The American Red Cross has launched an aggressive effort to reach out to racial and ethnic minorities and add more of them to the charity's vast network of volunteers, in response to criticism that it treated them callously during the Hurricane Katrina relief effort.
More than two months after Katrina and Hurricane Rita ripped through the Gulf Coast and caused tens of thousands of people to flee their homes for Red Cross shelters, the organization is dealing with complaints that it failed to provide enough translators and overlooked cultural sensitivities. The concerns have been raised by members of Congress and groups representing blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans.
In large Red Cross shelters, where most volunteers were white, the mostly minority evacuees "felt like they were being herded like cattle," said Rev. Anthony Evans of the National Black Church Initiative.
Red Cross leaders say most problems were issues of perception and not cultural insensitivity -- and certainly not racism. The organization was inundated by the magnitude of the storms and the issues presented by the large number of racial and ethnic groups affected, officials said.
At the peak of the Katrina emergency in early September, the organization was sheltering 143,000 people in more than 500 facilities across the nation. "We had never had the huge number of diverse groups of people affected by a disaster like we had in this situation," said Rick Pogue, the Red Cross's chief diversity officer.
In recent weeks, the organization has begun various initiatives to increase the diversity of the staff at its headquarters and 800 chapters and draw more minority volunteers. Its faith-based initiative is designed to recruit and train volunteers in religious organizations -- particularly churches with high concentrations of blacks, Hispanics and Asians, officials said.
The charity, which has raised $1.68 billion from the American public to help victims of Katrina and Rita, is moving to sign up more churches to operate as shelters in future disasters. Last month, it signed an agreement with the Helping Hands Coalition, a Houston nonprofit organization representing 100 predominantly black churches and community groups.
In the aftermath of the storms, minority evacuees said they encountered many problems in Red Cross shelters. Evacuees who spoke little or no English -- Hispanic and Asian immigrants along the Gulf Coast, as well as French-speaking members of the Houma United Nation tribe in Louisiana -- struggled to make themselves understood because there were so few translators.
Some minority groups complained that shelters were set up in white neighborhoods, far from minority communities.
At the same time, small indignities festered: Black people were offended that Red Cross volunteers running the Astrodome facility in Houston wore latex gloves. In Oklahoma, volunteers from a Hispanic community group who offered to come to a shelter and help translate for several dozen Spanish-speaking evacuees were told they needed Red Cross training first.
Red Cross officials said explanations are more innocent. Because of the destruction of the storm, the organization could not get into some rural areas quickly.
In the Astrodome, volunteers wore gloves for several days, they said, because supplies of hand sanitizer were short and many evacuees were coming from contaminated New Orleans floodwaters. In the case of the translators, all volunteers are required to take Red Cross training, said spokeswoman Carrie Martin.
Nevertheless, the charity has launched a major outreach effort to organizations of various races and ethnic groups. To try to diffuse tensions, chief executive Marsha Evans and other Red Cross officials have held dozens of sometimes-tense meetings with members of Congress, religious and civil rights leaders and members of various minority groups.
Rep. Grace F. Napolitano (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said members questioned Evans at their meeting about the Red Cross's lack of outreach to Hispanic communities and Hispanic legislators. "There was heat," Napolitano said.
"Just as Katrina pulled the covers off the treatment of vulnerable populations, I think it also pulled the covers off the Red Cross and showed they're not used to -- in this country -- dealing with communities of color in deep need," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, which also met with the relief group.
In late October, the Red Cross co-hosted an emotional meeting with more than 60 representatives of minority and faith-based groups at its headquarters in Washington to talk about the issues that arose after the Gulf Coast hurricanes. One major focus that emerged: The Red Cross urgently needs to diversify its 1 million-strong volunteer network, which is mostly white, said Pogue.
According to the organization's most recent survey, 5 percent of its volunteers are black, 2 percent are Hispanic and 2 percent are of Asian origin. Recent data show that black people make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population, Hispanics about 14 percent and Asians about 4 percent.
"The volunteers that are there," Pogue said, "are well-meaning, well-trained and well-disciplined. [But] they do not fully appreciate the differences that other people bring to the party."
Disaster experts say that learning to more skillfully care for a multicultural population is crucial for the 125-year-old charity as it faces increasingly violent weather and the possibility that terrorist attacks could cause thousands to flee their homes.
The Gulf Coast is home to a rich melange of ethnic and racial communities living in areas that were especially devastated after hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma roared through. New Orleans is 70 percent black, and the area has a significant Hispanic population. South and west of the city are sizable Vietnamese and Native American populations. Along the Mississippi coast, the gambling, fishing and construction industries have attracted Hispanics and other immigrant groups.
Minority communities are more vulnerable in disasters, said Brenda Phillips, a professor of emergency management at the Center for the Study of Disasters and Extreme Events at Oklahoma State University. They tend to live in areas more apt to be affected by natural disasters, she said, and low-income minority communities live in cheaper housing that is more likely to be damaged or destroyed.
Language barriers and cultural isolation make it more difficult for some communities to seek and obtain government and private assistance. They don't have the financial resources to weather extended unemployment or homelessness. Relief workers who reflect the community or who are sensitive to racial and cultural issues can speed recovery and ease victims' trauma, Phillips said.
"People use their cultural framework to make sense of what is going on around them," she added.
But minority groups have long complained of inequitable treatment by the Red Cross, which is assigned by the federal government to provide food, shelter, counseling and other services to victims of disasters. After hurricanes in Florida in recent years, Hispanic and other immigrant communities denounced the lack of bilingual Red Cross personnel in shelters. After earthquakes in California, blacks accused the group of locating more shelters in wealthier, white communities than in poorer ones.
As part of the effort to improve things, the Helping Hands Coalition has agreed to supply volunteers for Red Cross disaster preparedness training, work in shelters and other activities. Next month, the Red Cross plans to travel to a conference of African Methodist Episcopal churches in Alabama to train disaster volunteers.
It hopes to work out similar agreements with other minority organizations across the country, Pogue said. It has signed an agreement with the U.S. Translators Association to provide more translators in shelters.
As the Red Cross prepares for next year's hurricane season, said Evans, the charity's chief executive, bringing more minorities into the organization as managers, donors and volunteers "is one of the top priorities."
Nevertheless, some groups -- although praising the group's outreach efforts -- are wary. Ron Patterson, executive director of Christian Disaster Response, a Florida faith-based relief group, said he has seen the Red Cross make promises to resolve racial and cultural issues in the past. But personnel changes in the organization -- which has had four chief executives in the past four years -- have halted momentum, he said.
"There are good intentions, and you think you're going to get this organization corrected, and then you have a change in middle- and upper management at the Red Cross and, boom, you're back to square one," Patterson said.
But Phillips said it is crucial that such relief groups as the Red Cross move ahead with diversity efforts while memories of Katrina are still fresh.
"We've got to build a lot of bridges to these [minority] organizations," she said. "We need to take this window of opportunity and open it as wide as we can and invite in as many people as we can."