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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne in Washington.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep in New Orleans.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is not the only group criticized for its response to Hurricane Katrina. There are also complaints from some elected officials and storm victims about the American Red Cross. The federal government has given the Red Cross primary responsibility for the care and feeding of disaster victims. And it, too, struggled with the nation's biggest disaster challenge, as NPR's Howard Berkes reports.

HOWARD BERKES reporting:

Here's how it's supposed to work: Just before a forecast disaster, Red Cross volunteers spring into action. That's precisely what happened in Gulfport, Mississippi, just before Hurricane Katrina and just after Mike(ph) and Kathy Schafer(ph) completed a Red Cross shelter operations class.

Ms. KATHY SCHAFER (Red Cross Volunteer): It was Friday before the hurricane. That Saturday, they called an emergency meeting. They asked us to pick a shelter, and they called us Sunday morning. And then when the storm hit, we could hear things hitting the building and the roof. So between Sunday and probably Thursday, we got, between the two of us, maybe about six hours.

BERKES: That's six hours of sleep as helicopters hauled in 40 people plucked from rooftops and floodwater, joining about 200 others seeking refuge. They had food and water, and they were on high ground outside town beyond the reach of the storm surge. The Schafers were novices, but they were so effective and protective that some evacuees didn't want to leave when the shelter closed three weeks later. Here's truck driver William Nolan(ph).

Mr. WILLIAM NOLAN (Truck Driver): These two people--these two managers, they lost everything, and they came here on a three-day notice. They were volunteers. They came here and they set all this up and didn't think of their loss. They thought of everybody else before themselves, and they lost everything, too.

BERKES: Selfless and tireless disaster work is a Red Cross hallmark, and in the last five weeks, the private, non-profit group has mobilized more than a hundred seventh thousand relief workers; it has housed close to half a million people in hotels and shelters, and it has doled out over $800 million in emergency assistance. Still, all across the Gulf Coast, some people complain about the Red Cross response.

Unidentified Man: How many of you have had trouble with the American Red Cross?

(Soundbite of people cheering)

BERKES: Last week in Houma, Louisiana, a crowd filled a parking lot outside the city's Civic Center for a hurricane forum. Janice Billiad(ph) spoke first about trying to register for Red Cross help.

Ms. JANICE BILLIAD (Hurricane Survivor): They give us a 1 (800) number. You can't get through unless you use a cell phone. You sit there eight hours before you get through. You get through, you sit on there--it's three to five hours on hold. You get a hold of a operator, she tells you you don't exist; they won't help you. Why? Where do we turn?

BERKES: Busy Red Cross phone lines have been a common complaint as well as the location of Red Cross relief centers. Some have been difficult to find and reach. That's what Troy Lynn Hubbard(ph) described two weeks ago in Houston outside the Astrodome.

Ms. TROY LYNN HUBBARD (Hurricane Evacuee): I've been trying to get in touch with the Red Cross since the day the storm happened, and it's so hard to get in touch. Today I spent a hundred dollars on a cab. We couldn't find nowhere where Red Cross was helping us. Yesterday we went to the Astrodome, walked around that whole place. They told us about five different places to go to. We finally went to the place; yesterday was the last day. OK, we was there. They still did not help us. I mean, I'm running out of money.

BERKES: At many Red Cross relief centers, people stood in line for hours in sweltering heat, sometimes for nothing, since some assistance required preregistration on phone lines that were clogged. In Mississippi, community activist Jarlene Osbourne(ph) organized caravans to Columbus, four and a half hours away, to avoid frustrating lines in Biloxi.

Ms. JARLENE OSBOURNE (Hurricane Evacuee): When a disaster hit, the people that are experiencing it should not be hit by yet another disaster, which is not being taken care of, and then overlooked. We have to get better at taking care of our own.

BERKES: Also in Mississippi in Hancock County, where entire towns and neighborhoods were reduced to rubble, the Red Cross coordinator begged for help.

Ms. BETTY BRUNER(ph) (Red Cross Coordinator): When I went over there, they said, `We don't have the volunteers. I mean, there's no volunteers. We're not getting the supplies, we're not getting the trucks in.'

BERKES: Betty Bruner spoke last month at the Hancock County Emergency Operations Center, a generator roaring behind her. She and county officials complained that it took 12 days to get significant Red Cross help to people without homes or cars.

Ms. BRUNER: They didn't get the food when they first needed it. There were some people, told me they didn't eat for four days. Finally people would come out of the bayous--come up out of the bayous, walking and ask people to take them into a shelter. Those people needed food immediately. So it was desperately needed to get the food to the people, and they didn't get it.

BERKES: Bruner said her Red Cross vest and the Red Cross signs on her car attracted curses from hurricane victims.

Ms. BRUNER: I've always been a volunteer for the Red Cross for 36 years because they came in--Hurricane Camille, immediately they started helping, but this time I was ashamed to be wearing the Red Cross vest. I'll never put it on again.

BERKES: The day she quit, Bruner said, the Red Cross had one shelter, five volunteers and one emergency response vehicle working in Hancock County, now known as ground zero on the Gulf Coast. The two neighboring counties had 22 shelters and 50 volunteers, according to the Red Cross. There were also 75 emergency response vehicles in southern Mississippi.

Mr. OSCAR BARNES (Red Cross Coordinator): Communications were down. We were already taking care of Harrison County, Pearl River County, Hancock County, and we were trying to divide it up as much as we can and as ably as we can to get through as fast as we can.

BERKES: Oscar Barnes coordinated the Red Cross relief effort for those three hard-hit counties. Supply trucks were blocked, he says, by debris and downed power lines and trees. There wasn't enough gas for Red Cross vehicles, and Hancock County didn't get more Red Cross shelters because buildings in safe places were not available. Still, churches and the county opened at least five other shelters, which eventually received supplies from the Red Cross. Oscar Barnes.

Mr. BARNES: You got to understand this, too: Seeing what damage it was, we were in a small group trying to be as many places as we could and as fast as we could. The first message back to our headquarters was: Send as much as you can as fast as you can--people, equipment, food, water, ice, everything. You start sending that, and we'll tell you when to stop.

BERKES: The magnitude of the task is the biggest reason the Red Cross cites for any failures to respond. Ross Ogden is a veteran of 15 major natural disasters and a member of the Red Cross board of governors. He's assisting relief efforts along the Mississippi coast.

Mr. ROSS OGDEN (Red Cross Board of Governors): The greatest disaster prior to this one that Red Cross experienced was the cumulation of the four hurricanes we had last year. This is approximately, in this area, six times larger. I'm just talking about southern Mississippi. We haven't even gotten into Louisiana, Alabama, Florida and then the impact of Rita in Texas. I think it's been an amazing response, but it also has been to an overwhelming catastrophic event.

BERKES: That also explains the clogged phone lines and long lines at relief centers. The demand was immediate. The Red Cross had to recruit and train thousands of new volunteers. It's now processing 35,000 claims a day. Red Cross spokeswoman Devorah Goldberg says the group will analyze its performance.

Ms. DEVORAH GOLDBERG (Spokeswoman, Red Cross): We've been doing disaster response for a hundred and twenty-five years, and every time there's a disaster, we learn things that we could have done better. So we'll definitely learn some lessons. I can't tell you what they are right now, but we will definitely make some changes that will help us in future disasters of this magnitude.

BERKES: Goldberg points out that other groups pitched in where the Red Cross couldn't, but only the Red Cross has a congressional mandate to provide shelter, food and other relief when disaster strikes. Howard Berkes, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And you can see statistics on Red Cross relief efforts at npr.org.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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