Red Cross presence in short supply at local shelters

Published 5:00 am Tuesday, September 2, 2008

BROOKHAVEN, Miss. – Due to a slow response from the American RedCross, five major church-based shelters in the Brookhaven area havehad to rally their congregations to self-sufficiency while housinghundreds of Hurricane Gustav evacuees from Louisiana.

Several church officials reported that the organization has beeneither late or non-existent at their shelters, with deliveries offood and medical supplies usually inadequate to accommodate largenumbers of evacuees. All five shelters filled to capacity withinhours of opening their doors Sunday evening.

None received any sleeping cots – the item most demanded – forthe first 24 hours. Some have yet to receive any cots.

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The slow response from the organization seems to becalculated.

Traci Winfree, the point volunteer for the Red Cross’sBrookhaven office, said the organization’s pre-landfall planningfor hurricanes dictates that 10 percent of the overall shelterpopulation be provided with cots.

“People are told to bring a pillow and blanket – you’re going tobe on the floor at a church or a gym,” she said. “If you have 1.9million people evacuating, there is no magic formula that you canpredict where those people are going to end up. We know we’re notgoing to be able to get a cot for every person – no way.”

Winfree said the American Red Cross Mid South Chapter estimatedthat the five-county area – which includes Lincoln County – wouldhouse 2,000 evacuees and made preparations for 250 cots. Now thatthe storm has made landfall, she said the organization is assessingthe shelters and moving more resources to them.

Local Red Cross spokeswoman Hilda Peeler said cots and supplieswere sent to the Jackson and Meridian area shelters first, as perplans that evacuees be moved farther north before stopping.

“We’re trying to filter down this way,” she said.

But for some shelters, the response will be a day late and adollar short. Area churches are running on their Hurricane Katrinaexperience and volunteers, and the only ones that have cots havethem left over from that storm.

Central Baptist Church Pastor Ryan Thurman said that as ofTuesday morning, the Red Cross has not made an appearance at hisshelter.

“I never got a word from them,” he said. “The word was that wewould get some cots, but we haven’t really had much support fromthe Red Cross.”

Thurman said his only contact from the organization throughoutHurricane Gustav has been the delivery of shelter registrationforms. His congregation has supplied the evacuees with groceries,pillows and blankets.

Thurman also said his church made the call to officially openthe shelter Sunday evening when the command from the Red Cross wasnever issued. The church reached its capacity of 100 shortly afteropening and later took on five more evacuees.

Despite the absence of the Red Cross, Thurman said the shelterwas running smoothly.

“Part of me says we’re doing what we need to do,” he said. “Butsupplies and support – not leadership on site – is what we’relooking for from the Red Cross.”

Macedonia Baptist Church Pastor Garland Boyd said his churchopened its doors independently as well. As evacuees began arrivingSunday, he said the Red Cross instructed him to send them farthernorth. When the same group returned to Macedonia within two hours,the church opened up.

Aside from that initial phone contact, Boyd has received onlystaple foodstuffs from the Red Cross.

Boyd finally sent two of his men to the Brookhaven Red Crossoffice Monday around noon to get a small number of cots andwhatever supplies could be found. The 80 cots the church had leftover from Katrina were not enough to supply the approximately 150evacuees housed at the church.

Boyd said Red Cross officials told him no cots could be releaseduntil Hurricane Gustav made landfall.

“We haven’t even seen the Red Cross out here,” Boyd said. “We’reall right, we’ve just been promised a lot of stuff we haven’tseen.”

The Red Cross has attempted to supply Brookhaven’s largestshelter – Faith Presbyterian Church – with some supplies, but theamount delivered was inadequate for the church’s evacuees. Theorganization supplied the church with three small shelves of mostlypediatric medicine for its 199 evacuees, and no food.

The church was promised 250 cots last week before that numberfell to 20 and, finally, none. Church members traveled to Jacksonbefore Gustav’s landfall and purchased 75 air mattresses toaccommodate their guests.

Easthaven Baptist Church Youth Minister Hampton Sims said thegoing has been tough for his church’s 150 evacuees. Easthavenfinally received 40 cots from the Red Cross Monday at 1 p.m. Simssaid the church had been promised 160 cots.

The Red Cross did deliver food and baby formula to Easthaven,but it may not be enough if Gustav lingers.

“It depends on how long we have [the evacuees] as to whether ornot we have enough food,” Sims said.

The First Baptist Church seems to be the exception inBrookhaven. Associate Pastor Jeff Doremus said the Red Cross hassupplied the church with items requested in a timely manner.

“We didn’t expect them to be here in 20 minutes, but they’vebeen fairly prompt,” he said.

Doremus said the Red Cross supplied First Baptist with food,snacks, diapers and basic medical supplies. The church already hadenough cots left over from Hurricane Katrina to supply all 80 ofits evacuees.