Refugees from New Orleans head into a Red Cross shelter in Baton Rouge, La., in the days after Hurricane Katrina. The Red Cross is trying to improve its disaster-preparedness following criticism of its response to Hurricane Katrina.
Documents obtained by NPR show that the American Red Cross is trying to be better prepared for the 2006 hurricane season, which officially begins June 1.
Last year, after Hurricane Katrina, the Red Cross was criticized for some shortcomings in its disaster response, including:
An American Red Cross timeline and checklist for the 2006 hurricane season. Included are new attempts to improve hurricane response since the Hurricane Katrina relief effort.
A detailed explanation of Red Cross reform efforts sent to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley.
— Little or no relief effort in some rural, minority and low-income communities.
— Long lines at some relief centers, which turned many hurricane victims away.
— Overwhelmed call centers leaving hurricane victims on hold or dialing for hours and days.
— Shortages of food, supplies and emergency financial-assistance debit cards.
— Alleged fraud and waste, keeping relief supplies from people who needed them most.
— Shoddy treatment of whistleblowers who tried to call attention to mismanagement and alleged criminal wrongdoing.
Several members of Congress have pressured the Red Cross to reform. Some have suggested changes to the congressional charter that gives the Red Cross unique responsibility for feeding and housing disaster victims. That status also gives the Red Cross unique fundraising capabilities, much to the chagrin of other relief groups.
Last week, Red Cross executives met with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA). Grassley has been investigating Red Cross management and the group’s response to Hurricane Katrina. During the meeting, Red Cross officials submitted a readiness plan and timeline for the upcoming hurricane season.
The new Red Cross plan directly addresses some of the shortcomings of the Katrina response. By July 1, it says, the following will be in place:
— Training and funding for partner organizations in minority, low-income and rural communities.
— Enough supplies to feed and shelter 500,000 people a day for six days, including 1 million meals a day.
— "Client services" for 2 million families.
— Upgraded computer systems capable of handling 2 million clients.
— Expanded call centers ready to handle 100,000 cases a day.
— 1 million emergency financial-assistance debit cards ready for distribution.
— Expanded warehouse capacity in high-risk states.
— More pre-positioned communications equipment in high-risk states.
— Boosting the capacity of the 800-RED-CROSS hotline by one-third.
— Added Red Cross presence at state emergency operations centers.
The plan also calls for improvements in logistics and technology to facilitate the tracking, deployment and flow of relief supplies, funds and information. Those improvements will not be in place fully by July 1 but will be ready enough for the coming hurricane season, according to the Red Cross.
The Red Cross says it is also implementing a more robust system for checking the backgrounds of volunteers. Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti, Jr. says some Red Cross volunteers doing Hurricane Katrina relief work were actually convicted felons. He and the FBI are investigating that, as well as these allegations:
— unauthorized Red Cross warehouses for relief supplies and food
— inflated orders for food
— using Red Cross supplies at rallies and/or political events
The author of an internal Red Cross report obtained by NPR suggests that food and supplies were not tracked properly and could have been siphoned off by a black market in relief goods. In a letter sent to Sen. Grassley, the Red Cross says it has hired more investigators to respond to reports of fraud and waste.
Grassley welcomes the Red Cross efforts. "The proposed reforms track my concerns," Grassley said in a written statement. "I want to make sure their deeds match their good words."
In her letter to Grassley, Red Cross Chairwoman Bonnie McElveen-Hunter acknowledged the problems of the past. "Could the Red Cross and the entire nonprofit community have done better? Undoubtedly," she wrote. "There is no excuse for the instances of improper conduct which impacted on our performance and response during Hurricane Katrina, and on our continued relief and recovery efforts along the Gulf Coast."
Grassley is not happy about one element of the Red Cross response. It included criticism of two Red Cross whistleblowers who raised some of the concerns the Red Cross is now addressing. "Given their response to whistleblowers," Grassley writes, "I worry that Red Cross management still doesn’t get it."