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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

In Southern California, at least seven major wildfires are still burning, but much of the danger to homes has passed. Residents are going back to their neighborhoods now, and some of the shelters are closing down.

The American Red Cross has a charter from Congress to provide relief to the disaster victims. Two years ago during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, poor communication and too much bureaucracy meant that a lot of people didn't get the help they needed.

NPR's Ted Robbins reports that the fires in Southern California are the first big test of the Red Cross and its reorganization designed to fix the problems.

TED ROBBINS: One hundred seventy people displaced from their homes across San Diego County spent last night at the Del Mar Racetrack and Fairgrounds. There are as many or more volunteers, support personnel and businesses offering their services here.

Unidentified Woman: You want an enchiladas?

ROBBINS: There are lots of folks here from the Salvation Army to Microsoft, to the military. You're in charge.

Mr. JIM MALLORY (Volunteer, Red Cross): Right, it's our shelter.

ROBBINS: Jim Mallory is a Red Cross volunteer who flew down from San Francisco to help. The Red Cross did not open this evacuation center, and it's not providing the food. The fairground is. But once the Red Cross is on the scene, it takes over management. That's his job along with limited assistance to victims.

Mr. MALLORY: The Red Cross, our primary function - and we do a lot of other things - is the caring and feeding of people. We shelter them, and we feed them.

ROBBINS: By last Monday evening, the first day of the fire evacuation, the Red Cross had five shelters opened in the San Diego area. Eventually, it had 14 shelters opened.

But not the area's largest shelter, Qualcomm Stadium, which housed 10,000 evacuees, that was opened by the city. The city of Chula Vista, south of San Diego, had to set up its own shelter.

Mayor Cheryl Cox.

Mayor CHERYL COX (Chula Vista, San Diego): When the city called for assistance from other agencies that normally would be able to provide assistance, that assistance was not available.

(Soundbite of KPBS recorded interview)

Mr. VINCENT MUDD (Chairman, Imperial County Red Cross, San Diego, California): No one anticipated that this would be something that would evacuated, you know, over 650,000 Californians.

ROBBINS: That's Vincent Mudd, the chairman of the San Diego and Imperial County Red Cross, talking to NPR member station KPBS.

(Soundbite of KPBS recorded interview)

Mr. MUDD: In the first day and the second day, we reached - we were beyond the limit of what we could all do, and we still had to do more.

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

There are now regional supply centers instead of a central location. Within 48 hours, 10,000 additional cots were trucked from the regional warehouse in Reno. And the Red Cross used to be pretty territorial about its supplies. When other agencies asked for them, they were turned down. This time, the Red Cross gave 1,000 cots and 10,000 blankets to the Qualcomm shelter.

Professor PAUL LIGHT (Paulette Goddard Professor of Public Service, New York University Wagner): Well, I think they've done a very good job actually.

ROBBINS: Paul Light is an expert in organizational change and nonprofit effectiveness at New York University. Light says the Red Cross seems to be learning from its failures during Katrina, but he always says don't compare that disaster with the one California.

Prof. LIGHT: It has not affected as many people from low-income homes as Katrina did nor has it been as geographically concentrated as Katrina.

ROBBINS: A lot of people who did show up at shelters here couldn't afford hotels or didn't have friends to stay with like Oscar Reyes(ph) and his family of six. They were first in Qualcomm Stadium; then they were bussed to Del Mar.

Reyes repairs car interiors in the town of Ramona. Now he says his boss is calling to ask if he's coming to work Monday.

Mr. OSCAR REYES (Resident): We want to go back home as soon as we can. They say it's over right now, but there's no water or power.

ROBBINS: Water and power are certainly not the Red Cross's responsibility, and the Red Cross says it can't provide services for everyone in a disaster, even though that seems to be what a lot of people expect.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, San Diego.

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