Weighing Charity Work in Katrina's Wake

Which charities have spent money effectively in the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast? Where have mistakes been made? Katrina survivor Randy Adams and Trent Stamp — executive director of the watchdog group Charity Navigator — weigh in.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, the whereabouts of a long-lost submarine may have surfaced. But first, many of our listeners remember Randy Adams from the conversations we've had with him every since we first caught up with him at the Red Roof Inn in Memphis. He'd evacuated there from his house in New Orleans - five dogs and six adults in two cars - after Hurricane Katrina hit one year ago next week. We were able to visit with him in person a few weeks ago and now Randy has made a quick trip to Washington, D.C. and joins us in our studios. Randy, so nice to see you here.

Mr. RANDY ADAMS (Hurricane Katrina Survivor): Hi, Scott. Good morning. Thank you for having me again.

SIMON: And you are back in your house now, right?

Mr. ADAMS: I am indeed. Three weeks this weekend we moved back in.

SIMON: How's it look?

Mr. ADAMS: It's beautiful. Brand new, from the pitched roof to the grout under the floor. My wife cooked a pot of red beans and we sat down and had our first dinner at the kitchen table, as a group, as a family. It was awesome.

SIMON: You know, in a few minutes we're going to talk with somebody about how well private charities have done in helping the recovery effort. What's your impression?

Mr. ADAMS: Private charities have been a backbone in the recovery effort. Various church and religious groups of all faiths from all corners of the country. Even some from overseas have come down. And they're basically doing the footwork, the legwork - gutting houses, removing the debris, keeping the streets and the gutter clean, the drains clean, and - because it rains every day now. And you know, they've come much more forward than any government agencies could.

SIMON: Yeah. Have you talked to any of them? I mean it must be quite a humbling thing to meet someone from a long way away who has in a sense dislocated themselves from their life to come and do what they can.

Mr. ADAMS: You know, it's beyond humbling just to know that we really do live in the greatest country in the world. And we are self-sufficient. And I don't know if it's need or lack of need, but the fact that we don't need the government to step in and do that - I mean we do need certain aspects of their help, but that at the grass roots level, you know, we get our hands and knees dirty and we do it.

SIMON: Our friend Randy Adams, it's always nice to be with you.

Mr. ADAMS: Thank you.

SIMON: We now turn to Trent Stamp, executive director of Charity Navigator, an organization that monitors the activity of more than 5,000 charities. Charity Navigator reports that $4.25 billion was raised for Katrina recovery. Mr. Stamp joins us from our bureau in New York City. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. TRENT STAMP (Charity Navigator): It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And is our friend Randy Adams right? It's the charitable organizations that have been the backbone of recovery efforts?

Mr. STAMP: I think in this case he is right. I think that when we're looking for those that did good work, I think you can start and perhaps end with the nation's nonprofits.

SIMON: Which groups got the most money?

Mr. STAMP: Well, the group that got almost all of the money was the Red Cross. I mean they raised over 50% of the funding for this particular disaster. When you add in that the Salvation Army then got around seven percent of the money, you have two groups that accounted for almost 3/5 of the money.

SIMON: How do you account for - and I was so impressed when I would run into groups like this in New Orleans and Mississippi, people - typically, I must say, members of religious congregations who, when they heard the storm was approaching, got into a car and drove down there.

Mr. STAMP: If they did it just out of their own savings accounts and they threw some gas in the car and drove down, that would be a private effort that we would not be able to account for. But if they took donor money, if the took charity money or church money, yeah, we have a pretty good idea that those groups are included. Ironically, when Katrina happened, we told people not to go. It was actually a better idea to stay out of the way and to write your check.

Today, a year later, I would tell people that the best thing you could possibly do would be to get in your car right now and to go down there and volunteer to gut houses, to clean up debris. You'd be amazed how much it has not changed in 12 months. But they also need people with skilled labor. They need mental health workers. They need doctors. They need lawyers. And God knows they need construction workers. Now is a great time to travel to New Orleans. The bars are open, the restaurants are open, the hotels are open. Now's a great time to have your family reunion in New Orleans or to have your convention in New Orleans or just to figure out a reason to have a business trip in New Orleans.

SIMON: Mr. Stamp, recognizing that there are investigations going on and there have been allegations and even a prominent resignation, as a generalization, how well did the Red Cross spend the money?

