Red Cross volunteers tell of frustration

Red Cross volunteers tell of frustration

4 March 2008

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USA —  Concerns over how the American Red Cross directed resources during the Southern California wildfires run deeper than the tens of thousands of dollars the disaster-relief organization admitted to spending on unused hotel rooms.

San Diego residents who volunteered for the Red Cross during October’s firestorms said they observed needless spending – citing car rentals as an example – and uncoordinated leadership among volunteers sent here from around the country by the national organization.

“It was very frustrating,” said Cameron Peter, a Point Loma woman who volunteered in the initial days of the disaster. “Obviously I volunteered because I wanted to help, but I was just wasting my time. We weren’t helping anyone at all.”

The American Red Cross defended its relief efforts in Southern California, although a December report from the agency’s ombudsman found several examples of miscommunication and a lack of proper training among its leaders.

The agency’s response to the wildfires has received new attention after news reports last week that the national charity reserved and paid for hotel rooms that were never used.

Charity officials admit overbooking an unknown number of rooms for out-of-town volunteers dispatched to San Diego, but they said they erred on the side of caution.

“These are very large incidents, and it’s tough to coordinate,” spokeswoman Laura Howe said. “When disaster is uncertain, sometimes it’s a moving target.”

The American Red Cross declined to say how much it spent on unused rooms, although it acknowledged the total is tens of thousands of dollars. The agency is negotiating with San Diego hotel operators to try to recoup a portion of the expense or secure vouchers for free rooms during a future emergency.

The charity pledged to release details of its overspending once those negotiations have ended.

“We want to take as much responsibility and be as humble about this as we can,” Howe said. “It’s in the best interest of our donors and our clients.”

The American Red Cross paid for 27,317 room nights for their nearly 2,500 out-of-town volunteers. The average length of stay was just under two weeks and the average cost for food, transportation and housing was $139 a day per volunteer, Howe said.

Peter, the volunteer, said the organization allowed hundreds of volunteers to rent cars individually rather than coordinating the overall transportation needs of out-of-town help.

The charity, at a cost of $582,000, rented 1,269 vehicles during its wildfire response, including 1,098 cars. The rest were trucks and vans used to deliver food and other relief supplies.

Howe said the American Red Cross does its best to make sure volunteers team up for transportation whenever possible. “For the most part, people are told to stay at the airport and wait for someone else coming in,” she said.

Approximately $21 million in donations earmarked for Southern California wildfire relief poured in to American Red Cross headquarters as a result of the disaster. In addition, $5.5 million has been pledged but not yet received.

About $16 million has been spent on relief efforts, according to the charity’s local chapter.

The national Red Cross took over management of the wildfire disaster-relief as soon as local officials realized the extent of the damage, said Joe Craver, president and chief executive of the San Diego and Imperial counties chapter.

The fires erupted in San Diego County the morning of Sunday, Oct. 21. By the middle of that week, Red Cross officials in Washington, D.C., directed thousands of volunteers to San Diego, where more than 500,000 people were forced from their homes as a result of onrushing flames.

But some volunteers said the leaders of the visiting volunteers were disorganized and failed to provide clear instructions to the army of relief workers. At least a few volunteers were sent home after completing the required training, or they waited hours before being given jobs that were of no help to victims.

Marcia Davis, a Mira Mesa resident who transcribes documents for a living, went through the Red Cross emergency training because she wanted to help fire victims.

Davis said yesterday that she twice was sent to Red Cross centers run by the national volunteers and told she wasn’t needed – even though she had a Red Cross badge identifying her as a trained helper.

“These (Red Cross) people from out of town didn’t even have directions or know where they were going,” Davis said. “They would go out and assess damage where the firefighters had already been. They were just wasting resources. It was crazy.”

Daniel Borochoff, who runs the American Institute of Philanthropy charity watchdog group, said the hotel overbooking is similar to mistakes the Red Cross made after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when it misstated by 400,000 the number of people it housed.

“That mistake seems like it would be hard to make,” he said. “You’d think they would have learned their lesson after that (Katrina) embarrassment.”

Beverly Ortega Babers is the American Red Cross ombudsman who studied the charity’s response to the wildfires. Her December report laid out a number of concerns from clients, volunteers and employees about the Red Cross’ failings, but it did not address the hotel overbooking.

Among other complaints, many Red Cross officials “did not have sufficient knowledge and/or experience to do their jobs,” she wrote.

Babers said the Red Cross should get to the bottom of the hotel-room issue. “It’s in the American Red Cross’s best interests to be able to reassure the public they are good stewards of the donor dollars,” she said.

Local Red Cross chief Craver said he worried the overbooking would prompt people to stop giving to the charity.

“It’s something that neither I or this chapter had any control over,” he said. “I’m just very saddened that it did occur.”

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