Friday, October 07, 2005

Tangled up in red

A story on American Public Radio about Katrina survivors in Waveland, MS caught my attention, in part because I've always had family there. What stuck out in the story, however, was its report that a gentleman had to ride a bus five hours to reach the nearest Red Cross Shelter.

It's long been an article of faith among those who experienced Camille that the Red Cross was worthless. Katrina has done nothing to improve the opinion of most Katrina survivors.

Scandal over their handling of 9-11 funds--when it raised $564 million in it's Libery Fund to aid victims, but only distributed $154 million--did nothing to improve the agencies smell.

However, for most Americans, the Red Cross is the place they turn when they want to make a donation for help. At least, those who haven't tried to turn to the agency for assistance in an emergency.

In media reports all across the country, the anger of Katrina and Rita survivors at the agency is being broadcast nation-wide. In a long story, the Los Angeles Times catalogs the anger of some in the New Orleans area.

This isn't an isolated story. Most of rural Mississippi and Louisiana has not been visited or assisted by the Red Cross. In Hancock County, ground zero for Katrina on the Gulf Coast, the Red Cross opened only one shelter, miles from the victims. The organizations failure led one long-time local volunteer, Betty Brunner, to say she would "never, ever wear the Red Cross vest again".

The NOLA Times-Picayune reports of disastisfaction with the Red Cross there in the story Red Cross suffers post-Katrina black eye.

In the first days after Katrina passed, it was the Federal Emergency Management Agency that storm victims pilloried for its flatfooted response to the hurricane. Then the victims began calling the Red Cross assistance hotline, only to wait hours before they connected with a live voice. Some callers never reaped anything but busy signals and static.

In the days immediately after the hurricane, some parishes were left virtually alone to feed and care for emergency workers and the residents who had ignored evacuation orders. While Red Cross workers began meeting with parish leaders the weekend after the hurricane, the agency did not have boots on the ground in New Orleans until 10 days after the storm. The Red Cross also delayed moving into Jefferson Parish for more than a week after Katrina because the U.S. Department of Homeland Security advised workers to wait until the National Guard could secure the devastated areas.

"I was a little bit busy to wonder where they were, but in the first three weeks, we were on our own," said Larry Ingargiola, emergency preparedness director in St. Bernard Parish.

The Red Cross is closely tied to FEMA, which will add millions of federal disaster relief dollars to the Red Cross' coffers, even as the group continues to request donations.

The Red Cross has always been closely tied to government, having been chartered by the federal government, which appoints a number of member to its governing board. The blog news publication Raw Story has a good summary of the history of the Red Cross here.

The Red Cross is, for all intents and purposes, and official government charity. Like the government, it largely failed to provide assistance where it was most needed. The Red Cross, like FEMA, has demonstrated it is not up to handling the responsiblity of a major American disaster. Instead, it is a poster children for the cozy corruption of government and private enterprise, where its all about the money and never about the people.

Moreover, all of the donations pouring into the Red Cross now will not go where it is most needed: helping the survivors of Katrina rebuild their lives. The Red Cross has never been about this. It's about immediate disaster relief. Now that the immediate crisis has passed, how will all that money being raised help the people of Katrina?

Will it end up in the same black hole as all the money donated for 9-11 victims?

The LA Times commentary of Sept. 25 about sums up the Red Cross: The Red Cross money pit

The Red Cross brand is platinum. Its fundraising vastly outruns its programs because it does very little or nothing to rescue survivors, provide direct medical care or rebuild houses. After 9/11, the Red Cross collected more than $1 billion, a record in philanthropic fundraising after a disaster. But the Red Cross could do little more than trace missing people, help a handful of people in shelters and provide food to firefighters, police, paramedics and evacuation crews during that catastrophe.

As Hurricane Rita dissipates, let me answer my unpopular question like this: Giving so high a percentage of all donations to one agency that defines itself only as a first-responder and not a rebuilder is not the wisest choice. Americans ought to give a much larger share of their generous charity to community foundations, grass-roots nonprofit groups based in the affected communities and a large number of international "brand name" relief agencies with decades of expertise in rebuilding communities after disasters.

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"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcome, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." -- Audie Lorde

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