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Donation slump could hurt disaster assistance

The Salvation Army, struggling with dwindling donations across the country, says it might have a hard time giving long-term assistance after a disaster.
Hurricanes Salvation Army
Salvation Army volunteers Eric Slessor, second from right, and Robert Crawford load ice into a vehicle in Biloxi, Miss., on Oct. 18, 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The Salvation Army is struggling with dwindling donations across the country.Rogelio V. Solis / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Salvation Army is struggling with dwindling donations across the country that will make it hard to give long-term assistance after a disaster, and a spokesman for the charity says "we have to hope and pray" this year's hurricane season is mild.

The organization will continue to provide the basics — food, water and shelter, said Maj. George Hood, the Salvation Army's national spokesman. But it isn't likely to offer more costly recovery aid, such as the $10,000 grants that were given to Hurricane Katrina victims to help them repair their homes. The religious charity also has given mortgage, rent and down payment assistance to disaster victims in the past.

The Salvation Army's cost-cutting moves include plans to close two offices along the Hurricane-prone Gulf coast: one in Mississippi's Hancock County Aug. 28 and one in Metairie, La., in December. Both were Katrina recovery centers.

Hood said the moves were made by local divisions of the charity.

"The problem is the economy," Hood said, adding that the agency will still be able to offer basic services in a crisis. "If and when we have a hurricane, the Salvation Army will be there. We'll be mobilized."

Rebuilding after a disaster
Still, even last year, Hood said the organization was unable to offer as much sustained help in the aftermath of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike as in years past.

The charity usually raises $50 million to $75 million for a single hurricane relief effort, but last year, it raised only $13 million for the entire season, Hood said.

The 2009 Atlantic hurricane season began June 1. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts a near-normal season, with a chance of four to seven hurricanes with up to three of them being major storms.

Lea Stokes, deputy director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, said the Salvation Army's diminished resources could mean delays for families — and communities — struck by storms because it is one of the nation's biggest disaster relief organizations.

"Federal assistance does not completely replace everything you've lost in a disaster. It only helps you get back on your feet," Stokes said. "The majority of families who are disaster survivors are going to rely on the nonprofit organizations, such as the Salvation Army, to help them rebuild their lives."

Importance of charities
Laura Tuggle of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services said Katrina victims got valuable assistance from the charity, which even helped people buy appliances and cleanup supplies and provided rent and moving expenses.

"That function is really critical. If that wasn't going to be around, that would be a major loss," she said.

In Mississippi's Hancock County, Brian Adam, director of the county's Emergency Management Agency said the loss of the local Salvation Army office would hurt the community's storm response efforts.

"Certainly during hurricane season, this is a big deal," Adam said.

Adam said the Salvation's Army presence in his emergency operating center during and after storms saves his responders from having to track down relief volunteers to get information about food and shelter needs in the community.

Other nonprofits more optimistic
Some of the other major charities that respond to disasters say they're in solid shape going into hurricane season.

American Red Cross spokeswoman Laura Howe said her nonprofit has raised more than $90 million of a $100 million campaign.

"The economy has been tough, but we feel like we're in a really good place to provide strong and consistent disaster response this year," Howe said.

Roger Conner, a national spokesman for Catholic Charities USA, said his group also expects it will be able to provide the same level of disaster relief as in years past.

Early appearance for red kettles
In some areas of the country, the Salvation Army's iconic red kettles, usually seen during the holiday season, have made an early appearance. Twenty-one cities in 10 states including Iowa, New York and Ohio, are participating in the "Kettles in July" effort, though it's not a national campaign, said Jaime Joswick, a national spokeswoman for the charity. The goal is to help meet an increased need in services for people hit by the slumping economy.

Kevin Smith, the Salvation Army's disaster coordinator for the Florida Division, said the organization has made it through tight economic times before. "That does not stop us from responding to basic services."

Mark Jones, the spokesman for the Salvation Army in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama, said there are still four offices on the Mississippi coast. He said the two offices that will close were opened in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and that recovery effort is coming to an end.

"We're not ceasing the availability of social services. We're just relocating them as part of cost-cutting measures," Jones said, adding that clients could travel 20 to 30 miles to the Gulfport, Miss. office for service.

Hood said he's trying to stay optimistic.

"I thank God every day there hasn't been a tropical depression yet."

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