Wildfire Response Redemptive for Red Cross

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The American Red Cross was widely criticized for its poor response to victims of Hurricane Katrina. But it's been a different story in Southern California, where supplies and assistance arrived in abundance early on.

The Red Cross has a charter from Congress to provide relief to disaster victims. Poor communication and bureaucratic issues highlighted by its Katrina response were targeted in a major re-organization that is still under way.

Now, the wildfires are its first big test post-Katrina.

By Monday evening — the first day of the fire evacuation — the Red Cross had five shelters open in the San Diego area. Eventually, it had opened 14 shelters. But those didn't include the area's largest shelter — Qualcomm Stadium, which housed 10,000 evacuees.

That was opened by the city of Chula Vista, south of San Diego, which had to set up its own shelter.

"When the city called for assistance to other agencies that would normally be able to provide assistance, that assistance was not available," Chula Vista Mayor Cheryl Cox said.

Vincent Mudd, the chairman of the San Diego and Imperial County Red Cross, told NPR member station KPBS noted the scope of the evacuation order.

"No one anticipated that this would be something that evacuated over 650,000 Californians," Mudd said.

"In the first day and the second day, we ... were beyond the limit of what we could all do, and we still had to do more," he added.

The local chapter had just 2,000 cots on hand for people to sleep on. But that's where the post-Katrina reorganization plan kicked in.

There are now regional Red Cross supply centers instead of a central location. Within 48 hours, 10,000 additional cots were trucked from the regional warehouse in Reno.

Also, the Red Cross used to be pretty possessive of its supplies. When other agencies asked to share, they were turned down. This time, the Red Cross gave 1,000 cots and 10,000 blankets to the Qualcomm shelter.



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