Red Cross to Announce Disaster Response Changes

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 11, 2006

By all rights, Red Cross volunteer Tom Stark should be happy with the charity. An experienced Red Cross disaster volunteer, Stark set up a relief operation in St. Tammany Parish, north of New Orleans, the day after Hurricane Katrina tore through the area.

With more than 600 volunteers, Stark and his crew dished out 100,000 meals and snacks a day and housed 5,500 people in 20 shelters.

Mission accomplished?

Not exactly, says Stark. Like other Red Cross volunteers who rushed to the Gulf Coast to care for Katrina evacuees, Stark is angry at the organization. He says his team accomplished its mission in spite of -- not because of -- the charity.

Bereft of Red Cross food and other supplies for days, Stark spent thousands of dollars of his own money on essentials for evacuees. Instead of shipping desperately needed basics like ice, soap and diapers, the Red Cross relief headquarters in Baton Rouge, La., sent a truck full of communication electronics and a fleet of Hummers with chainsaw-equipped drivers.

"They were out of touch with what we really needed in the field," said Stark, a Connecticut entrepreneur who met with Red Cross interim chief executive Jack McGuire and Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, chairman of the charity's Board of Governors, in late March to press for wholesale changes in the charity's disaster response.

Red Cross officials acknowledge that they had problems moving supplies and people where needed and have promised to fix them.

At the National Hurricane Conference in Orlando today, the charity plans to unveil changes to its disaster response, including stocking more food and supplies, adding warehouse space and partnering with major corporations to design a supply-distribution system that officials hope will eliminate the gaps and bottlenecks that developed in the wake of Katrina.

The reforms are part of a rollout of changes the charity is making that include increasing the diversity of its base of 1 million volunteers and teaming with other organizations to provide volunteers and shelters -- a radical departure from the insular charity's usual go-it-alone approach.

Plenty of other changes are in the works, Red Cross officials say, before a self-imposed July 1 deadline

"The fact is, we do know things didn't go as well as we wanted to" in Katrina, said Jack McGuire, who took over as interim CEO in December after Marsha Evans was ousted. "We recognize the problems, and we've apologized for the problems."

But those who have studied the response to the storm warn that the Red Cross needs to become faster and more flexible in an era when mega-disasters are real possibilities: deadlier hurricanes, earthquakes, an epidemic of avian flu in humans, another large-scale terrorist attack.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company