Red Cross paid $688,000 for unused rooms

/ Source: The Associated Press

The American Red Cross said Thursday that it paid $688,000 for hotel rooms that went unused during last year's wildfires in Southern California.

The charity said in a statement that it paid for 6,074 "room nights" at San Diego-area hotels that went unused — about 22 percent of the 27,714 total nights booked during the wildfires, which destroyed nearly 2,200 homes and killed 10 people.

"It was our mistake, we regret it, and we will cut expenses at national headquarters to make up the cost of that error and take steps to ensure it never happens again," said Joe Becker, who oversees disaster services for the American Red Cross.

The cost was much higher before the charity negotiated refunds with some hotels, said Red Cross spokeswoman Laura Howe. She would not release the initial costs.

The charity admitted last month that it lacked safeguards against paying for unused hotel rooms during natural disasters.

The Red Cross spent about $140 per day on room, transportation and food stipends for 2,490 volunteers who flew to San Diego. Each volunteer stayed for about two weeks, Howe said. Some rooms were booked at the storied Hotel del Coronado and the swanky La Costa Resort and Spa, as well as several Hiltons.

Howe blamed the problem partly on disaster workers arriving before a headquarters was established and workers couldn't adequately assess the changing scope of the disaster.

The Red Cross also pointed to the company that handled the hotel bookings, Corporate Lodging Consultants Inc. of Wichita, Kan., saying it had access to an unusually large number of rooms. The company has held the Red Cross contract since 1998.

In a typical disaster, only 40 to 45 motels would be used. During the Southern California wildfires, though, Corporate Lodging Consultants booked rooms at 74 properties, which proved difficult to manage for the disaster team, particularly without computers and e-mail, Howe said.

As a result, the Red Cross renegotiated its contract with the vendor to require an employee of the company to be on the ground with workers during a major disaster and for Red Cross national headquarters to be notified if rooms go unoccupied after two days.

The Red Cross also will require disaster workers to stay at staff shelters until it establishes an operational headquarters at a disaster site, Howe said.

The agency spent about $16 million providing disaster relief during the fires, which scorched 800 square miles.