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Charities Unprepared for Major Disaster, GAO Says

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 18, 2008

The American Red Cross and other disaster relief charities are unprepared to meet projected mass casualty needs during a natural catastrophe or terrorist attack in major U.S. cities such as Washington, New York, Los Angeles and Miami, a government report has found.

A large-scale disaster would "overwhelm" the Red Cross and other nonprofit organizations that have federal responsibilities for assisting the government in feeding and sheltering victims of natural disasters, concludes the analysis, which is to be released today by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office.

The report also faults the Federal Emergency Management Agency for not fully assessing the capacities of relief groups and for not clearly documenting the roles that each should play in a disaster.

Although the organizations have taken steps to expand their services and upgrade their logistical and communications systems since Hurricane Katrina three years ago, they still face shortages in trained volunteers and have not dedicated enough resources for disaster preparedness, according to the 78-page report, a draft of which was obtained by The Washington Post.

Red Cross officials would not comment yesterday on the report because it had not been released publicly. But they cited improvements the agency has made to its preparedness.

Since Katrina, Red Cross spokeswoman Laura Howe said, the agency has spent about $80 million to upgrade its communication systems and stockpile cots, blankets and other supplies in warehouses in disaster-prone areas. It has more than tripled its feeding capacity to about 1 million meals a day, and its volunteer corps has swelled to 73,000, up from 26,000 before Katrina, she said.

The GAO study comes at a difficult time for disaster aid groups, which operate largely on private donations and have not been able to raise enough money in the weak economy to cover their costs from a turbulent hurricane season.

The Red Cross, the nation's largest disaster relief organization, is plunging into debt to provide aid after Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. It took the unusual step this week of asking Congress for $150 million in emergency funding to replenish its disaster relief reserves.

Leaders of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, who commissioned the study, were not available for comment yesterday. But their spokesmen said the senators would study the findings as they weigh the role of relief organizations in the national disaster response plan.

The report, based on a 13-month investigation, found that a nuclear terrorist attack in Washington could leave 150,000 people in need of shelter, but the Red Cross has the capacity to shelter only about 13,000 in the region.

Similarly, a major earthquake in Los Angeles could necessitate shelter for as many as 300,000 people, but the Red Cross's capacity there is 84,000, the report says.

"Without government and other assistance, a worst-case large-scale disaster would overwhelm voluntary organizations' current sheltering and feeding capabilities," the report says.

The report also says that recent budget cuts and layoffs at the Red Cross's Washington headquarters could hinder the agency's ability to respond to disasters.

Red Cross officials said the layoffs should not affect disaster services.

Still, said Gregg O'Ryon, a vice president for Red Cross disaster services, "catastrophic events are, by definition, larger than any single agency."

Diana Rothe-Smith, executive director of the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters, defended relief groups. "I wouldn't say that they are ill-equipped at all," she said. "But I would say that no one organization can carry the weight. It does require a collective effort."

After their botched response to Katrina, FEMA, the Red Cross and others were widely criticized for poor coordination of relief efforts. Since then, FEMA has labored to strengthen its ties to the Red Cross and smaller, volunteer-based relief groups mentioned in the GAO report, including the Salvation Army, the Southern Baptist Convention and Catholic Charities USA.

Paul C. Light, a professor at New York University who tracks the Red Cross, said he thinks Congress and the agency should negotiate a long-term plan to use public money to help the charity modernize.

"A stronger infrastructure, supported by federal dollars, would help the Red Cross reassure donors that it will spend their contributions entirely on the catastrophe at hand," Light said.

Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.

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