Red Cross-Paid Wildfire Lodging Unused

RedCross-Paid Wildfire Lodging Unused

1 March 2008

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USA — The American Red Cross says it paid for a large number of hotel roomsin San Diego County that volunteers never used during last fall’s wildfires.

Spokeswoman Laura Howe refused to say how much the charity overpaid or howmany reserved rooms went empty. She said that information was confidential undera contract with a company that handles accommodations.

A message left after business hours Thursday with the company, CorporateLodging Consultants, Inc. of Wichita, Kan., was not immediately returned.

The disclosure is the latest blow to the Red Cross, America’s foremostemergency responder, which was criticized for its handling of donationscontributed after the Sept. 11 attacks and for an inconsistent response toHurricane Katrina in 2005.

“The American Red Cross has determined that an unusual number of hotelrooms were purchased but never occupied during the last year’s wildfires,”the congressionally chartered charity said in a statement Thursday. “Theserooms were intended to house volunteers sent to the area to assist with therelief effort.”

The Red Cross said it should have canceled rooms sooner, but it believeshotels made billing errors in some cases. The charity said some hotels billed”multiple times for unused rooms without calling to ask whether they werestill needed.” It asked some hotels to refund unused nights.

Robert Rauch, who runs a Homewood Suites hotel in suburban Del Mar, said noone checked in for about 10 of the 30 rooms the Red Cross booked in earlyNovember. He notified the contractor and canceled the reservations.

According to KGTV-TV in San Diego, the Red Cross paid one bill for more than$30,000 in December. The station said the document was provided by a hotelworker it did not name.

More than 4,000 Red Cross volunteers were in Southern California during thewildfires, and the agency found itself competing for hotel rooms with strandedvisitors and hundreds of thousands of evacuees, Howe said.

The charity also overestimated the scale of the disaster in its early days,when more than half a million people were ordered to evacuate, Howe said. Mostpeople went home within a day to neighborhoods that were largely unscathed.Shelters were largely shut down within a week after the fires started on Oct.21.

Rapid payments from the federal government to families affected by the firesand a network of community charities in place from similar fires in 2003 alsoalleviated demand for Red Cross volunteers.

Nearly 2,200 homes were destroyed in the fires, which scorched about 800square miles. Ten people were killed by the flames.

In future disasters, the Red Cross will review hotel invoices weekly duringdisasters and have an employee from the hotel vendor help volunteers coordinatereservations, Howe said.

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