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.
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.
Under the National Response Plan, the nation's blueprint national-disaster response, the Red Cross is legally required to provide food, shelter and first aid, distribute emergency relief items to disaster victims and coordinate such assistance from other charities.
But a report on its Katrina operation from the British Red Cross, released last week, slammed the American Red Cross's method of delivering disaster aid as a predominantly reactive system "supplying not what is needed but what happens to be available" and saying that managers showed little inclination to change the system when problems developed.
Some disaster experts question whether the Red Cross's disaster-management style, in which decisions flow up and down the chain of command from its Disaster Operations Center in Washington into the field, is flexible enough to respond to the wide variety of potential disasters that loom for the United States.
During Katrina, the need was for "food and water and emergency shelter for people surrounded by floodwaters and enormous destruction," said Don Kettl, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and co-editor of a book on disaster response policy and Hurricane Katrina. "The next issue might be avian flu. It might be a terrorist attack. It might be an earthquake. Who knows? What we need is an organization with the capacity to bring together what is needed as soon as possible, and that requires much more flexibility."
Complaints from volunteers have also poured into the office of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), whose committee is investigating the organization.
Disillusioned Red Cross disaster workers -- 95 percent of whom were volunteers -- complain that the disaster response was confused and chaotic. Overly rigid rules sometimes stopped them from helping the evacuees, they said, or prevented innovative solutions to problems.
Don Fils, information technology director at the University of Iowa and a volunteer in Houma, La., said Red Cross managers seemed uninterested in using tens of thousands of dollars in donated computer equipment so that shelters could communicate with one another.
"We couldn't even get our e-mail to work correctly," he said. "Everything was being done over the phone."