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Red Cross regroups after Katrina missteps

Assailed for its many missteps in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the American Red Cross is plunging into a daunting, two-track effort to overhaul its entire disaster response system and the often cumbersome way it governs itself.
Katrina victims line up to receive aid at a Red Cross distribution area in Gulfport, Miss., on Sept. 19, 2005. The charity is plunging into a daunting, two-track effort to overhaul its entire disaster response system amid criticism it reacted too slowly to the disaster.Steve Helber / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Assailed for its many missteps in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the American Red Cross is plunging into a daunting, two-track effort to overhaul its entire disaster response system and the often cumbersome way it governs itself.

There is pressure to move quickly and convincingly.

The new hurricane season starts June 1, and the Red Cross is hurrying to get its new response plans in place before any big storms arrive. It also hopes to complete an independent audit this summer and offer governance reform proposals to Congress before skeptical politicians start pushing their own reform plans.

“Is the process painful? Absolutely,” Red Cross board of governors chairwoman Bonnie McElveen-Hunter said. “These are defining moments, defining hours for us. ... But ultimately we will have a greater American Red Cross.”

Underlying both reform initiatives is a degree of self-criticism and outreach that’s striking for an organization long viewed as resistant to change and outside advice. The Red Cross itself said last month that its representatives “need to be aware of their reputation for arrogance, bureaucracy and insensitivity.”

Amid massive aid effort, harsh criticism
The 125-year-old charity, chartered by Congress, was far the biggest player in responding to Katrina, raising $2 billion, mobilizing 235,000 volunteers and helping hundreds of thousands of displaced people.

Yet it was sharply criticized for responding too slowly in some low-income minority areas, for overreliance on inexperienced staff, and for reluctance to work closely with other nonprofits. Critics included experts from overseas Red Cross groups, members of Congress and nonprofit executives.

McElveen-Hunter and interim Red Cross president Jack McGuire, in a lengthy joint telephone interview, stressed that the criticism was being taken to heart and would fuel substantive changes. Some will be outlined at the annual National Hurricane Conference this week in Orlando, Fla.

One of the major reform proposals is to strengthen cooperation with other national charities and with grass-roots church and community groups, particularly in minority neighborhoods. The Salvation Army and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People are among the groups that have been asked for advice.

“We want to work with partners much more broadly than ever before,” McGuire said. “If the community is better benefited by them running a shelter than us, they will do so.”

Reforms met with cautious optimism
The NAACP’s chief operating officer, the Rev. Nelson Rivers, said he had been disappointed in the past by Red Cross “sloganeering” about diversity initiatives that never materialized. But he expressed cautious optimism about the new initiative.

“It still takes them a long time to move, but they are moving,” he said. “The test will be, ’How close will the action match the words?”’

McGuire said other steps to improve disaster response will include improving communications and data-collection technology, tightening documentation of aid disbursement, and recruiting major transport and delivery companies to expedite emergency supply shipments.

To better ensure that funds are well-used, the Red Cross will no longer dole out immediate aid of $1,000 or more to displaced families, McGuire said. Instead, $150 or $200 might be provided up front, with larger sums handed out only after validation of a family’s need.

“Our logistics worked well generally, up until 2005,” McGuire said. “We couldn’t imagine how something that big and complicated could happen. It took a process that worked OK and stretched it, and we got to see all the cracks.”

‘They got the message’
Coinciding with the disaster-response overhaul is an intensive effort to improve how the Red Cross governs itself: It now has a 50-member board.

Reform ideas were solicited at a closed-door summit of outside experts on March 21, and McElveen-Hunter said she hopes recommendations will be ready to submit to Congress before it reconvenes this fall. It’s the first such self-assessment by the Red Cross since 1947.

New York lawyer Ira Milstein was one of the experts at the summit. “They got the message,” he said. “I think they understand what they have to do, and they’re ready to do it.”

Outside experts want to reduce the size of the board so decision-making is easier, weeding out board members — including presidential appointees — who often miss meetings. They’re also concerned about local Red Cross chapters, who now hold a majority of board seats, dominating national policy-making.

Lawmakers hold feet to the fire
Much of the pressure has come from Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who in hearings and private meeting has been urging the Red Cross to become more effective and accountable.

Grassley scolded the organization when whistleblowers from within its ranks recently came forward with allegations that some volunteers had misused emergency resources after Katrina. Now, he conveys a mix of hope and skepticism as Red Cross leaders promise sweeping changes.

“I like what I’m hearing, but it took a lot of scrutiny to reach this point,” Grassley said Friday. “I’m concerned that even with a series of negative reports, the instinct was to duck and cover instead of face facts and fix.”

He vowed to keep talking with whistleblowers and pressing for updates on the overhaul.

Said McGuire, “The onus is on us. Do we say, ’Here’s what we need to successfully operate’ or do we sit back and let the senator do that?”

McGuire, a veteran Red Cross official, has been serving as interim president since Marsha Evans quit in December. Her predecessor, Dr. Bernadine Healy, stepped down after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — also having tangled, like Evans, with the board of governors.

McGuire conceded that the Red Cross had been wearied by events of the past 18 months, going back to the Indian Ocean tsunami and continuing through the ongoing critiques.

“It’s difficult to move on to the next step, but that’s what we’ve got to do — to jump on those things that are critical to the country for the next go-round,” he said. “If we’re lucky we’ll have a very light hurricane season. But would you want to bet on that?”