Red Cross now better prepared for future crises

Published 5:00 am Monday, August 28, 2006

Volunteers were not hard to find immediately following HurricaneKatrina’s rampage through Mississippi, but as counties havereturned to normalcy, the number of volunteers that once swelledthe ranks of charitable organizations has begun to dwindle.

At the height of the crisis, the ranks of the local American RedCross chapter grew to more than 300 people as volunteers aidedevacuees in shelters and assisted the national organization indisbursing financial assistance checks to locals, according toLayla Edwards Case, executive director of the Brookhaven chapter ofthe organization.

“We had a lot of spontaneous volunteers that would help forabout a day or two, until they got the assistance they needed, andthen we would never see them again,” Case said.

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The additional volunteers were a tremendous asset in identifyingpossible locations for more shelters and in delivering andproviding food, water, ice and other necessities to those insideand outside of shelters.

As the county recovered and the need dwindled, however, so didthe volunteers as their services became less in demand.

“We probably have about 30 now that we can call up and get tohelp if we need it,” Case said.

However, that number of active, reliable volunteers is still upfrom the 10 the local chapter could call on when needed prior tothe storm.

And, she said, the number of auxiliary volunteers has remainedsteady since Katrina and presently includes about 220 members.Inactive members are those trained specifically to assist inshelters when the need arises.

“We’re way more prepared for another hurricane than we were,”Case said. “Katrina taught us a lot of lessons. I don’t think youcan be 100 percent prepared for a hurricane, but we’re about asprepared as you can be.”

Some of the lessons learned that the organization is betterprepared to handle now resulted from miscues and missteps that wereharshly criticized here in the wake of the storm.

Financial assistance for people living in American Red Crossshelters began arriving Sept. 8, approximately 10 days after thestorm. By Sept. 11, the Red Cross began providing financialassistance to locals who suffered damage in the storm.

Volunteers, however, were immediately overwhelmed by theresponse.

The first plan opened up a distribution center at the localchapter’s offices on Court Street. It was only there two daysbefore traffic backups and other developing issues forced it to bemoved to the Lincoln County Multi-Use Facility, where it was hopedthe larger accommodations would ease some of the tension.

However, as word of the center began to spread, residents ofcounties as far away as Hinds began streaming into Lincoln Countyseeking financial assistance.

Thousands of people affected by Hurricane Katrina braved lovebug swarms, high temperatures and long lines as American Red Crossofficials tried to improve their system for providingassistance.

Once inside the service center, residents would speak with oneof 13 interviewers, who collected information about the number ofdependents in the family and storm damage in their efforts toobtain disaster grants ranging from around $350 for singles to$1,500 for families of five or more.

In the early days of the program, thousands were turned awayafter waiting in line all day in the sweltering sun when the centerwould close after assisting approximately 800 people each day.

“(The local chapter) was just doing what we were told and(national) kept changing the plan around. That kept confusingeveryone and making a bad situation worse,” Case said.

In addition, she said, Lincoln County served as testing groundas the organization sought effective ways to handle the largenumber of applicants.

“We were the guinea pig for this area in how to do that,” Casesaid. “They tried one thing thing the first day and it was purechaos. And that persisted until they devised the ticketsystem.”

Eventually, a system of tickets was designed to alleviate thelines and frustrations began to fade. Volunteers would distribute8,000 tickets one morning each week with a return time.

“There are processes in place now to prevent these issues fromhappening in the future,” Case said.

The system quickly became a model that other Red Cross centersin the state adopted to meet their demands as well, Case said. Now,that system is one of several listed in preparation guidelinesdistributed to chapters across the United States.

One issue contributing to the confusion in the early days of thedistribution program was a communication failure among Red Crossmembers, Case said. Unqualified personnel were providinginformation to the public and the media that wasn’t accurate or wasoutdated, she said.

The Red Cross has restricted who may communicate with the mediain future disasters to ensure only the correct and timelyinformation is released.

Fraud from false applications made during those frenetic days isan issue still plaguing the American Red Cross, Case said.

“We are aggressively addressing the fraud issue here in Lincoln,Lawrence and Pike counties,” she said.

The local chapter is working with the national organization’sfraud team to identify improper claims and prosecute those cases,Case said.

In all, Case said, the Red Cross provided $13,538,425 infinancial assistance to Lincoln, Lawrence, Pike, Franklin andCopiah counties. Pike County received the largest share at$6,549,503 followed by Lincoln County with $5,478,787 inassistance.

Increased training has also been used to solve a number ofissues that developed during the recovery, she said.

After the recovery efforts were completed, Case said shereceived several complaints on the attitudes of some of thenational volunteers dispatched here to assist. However, by then itwas too late for her to take any action.

“A lot of the workers overstepped their boundaries and tried totake charge at some of the shelters,” Case said. “We will not leaveour shelters with only national people again. We will have a localvolunteer there at all times to monitor the shelter.”

At the national level, training has been instituted to providemore in-depth training for its deployable volunteers and willsubmit them to a more thorough background check to prevent futureproblems, Case said.

The problems that occurred during recovery operations have alsohad a financial impact on the local chapter, Case said. Upset attheir treatment by national volunteers or by the amount of fraud,many people have steered their donations away from the Red Cross,she said.

Also, most people are not aware that any donations made to thelocal chapter must specifically state it is for the local chapteror it must be forwarded to the national organization, Casesaid.