Rumors, frustration eased by better organization

Published 5:00 am Monday, September 19, 2005

We received a call Monday morning that the Lincoln CountyMulti-Purpose Building on Belt Line Road was being overwhelmed withpeople seeking Red Cross assistance. Grabbing a camera to lend ahand to our news staff, I headed out to shoot a photo, neverexpecting what I saw – thousands of people standing in themid-morning heat – waiting.

Cars and people were everywhere.

A line, three to four people wide, snaked twice the length ofthe facility’s parking lot. At the door of the building, armedNational Guardsmen stood guard holding the crowds back as anotherguardsman pleaded with people to back away from the door andrequested that only one member per family enter the facility.

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While everyone was orderly and tempers seemed in check Mondaymorning, as the week wore on the situation became more intense asan estimated 6,000 people at one point waited. In the wee hours ofWednesday, the situation became more intense and additionalNational Guardsmen were ordered onto the facility grounds.

Rumors began flying, and the calls into our newsroom becameintense. The calls varied in theme and frustration. Some wanted toknow how to avoid the long lines; others were about rumors of “freemoney” being given out. And still others were frustrated thatnational volunteers had replaced local Red Cross officials. Themost chilling were a few frustrated comments about never againdonating money to the American Red Cross!

As a reservation system was put into place the pressure wasrelieved significantly by Thursday and a potentially volatilesituation was avoided.

At a meeting with the Red Cross late Thursday afternoon, many ofthe rumors were addressed and explanations given for the events ofthe week. The bottom line, according to Tim Connolly, Red Crossrelief coordinator, is that size and scope of Hurricane Katrinacompletely overwhelmed the Red Cross system and that despite usualefforts to prevent abuse, their focus became to get money to asmany families as possible as quickly as possible.

Connolly admitted that the policy opened the system for abuseand admitted abuse was going on. However, he said systems were inplace to later identify that abuse and suspect names would beturned over to local law enforcement authorities.

National volunteers replaced local Red Cross officials, Connollysaid, as a matter of policy to assure the credibility of thesystem. He said that having volunteers without local tiesregistering and handing out checks would assure everyone that nofavoritism could be shown. “We do not care who you are related toor what connections you have; we want to treat everyone fairly,” hesaid.

The “free money” he said was a matter of personal moral attitudeand hoped people would let those who have lost everything get whatthey need first. He chided those who maybe lost a freezer full offood but were standing in front of people who only had the clotheson their back.

To those who expressed reluctance to donate to the Red Cross, hejust responded, “What good will that do? The purpose of the RedCross is to help.”

To avoid the long wait, Connolly suggested people use thenational toll-free line, 1-800-975-7585. Unfortunately, that linealso produces a long wait, as most attempts result in a busysignal. Connolly said the Red Cross was trying to solve the problembut added that sitting by a phone was more comfortable thanstanding in a long line in the dust and heat.

All in all, by Friday morning, more than 5,000 individuals hadbeen processed and 15,000 more had appointments reaching intomid-October. The Red Cross estimates that at current levels more$20 million will be distributed by the Lincoln County reliefcenter.

Write to Bill Jacobs at P.O. Box 551, Brookhaven MS 39602,or send e-mail to