Red Cross sharply criticized

April 05, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The American Red Cross' response to Hurricane Katrina was poorly planned, relied too heavily on inexperienced managers and often failed to meet the needs of victims, say reports by international Red Cross officials who were dispatched to assist their U.S. counterparts.

The unusually harsh reports, prepared in late summer and the fall, detailed mismatches between the needs of victims and the supplies the Red Cross had arranged, the absence of a plan to guide the distribution of supplies and a lack of record-keeping, which allowed inventory to go astray.

"What is clear is that the basic needs of the beneficiaries are not being met," Mike Goodhand, head of the international logistics division of the British Red Cross, wrote on Sept. 15.

The reports, which were provided to The New York Times by a former American Red Cross official who insisted on anonymity, closely echo concerns raised by volunteers in the disaster area.

Those concerns are now the subject of a wide-ranging investigation by the American Red Cross that has already produced evidence of possible criminal misconduct by volunteer managers.

The FBI and the Louisiana attorney general are also conducting inquiries, seeking to determine whether relief supplies were stolen.

The Red Cross, which had 235,000 volunteers in the field after Hurricane Katrina, received roughly 60 percent of the $3.6 billion that Americans donated for hurricane relief.

Goodhand's report described a case in which victims in Mississippi, where his team had been sent, were requesting prepared meals and the only food that Red Cross volunteers could offer was bananas.

Volunteers driving out into neighborhoods were asked for water and juice, but had only bleach on hand, he wrote.

"All efforts to address the situation were rebuffed," Goodhand wrote.

He said that when his team offered its expertise on distributing supplies, it was instead assigned to hand out the supplies, work that could have been done by less-experienced volunteers.

On Sept. 12, two weeks after the hurricane, his team did what he described as "a nonscientific but representative and valid" assessment of what victims were saying they needed.

The most requested items were juice; Gatorade; feminine hygiene, general hygiene and household cleaning products; and insect repellent. The team found none of those in the warehouse.

"The demand for these items is entirely predictable," he wrote.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican who heads the Senate Finance Committee and has been pushing for an overhaul of the American Red Cross, called Goodhand's report, which he obtained independently, "very sobering reading."

"The report and similar findings from whistle-blowers make it clear that there is a significant need for deep, substantial reform at the American Red Cross," he wrote in an e-mail message to a reporter.

Goodhand's assessment, and a similar one by Thomas Riess, a German logistics expert with the International Committee of the Red Cross, were filed in September with the authors' home agencies, the American Red Cross and, in Goodhand's case, a number of other Red Cross agencies.

While they did not allege criminal wrongdoing, they warned of the potential for it.

"The insufficient control on deliveries allows, without any effort, to unlawfully appropriate" supplies, Riess wrote on Sept. 12.

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