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Monday, September 12, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Red Cross facing record challenge in disaster relief

Newhouse News Service

Red Cross history


The Red Cross became the nation's premier relief agency in 1905, when it was chartered by Congress after lobbying by Civil War nurse Clara Barton. Barton had started the American Association for the Red Cross in 1881, modeling it after the International Red Cross, which at that time largely assisted soldiers. She pushed to have the agency's mission expanded to include aiding victims of natural disasters.

In 1941, the agency got into the blood-collecting business and is now the largest blood supplier in the country. Former Red Cross President Elizabeth Dole reorganized the blood program in the 1990s after criticism that the agency was too slow in testing the blood supply for the HIV virus.

Dole was replaced in 1999 by Bernadine Healy, the first doctor to head the Red Cross. Healy was forced to retire in late 2001 when the agency was criticized for its handling of Sept. 11 relief funds.

The current president, Marsha Evans, a former Girl Scouts of the United States of America president credited with updating that organization's image, was appointed in 2002.

The American Red Cross has delivered parcels from home to soldiers at war, coffee to firefighters battling blazes, and comfort to families who lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

That care comes mostly from the agency's more than 1 million volunteers, so it's easy to forget that the Red Cross is also a business, with revenues topping $3 billion last year and 40,000 employees. As the magnitude of the crisis on the Gulf Coast emerges, the Red Cross is embarking on the greatest response to a natural disaster in its history.

The agency is the leading fund-raiser in the Hurricane Katrina relief effort, having raised more than $509 million — with donations coming in at a faster rate than after the 2001 terrorist attacks, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, a newspaper covering the nonprofit world.

Despite success in raising money, the Red Cross is struggling to prove that it has learned from mistakes it made after Sept. 11. After receiving praise for its performance immediately after the terrorist attacks, the organization came under fire for its handling of donations because it used some of the money for blood-bank reserves instead of for victims' families.

"They took corrective action after 9/11," said Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, a Chicago-based charity-watchdog organization. The organization is doing a better job of letting contributors know how the money is being used, Borochoff said.

To help Gulf Coast victims, the agency has activated more than 39,000 relief workers, sheltered 161,000 evacuees and served 12 million hot meals and snacks. Financial relief is being provided to victims via debit cards, vouchers and checks until state and federal aid is available, the organization said. The Federal Emergency Management Agency began issuing debit cards, too, but later said it would discontinue the program after distributing cards to evacuees in Texas.

How long the Red Cross will stay involved in the Gulf Coast is unclear.

"While the needs are much greater than in 9/11, I don't think we know yet what roles the Red Cross will play and which ones they'll leave to other charities," said Evan Goldstein of The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

The current president, Marsha Evans, a former Girl Scouts of the United States of America president credited with updating that organization's image, was appointed in 2002. One of her top priorities has been to raise the nation's level of emergency preparedness.

"Every one of those unprepared Americans is a potential barrier to the effectiveness of our response to any disaster," she said last summer.

Such campaigns are planned at the national headquarters in Washington, D.C., which also implements policies and regulations and supervises what are known as Red Cross Units that include the more than 1,000 local chapters and almost 40 Blood Service regions responsible for collecting, processing and distributing blood.

The chapters handle local disaster relief, help military personnel communicate with families and offer programs such as emergency preparedness. They are run by paid and volunteer staff members.

Today, most chapters are focusing on Hurricane Katrina's victims. To date, 675 shelters have been opened in 23 states.

Christine V. Baird is a staff writer for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. She can be contacted at cbaird@starledger.com.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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