Counterparts Excoriate Red Cross Katrina Effort

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Two international Red Cross organizations issued scathing criticisms of the American Red Cross's chaotic response to Hurricane Katrina, accusing the charity of approaching the relief effort with a "dangerous combination of ignorance and arrogance."

The reports -- by the British Red Cross and the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross, which sent experts to the Gulf Coast shortly after Katrina struck -- say their American counterpart was ill-prepared for the disaster, relied on inexperienced volunteers in key positions and had an ineffective system for moving supplies to where they were needed.

The reports continue the drumbeat of criticism of the charity, which has escalated in the months since hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast residents flocked to Red Cross shelters and relief trucks after Katrina struck.

The nonprofit group, which collected more than $2 billion in donations for the disaster, has been criticized for responding too slowly, neglecting some areas and treating minorities with insensitivity.

Official scrutiny of the charity's Katrina response escalated last week when federal law-enforcement authorities and the Louisiana attorney general launched criminal investigations.

The reports by the British Red Cross and the ICRC were prepared in September after teams of logistics experts from both organizations worked with the American Red Cross in Biloxi, Miss., and Montgomery, Ala.

But the American Red Cross didn't release them until yesterday, after The Washington Post asked the British Red Cross for a copy.

Yesterday, British Red Cross chief executive Sir Nicholas Young sought to play down the reports' harsh tones.

"When you've got a disaster of this magnitude . . . I can well understand that it's not possible to be absolutely on the top line in some areas," he said. "It's just too big."

But his organization's report, written by logistics chief Michael Goodhand, dismissed American Red Cross officials' protestations that they were overwhelmed by Katrina's size.

"The scale of impact of Katrina may have exceeded expectations," said Goodhand's report, "but the week's notice of her arrival gives ample time for contingency plans to be in place."

In vivid detail, the reports lay out problems that plagued the relief effort. They said the Red Cross did not track donated goods it took into its warehouses and had few effective systems for figuring out which goods were needed where.

As an example, the ICRC report by logistics coordinator Thomas Riess cited a truckload of donated pastries that went moldy because they were not refrigerated and a large quantity of donated radios without batteries that was dumped in an Alabama warehouse.

The British report warned that as long as the Red Cross relies on volunteer labor, its disaster response will "remain amateurish and their services to those affected sub-optimal."

Yesterday, American Red Cross officials said they took the reports seriously and, as part of an overhaul of disaster operations, are redesigning their supply-chain system with the help of corporations.

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