Mr. STAMP: I think the Red Cross spent their money admirably. I think they were overwhelmed in many cases. If you remember that the damaged area that we're talking about here is roughly the size of Great Britain, and you recognize the fact that the Red Cross actually lost their offices in New Orleans - they were actually evacuated just like everyone else - that half of their staff in New Orleans lost their homes or had their homes damaged to the point where they're going to need reconstruction, and that two of the Red Cross employees actually lost their family members during Hurricane Katrina, when you add all that in and you recognize the fact that they're just human beings doing the absolute best they can possibly do, I think the Red Cross can hold their heads high today.

SIMON: That being said, there were problems, weren't there?

Mr. STAMP: There were problems with fraud. There were problems with people who got the debit cards that had no right to get those debit cards. There were problems with the Red Cross lacked entrée into some of these lower income and minority neighborhoods where they had not done a good enough job in advance of Katrina, so that they had a way to get in there, so they knew who the community organizers were, so they knew how to reach those people.

And there were problems with lack of imagination. The Red Cross just didn't perceive that this was going to be the disaster that it ended up being. One interesting thing that I found out was that the night before Hurricane Katrina they were able to position hundreds of thousands of meals in Baton Rouge, which is just 70 miles away. And the theory behind that was when the storm comes, when it's safe, when it's clear and the streets are open, they can come in with their trucks, they can deliver the meals and they can take care of people.

Well, we know now that they weren't able to drive into the city for a good 10 days. Those meals were worthless to them. I also think that, you know, if you compare the Red Cross to the other first responders, if you compare the Red Cross to FEMA, if you compare the Red Cross to the city of New Orleans and the mayor's office, and if you compare the Red Cross to the state of Louisiana, I think that, you know, while we may give the Red Cross a B as a grade on the whole, I think if you compare them to those people and grade them on a curve, they may get an A or even an A plus.

Everybody failed here, Scott. Everybody failed. There's no doubt about that. But there are some groups that can hold their heads high, and I think that the Red Cross, on balance, can hold their heads high.

SIMON: If I gave $100 to the Red Cross, could you parse that as to how it was spent?

Mr. STAMP: There's a couple of things that are going to happen here. First of all, you have to recognize the fact that the Red Cross has gone to a pay-as-you-go disaster relief system, which means that what happened is after September 11th, when the Red Cross was criticized for trying to set aside money for future disasters because they, in effect, had too much money to help the victims of September 11th, they got hammered so hard and Bernadine Healey, their CEO, lost her job at that time, that what they decided to do is say, okay, tell you what, we'll go to a pay-as-you-go disaster relief system, which means that for any one particular disaster we will only raise funds for that disaster and we will never divert those funds to any other disaster or any other operating expenses.

So you could know that if you gave money to Katrina, that the money was only going to be spent on Katrina.

SIMON: But let me interrupt. Was the upshot of that decision, which was made in response to pressure, that the Red Cross wasn't in a position to pre-prepare for Katrina, as they might have liked to have been or were even capable of being, because of public reaction to the fundraising over September 11th?

Mr. STAMP: Oh, I think in hindsight it was a simplistic and silly decision. I'll give you a better example, which is when Hurricane Rita followed just 21 days later, they were not allowed under their charter to divert any of the funding that they had raised for Hurricane Katrina to any of Rita's victims, even though they had money laying around, they had money in the bank, and their victims of Rita were, you know, in direct harm at that point. And more importantly, they knew that donors were suffering some sort of fatigue and were unlikely to respond to Rita in the same way that they had responded to Katrina.

SIMON: Wouldn't it be possible for people to donate to what amounts to a general fund for disaster relief? Would that even be possible?

Mr. STAMP: I don't think it's possible, in all honesty. I think - one of the things that happened with Hurricane Katrina that obviously drove the giving to make this the largest one-time philanthropic response in the history of this country was the fact that it happened on our shores and it happened on television. People were motivated to give. The giving cycle after a disaster is really only two to five days.

What caused this giving cycle to be extended was the fact that it happened on TV and it happened on TV for almost two weeks, and so you extended that giving cycle to about 15 to 17 days.

And that's one of the things that I worry about with the Red Cross, is that they're reactive and that they make all their decisions based on last week's disaster. And I worry that we may put a lot of policies into place based on Hurricane Katrina because it was the largest disaster they've ever seen and they got the media scrutiny they've never seen before. And those policies may, in effect, hamstring them for the next disaster when it comes down the road, whether it be, you know, a tornado in Omaha or an earthquake in San Francisco or, God forbid, another terrorist attack who knows where.

SIMON: Trent Stamp, executive director of Charity Navigators, speaking from New York. Thank you very much.

Mr. STAMP: It was my pleasure, thank you.

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