NEW ORLEANS – After waiting six hours in blistering heat, Wanda Simlin prepared to turn the corner that would put her in view of the West Jefferson Medical Center in suburban Marrero, where the American Red Cross was dispensing debit cards to a long line of hurricane victims. At that moment, a worker cut off the line.

“We’re the hope for today, the line for tomorrow,” Simlin sighed to the crowd of weary people spooling out behind her.

Since Hurricane Katrina struck Aug. 29, the Red Cross has channeled aid to more than half the families hurt by the storm. But no matter how many people it serves, the agency continues to play catch-up with demand.

In the process, one of the country’s most familiar and beloved charities has suffered something of a black eye. Perhaps not since the terrorist attacks of 2001, when the Red Cross angered donors by diverting money intended for World Trade Center victims to other charitable ventures, has it ignited such a firestorm.

“When people hear about the Red Cross, they think about an organization that is going to be on the front lines,” said Havidan Rodriguez, director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware. “But the Red Cross does not have the resources the government has. It takes time for its pledges to turn into real money.

“Volunteers are working extremely long hours,” Rodriguez said. “But problems are emerging, and people are complaining about the lack of adequate response by the Red Cross. This is a problem we need to examine carefully.”

In the first days after Katrina passed, it was the Federal Emergency Management Agency that storm victims pilloried for its flat-footed response. Then the victims began calling the Red Cross assistance hot line, only to wait hours before they connected with a live voice. Some callers reaped only busy signals and static.

Suddenly, the Red Cross had a growing contingent of detractors.

The fault-finding spreads beyond the men and women braving the phone lines and bread lines for help. While some local officials have expressed gratitude toward the charity, others have publicly denounced its Katrina deployment as sluggish and inadequate.

“I have seen them giving meals away, but aside from that, I have not seen them having a tremendous presence in giving out the resources they collected nationally,” said Chris Roberts, a councilman in Jefferson Parish, which abuts New Orleans. “A lot of residents I have spoken to feel that, in a time of need, they didn’t have their act together.”

The Red Cross has continued to open centers to distribute financial assistance, food and clothing. But people marooned from their houses and desperate for cash wonder why the agency took almost five weeks to bring financial assistance to the hurricane strike zone.

“This is the first time the Red Cross has shown up in Jefferson Parish,” said Cornell Johnson, who was stuck near the back of the line at West Jefferson Medical Center. “If you volunteer to do a job, you can’t do half a job.”

Johnson and others grumbled that they had difficulty finding out where the distribution centers were located, because the Red Cross did not announce them until the last minute. They relied on reports from police and rumors from neighbors, and many hopscotched from site to site until they landed in the right place.

“Every time you go someplace, it’s by word of mouth,” Johnson said.

Roberts, the Jefferson councilman, said having an online site where people could register for assistance would have made the whole process simpler.

“You have people waiting for five or six hours to have a operator come online,” Roberts said. “At least FEMA gave people the opportunity to apply over the Internet.”

The Red Cross is roughly halfway toward collecting the $2 billion it hopes to raise for hurricane victims, and in spite of the delays, its staff says it has delivered aid to 700,000 families. Every day, the agency says, it pumps about $35 million to those in need.

Kay Wilkins, chief executive of the Southeast Louisiana chapter, said the Red Cross never planned to open centers where people could obtain financial assistance in person. The phone hot line, which has handled 30,000 calls a day, was supposed to be the vehicle for people to get help. But when the line was overwhelmed, the agency had to scramble to rig up an alternative.

At some local emergency centers, Red Cross workers would connect on the phone with an operator in the morning, then pass the open line to customers who came in throughout the day. In suburban Plaquemines Parish, Wilkins said, 300 to 500 people could be served that way daily. Volunteers at other sites said clients had luck when they asked relatives to call the hot line from out of state.

After moving on to the debit-card method, the Red Cross changed its distribution system again this week. Instead of getting cash cards on the spot, customers now must provide an address where the agency can mail a check within three days. The Red Cross says the new method will allow staff to check who has already received assistance, instead of relying on the honor system to prevent double-dipping.

“We did not bargain for having a million people trying to access an 800 number at the same time,” Wilkins said. “For a long time, that was the only way people could access financial assistance. We’ve been trying to find innovative ways to get that assistance into their hands.”

Wilkins and other Red Cross leaders say they are proud of the effort mounted by volunteers. Indeed, criticism of the agency has not focused on the volunteers – many of whom left jobs and families for weeks to live in austere conditions – but on the Red Cross bureaucracy.

In the days immediately after the hurricane, some parishes were left virtually alone to feed and care for emergency workers and the residents who had ignored evacuation orders. While Red Cross workers began meeting with parish leaders the weekend after the hurricane, the agency did not have boots on the ground in New Orleans until 10 days after the storm. The Red Cross also delayed moving into Jefferson Parish for more than a week after Katrina because the U.S. Department of Homeland Security advised workers to wait until the National Guard could secure the devastated areas.

“I was a little bit busy to wonder where they were, but in the first three weeks, we were on our own,” said Larry Ingargiola, emergency preparedness director in suburban St. Bernard Parish.

Wilkins said the Red Cross moved into heavily damaged areas as early as it could. Sending volunteers in earlier with food and water, when emergency workers were conducting search and rescue missions, would have created a false sense of security among the people the government was trying to truck out. Plus, Wilkins added, the volunteers could have become victims themselves.

“People needed to evacuate the city. That was the message the mayor was sending,” Wilkins said. “Our people could have hampered the rescue effort. We were meeting buses of evacuees when they would come to different areas. What the Red Cross does during a national response is feeding and sheltering, and we were positioned well for that.”

The Red Cross is the only nongovernmental agency : at has an official role in the Department of Homeland Security’s national response plan, a roadmap that is supposed to get all arms of the bureaucracy moving in sync during a catastrophe. The Red Cross is in charge of Emergency Support Function No. 6: feeding and sheltering people dislodged from their homes.

No one is complaining that the agency failed to provide emergency housing. More than five weeks after the hurricane, the Red Cross still is running more than 300 shelters that house 50,000 displaced people. In collaboration with FEMA, it is helping thousands more to pay for hotels.

The complaints began when parish leaders could not find the agency’s telltale red-and-white smocks in the days immediately after the storm.

Dave Neal, director of the Center for the Study of Disasters and Extreme Events at Oklahoma State University, says the slow response was not entirely the fault of the Red Cross because its movements are bound up in the overall federal response plan. If the government moves slowly, then the Red Cross will too. At the same time, Neal says, the Red Cross does not have the flexibility to resort to deficit spending, as the federal government does, to speed up its response to an epic disaster such as Hurricane Katrina.

“The Red Cross does a lot of good work, but sometimes they don’t get their message out as well as they should,” Neal said. “One of biggest misconceptions is that they get money from the federal government. Even though they’re part of the national response plan, there might be other parts of the bureaucracy that don’t see them as equal.

“Yet the public has expectations they should be right there.”

Some of the hurricane victims – themselves previous donors – felt a sense of entitlement that aid should be readily available.

“We work for a living. This is where we donate our funds,” said Simlin, who was waiting in line at West Jefferson Medical Center. “This is something you do all your life, and when you’re in need, it’s hard to get anything.”

For its part, the Red Cross offers assurance that it will get aid to all who need it, if only they can be patient. Staff members say beleaguered people should not feel they have to camp overnight at the aid distribution centers to get their share of the available aid.

“We want people to understand that they don’t have to go the minute they hear a rumor a site is opening up,” said Mary Dooley, a spokeswoman in Baton Rouge. “We are going to be here for weeks to come.”


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