Area must have strong Red Cross presence

Published 5:00 am Monday, September 29, 2008

When tornados and other natural disasters strike,representatives of the Red Cross are quickly on the scene to offerassistance. Another part of the Red Cross’s mission is to provideplaces of refuge to people fleeing the fury of coastalhurricanes.

The latter part of the organization’s mission was front andcenter earlier this month when hundreds of Hurricane Gustavevacuees streamed into Southwest Mississippi looking for shelter.Government officials’ concerns and news stories suggest theorganization was not quite up to the task.

Part of the reason for the breakdown was that the local RedCross operation was in a state of flux and struggling withfinancial debt dating back to Hurricane Katrina.

The local board of directors voted Sept. 18 to give up itschapter status, thereby leaving the four covered counties ofLincoln, Pike, Lawrence and Franklin under the guidance of theHattiesburg district. Local volunteer leaders see this as apositive move that will clear the chapter’s debt, decreaseexpenditures and set up the area to again seek chapter status atsome point in the future.

That ultimately may prove the case, but in the interim – howeverlong that may be – Red Cross operations must not be allowed to slipto the level that was on display during Gustav.

It is heartening to hear that Hattiesburg Red Cross leadersplace the openings of offices in Brookhaven and McComb near the topof the priorities list during re-organizational efforts.

With Interstate 55 serving as a primary evacuation route, Pikeand Lincoln are the first Mississippi counties where fleeingLouisiana residents start to look for shelter. In many ways,Brookhaven is actually the first stopping point because it is thefirst city encountered after the end of I-55 contraflow just northof Bogue Chitto.

For these reasons, it is critical that Red Cross have a strongpresence and organizational structure in place here to welcomeevacuees.

A scenario in which this area awaits instructions and suppliesfrom the Hattiesburg chapter, which has its own evacuees fromInterstate 59 to accommodate, is problematic at best. Andpotentially a disastrous repeat of Gustav at worst.

Local volunteer leaders, who will be serving in an advisorycapacity, appear committed to turning Red Cross operations aroundand enhancing the organization’s presence here.

Their efforts will be aided by more people getting involved asvolunteers and more donations being made to the local organization.Red Cross officials say contributions designated for a county willremain in the specified county.

Hurricane season is not over and other natural disasters maystrike at any time. Proper addressing of past issues, combined withcommunity support and involvement in the days, weeks and monthsahead, will go a long way toward helping the local Red Cross answerthe call when needed.