The Red Cross Rises to the Challenge

The American Red Cross, which has provided aid and comfort to everyone from the victims of the Johnstown flood to the survivors of 9/11, is taking on the biggest task of its long history — caring for those suffering in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Since the onset of the disaster, the Red Cross has emerged as the primary beneficiary of public generosity. The charity, founded in the United States by Clara Barton in 1881, reports donations of more than $653 million in disaster relief since Aug. 25 _ more than the amounts collected in the immediate aftermath of either the 2004 South Asian tsunamis or the 9/11 attacks.

By the time the crisis subsides, the Red Cross anticipates spending in excess of $1 billion.

“This is the largest response to a single natural disaster in the 125 years of the American Red Cross, and there’s no doubt it will set many records in terms of the length and expense of the operation,” said Joe Becker, the group’s senior vice president for preparedness and response. “This will test our skills and our resources to the extreme but the American Red Cross will be just as strong as the will of the American people. And we all know that’s a will that won’t fail.”

At last report, the Red Cross had provided survivors with more than 2 million overnight stays in 895 shelters established over 24 states and the District of Columbia. On Tuesday alone, the organization provided housing for more than 61,600 survivors and served more than 365,000 hot meals. More than 39,000 relief workers have been activated.

The Red Cross maintains it is “turning donations into help faster than ever before” and expanding efforts to provide financial assistance to at least 750,000 hurricane victims dispersed throughout the land. The agency estimates that 91 cents out of every dollar pouring in will go toward aiding survivors.

“The pace of the outpouring of generosity is inspiring as Americans open their hearts to the plight of their neighbors,” Becker said. “The American Red Cross is committed to channeling this generosity and good will to the survivors as fast as we can.”

The massive donations indicate the Red Cross has managed to regain some of the faith it squandered in the face of a series of controversies that placed a negative and unwanted spotlight on the organization.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Red Cross tangled with the Food and Drug Administration, which cited the organization for a “long-standing and ongoing” failure to comply with federal regulations governing the handling of donated blood. At that time the Red Cross, among other things, unintentionally distributed HIV-contaminated blood, resulting in a court-supervised accord in which it agreed to improve quality control.

But the FDA unearthed violations of the agreement during an inspection of Red Cross’s Washington headquarters in April 2000. The breaches included a failure to properly quarantine potentially contaminated blood, follow instructions on an HIV test kit and keep track of blood supplies and donor medical histories. The situation finally was resolved but not until after the Red Cross suffered a public-relations hit.

The organization also faced substantial money troubles, amassing debt totaling almost $340 million at one point. To compensate, it raised the price of blood, leaving hospitals with little choice but to pony up.

A major scandal hit the Red Cross in the days after Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists killed more than 3,000 by crashing jets into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.

The Red Cross created what it called the Liberty Fund, intended to provide relief for victims. The organization collected $547 million but it ultimately was determined that only 30 percent of that huge pot of money was spent in the months after the attacks. Dr. Bernardine Healy, the organization’s president at the time, declared that most of the remaining funds would be used to increase the blood supply and prepare for possible future terrorist attacks.

That drew objections from donors who wrote checks with the understanding that the money would go to 9/11 victims, leading to a congressional probe and an investigation by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. The American Red Cross eventually appointed former Sen. George Mitchell to handle distribution of the funds, and Healy was forced to resign.

The Red Cross maintains that corrective actions were taken after the Liberty Fund controversy and that the lion’s share of money it has collected for Katrina relief will be directed to victims.

Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthopy, a nonprofit charity watchdog service, said the Red Cross has improved the manner in which it informs contributors about the way their money is being used. The institute lists the Red Cross among 21 outfits providing aid to hurricane victims that are deserving of aid, giving it a grade of A-minus based on the portion of its budget going to program services and its fund-raising efficiency.

Despite the effort, the Red Cross initiative hasn’t proceeded altogether smoothly. Some of the 1,200 hurricane evacuees sheltered in Iberia Parish, La., complain that hot meals have proved hard to come by since the Red Cross assumed operations. Local volunteers who brought food to the displaced were turned away.

Greg Davis, director of the Cajundome in Lafayette, La., which is serving as a shelter, said the Red Cross failed to provide cots or bedding for thousands of evacuees. And frustrated hurricane victims overwhelmed a Red Cross assistance center in Hattiesburg, Miss.

The Red Cross has asked victims to exercise patience.

“When Mother Nature is at her worst, the American Red Cross is at its best,” said Lois Grady-Wesbecher, manager of the Disaster Operations Center at the group’s national headquarters.

(Contact Bill Straub at StraubB(at)