- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 8, 2006

NEW YORK (AP) — The American Red Cross is plunging into a daunting, two-track effort to overhaul its disaster response system and the often cumbersome way it governs itself after being assailed for missteps in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

There is pressure to move quickly and convincingly.

The new hurricane season starts June 1, and the Red Cross is hurrying to get its new response plans in place before any big storms arrive. It also hopes to complete an independent audit this summer and offer governance reform proposals to Congress before skeptical politicians start pushing their own reform plans.

“Is the process painful? Absolutely,” Red Cross Board of Governors Chairwoman Bonnie McElveen-Hunter said. “These are defining moments, defining hours for us. … But ultimately we will have a greater American Red Cross.”

The 125-year-old charity, chartered by Congress, raised $2 billion, mobilized 235,000 volunteers and helped hundreds of thousands of displaced people after Katrina hit.

Yet it was sharply criticized for responding too slowly in some low-income minority areas, for overreliance on inexperienced staff and for reluctance to work closely with other nonprofits.

Mrs. McElveen-Hunter and interim Red Cross President Jack McGuire stressed that the criticism was being taken to heart and would fuel substantive changes. Some will be outlined at the annual National Hurricane Conference this week in Orlando, Fla.

One of the major reform proposals is to strengthen cooperation with other national charities and with grass-roots church and community groups. The Salvation Army and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) are among the groups that have been asked for advice.

The NAACP’s chief operating officer, the Rev. Nelson Rivers, said he had been disappointed in the past by Red Cross “sloganeering” about diversity initiatives that never materialized. But he expressed cautious optimism about the new initiative.

“It still takes them a long time to move, but they are moving,” he said. “The test will be, ‘How close will the action match the words?’”

Mr. McGuire said other steps to improve disaster response will include improving communications and data-collection technology, tightening documentation of aid disbursement, and recruiting major transport and delivery companies to expedite emergency supply shipments.

Coinciding with the disaster-response overhaul is an intensive effort to improve how the Red Cross governs itself: It now has a 50-member board.

Reform ideas were solicited at a closed-door summit of outside specialists on March 21, and Mrs. McElveen-Hunter said she hopes recommendations will be ready to submit to Congress before it reconvenes this fall.

New York lawyer Ira Milstein was one of those at the summit. “They got the message,” he said. “I think they understand what they have to do”

Much of the pressure has come from Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, who in hearings and private meetings has been urging the Red Cross to become more effective and accountable.

Mr. Grassley scolded the organization when whistleblowers from within its ranks recently came forward with accusations that some volunteers had misused emergency resources after Katrina. Now, he conveys a mix of hope and skepticism as Red Cross leaders promise sweeping changes.

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