would advise the public when it no longer needed hurricane donations.

The charity had to improvise, given the scale of Katrina. Red Cross officials hurriedly came up with plans to deliver emergency debit cards to 689,000 families; they found ways to house 390,000 evacuees in hotels for months at a time. They mobilized about 176,000 volunteers and provided overnight stays in shelters to 3 million people.

"We have brought an unprecedented amount of resources into the field, and in a very quick period of time," Evans said. "But we certainly accept the criticism that we weren't everywhere we were needed.... In a disaster of this scope it is inevitable that we are not going to be able to reach everyone."

Red Cross officials emphasize that the organization has avoided the controversies it stirred up after the Sept. 11 attacks. The charity was criticized when it put terrorism-related donations into a fund for other disasters. This time, the Red Cross is funneling all the money donated for Katrina relief to Katrina projects -- short-term emergency relief such as food, shelter, temporary housing and cash assistance. The charity has made weekly announcements about how much money is being spent and where.

These assurances, however, are scant comfort to victims and relief workers.

Richardson, the waiter, was furious when the Red Cross shut down its DeKalb County operation without warning. Local officials had criticized the operation for long lines and inefficiency, saying the dysfunction provoked a near riot. They demanded that the charity leave, and the Red Cross vacated the site last week.

Richardson, with no car, had to travel 26 miles by bus to the next-closest center.

"Could they make it any more difficult for people to get to?" said the 45-year-old father of three, who is living with his family in a hotel room paid for by local groups.

The Atlanta dispute began two weeks ago, when Vernon Jones, chief executive of DeKalb County, said the Red Cross had created a "hostile environment" at the center, with its red tape and bad communication. The agency compounded evacuees' frustration by issuing debit cards that they knew would not work, Jones said.

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