Red Cross chief quits amid internal friction

Organization's response to hurricanes has been criticized

December 14, 2005|By NICOLE GAOUETTE | NICOLE GAOUETTE,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Marsha J. Evans, who led the American Red Cross through an uneven and much-criticized response to Hurricane Katrina, resigned as its president yesterday in another sign of continuing troubles in the organization that bears prime responsibility for delivering relief to victims of disasters, including storms and terrorist attacks.

Red Cross officials attributed Evans' departure to conflicts between her and the organization's board of directors rather than to her post-Katrina performance.

Members of Congress and critics outside the government are again suggesting that the fundamental role of the Red Cross might need to be reconsidered.

Although the Red Cross is a private, nonprofit charitable organization, it carries responsibilities on a scale usually associated with government. In the National Response Plan, the federal government's blueprint for dealing with disasters, the Red Cross is designated as the primary agency responsible for sheltering, feeding and offering medical care to people after a large man-made or natural emergency.

The size of that role -- and the Red Cross's dominance in raising private donations for disaster relief -- have contributed to making the organization a target of increasingly sharp criticism.

"After witnessing the American Red Cross' struggles during Katrina and Rita, I am not sure it is prudent for Congress to place such great responsibility in the hands of one organization," said Rep. Jim McCrery, a Louisiana Republican who testified about Katrina's impact in his district during a congressional hearing.

In the hectic days after the storm and the subsequent flooding of New Orleans, the Red Cross struggled to keep up with demands for shelter, food and medical care. Some evacuees, local officials and leaders of other relief groups said the Red Cross was sometimes slow to respond, did not reach out to remote areas and showed insensitivity in its treatment of some poor and disabled storm victims.

The Red Cross pointed out that it poured more than 200,000 volunteers into the areas devastated by Katrina, gave financial assistance to about 1.2 million families and provided food and temporary shelter for several million evacuees.

Moreover, its defenders noted, the huge challenges also overwhelmed federal, state and local government agencies.

The departure of Evans, the third Red Cross president to resign since 1991 after conflicts with the organization's 50-member board, suggested to some analysts that the internal politics of the Red Cross might be as much in need of change as its system for delivering emergency aid.

"I think it's the board at fault here," said Paul C. Light, a professor of organizational studies at New York University. "The missing story is the board and its responsibility in hiring people it doesn't get along with, and its responsibility in building an effective infrastructure that can operate with chapters in a time of crisis," he said.

The organization has resisted investing in systems to better manage supplies, inventory and volunteers, all of which hurt its hurricane response, Light said.

Light and others said the size of the Red Cross board makes it unwieldy.

Also, they said, tensions between the national organization and strong regional chapters play themselves out in struggles within the board, which has 30 members from chapters, 12 members nominated by the board of governors and eight chosen by the president of the United States.

Evans' resignation "is a sign that something needs to change, that it's not any one particular person, but a problem with the organization," said Stacy Palmer, editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy. "The board has always been a pretty contentious one because people from the chapters and the national organization want control."

Connor, the Red Cross spokesman, said, "We believe that we have a fine board and the board's functionality is very effective."

He said the board's concerns about Evans "were with the frequency and quality of her consultation with the board that has oversight of the Red Cross."

Jack McGuire, executive vice president for biomedical services, will step in as interim president and chief executive officer.

Evans was brought in to deal with the controversy over the way the Red Cross used and distributed donations after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Some critics said it failed to give money to victims quickly enough and that it set aside some 9/11 contributions for use in future emergencies without fully explaining that to the public.

Nicole Gaouette writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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