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Two top officials at the American Red Cross say the group needs what they call a cultural shift. They're calling for change after studying the Red Cross response to Hurricane Katrina. Leaders of the relief organization talked about preparations for the next disaster in an interview with NPR's Howard Berkes.
HOWARD BERKES reporting:
Hancock County, Mississippi was ground zero for Hurricane Katrina. But Emergency Operations Manager Brian Adam(ph) describes the Red Cross response there this way.
Mr. BRIAN ADAM (Emergency Operations Manager, American Red Cross): Not very good, just not very good. Mainly it's just the people working with us just would not cooperate with us.
BERKES: The county needed food, shelter and supplies for rural towns almost completely wiped out by the storm. Similar complaints were heard down the road, in African-American neighborhoods in Biloxi and Gulf Port, according to Reverend Nelson Rivers of the NAACP.
Reverend NELSON RIVERS (NAACP): The Red Cross was absent. They could not be found.
BERKES: These complaints have made Red Cross officials defensive. But last night interim CEO Jack McGuire acknowledged shortcomings and revealed lessons learned. Some are logistical.
Mr. JACK McGUIRE (Interim CEO, American Red Cross): We need to have more warehouses closer to the areas that our response wasn't good enough. We need to stage more supplies. We need to look at better communication coordination. We didn't have the right capability. These are some of the things that we are looking to get into place for the beginning of the season this year.
BERKES: One major problem grew out of a Red Cross reorganization three years ago. Staffers were pulled out of state emergency management teams and sent to regional Red Cross offices.
Mr. McGUIRE: We made a mistake. The mistake we made is we took away that close coordination in order to set it up more closely within our own network. That was a huge mistake. And now we're putting that back.
BERKES: The Red Cross also failed to assist and fund other groups who tried to feed and house people in rural, poor and minority areas overlooked by the Red Cross.
Mr. McGUIRE: In the past our culture had been we will do Red Cross shelters, and that switched to or from we are going to do a Red Cross thing to we are gonna do the best thing for all of the people is a big culture shift for the organization. The shift involves turning away from a self-centered view of disaster relief, suggests Ross Ogden, a senior member of the Red Cross Board.
Mr. ROSS OGDEN (Senior Member, Red Cross Board): We have to bury our ego. We can't think of ourselves as the Red Cross doing this. What we have to think of ourselves as the Red Cross helping communities deal with disaster problems.
BERKES: That's not the only cultural shift. CEO Jack McGuire says the Red Cross wasn't nimble enough to respond to the unprecedented scope of Katrina. The group became complacent, he implies, after years of praise for its work.
Mr. McGUIRE: As you hear that too much, it really prevents the ability of doing things in different ways. It's that success that breeds the problem. So what happened? We found an event that wasn't like all those other events. And we weren't ready, because we didn't dare do something different.
BERKES: These cultural shifts will take time, McGuire says, but some of the logistical changes are already in place, prompting this pledge to potential disaster victims.
Mr. McGUIRE: They should expect that we will have greater capability to handle a higher volume of need of any type. They should expect that the Red Cross will be in more places quicker than they ever could have been during Katrina.
BERKES: Reverend Nelson Rivers of the NAACP is impressed, but cautious.
Reverend RIVERS: We don't know whether all this will make a difference or not, quite frankly, because they haven't been tested. Now the test will come when the hurricane hits and how they respond.
BERKES: And Brian Adam, the emergency operations manager in Hancock County, Mississippi, says there's a new Red Cross effort there.
Mr. ADAMS: Right now we're a little bit upbeat about the relationship. It's just gonna take this season to see.
BERKES: The next hurricane season officially begins June 1.
Howard Berkes, NPR News.
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