A Volunteer’s Perspective: After the Storms

Like many Americans seeing Hurricanes Katrina and Rita pummel the Gulf Coast last fall, I wanted to do more than just watch the news and say “That’s really awful.” The initial human impulse is to want to help, preferably as directly and immediately as possible. The practical aspects of everyday life - jobs, family and other obligations – usually prevent us from dropping everything, taking the next flight to the disaster area and offering our services to the first disaster relief group we come across.

Like many Americans seeing Hurricanes Katrina and Rita pummel the Gulf Coast last fall, I wanted to do more than just watch the news and say “That’s really awful.” The initial human impulse is to want to help, preferably as directly and immediately as possible. The practical aspects of everyday life—jobs, family and other obligations—usually prevent us from dropping everything, taking the next flight to the disaster area and offering our services to the first disaster relief group we come across.

At the time of the hurricane, I was working part time as a special project employee in marketing for TSNE MissionWorks, helping to organize the NonProfit Center Open House. When I expressed my desire to travel to the region to work with the Red Cross, I was told that the TSNE position would be held for me for the time that I would be away in Baton Rouge, La. 

>My preparation for this assignment had actually begun last October, when I took the three Red Cross courses that volunteers are required to have before helping in a disaster. These courses provide an introduction to the Red Cross and give a basic overview of the work that is typically required of volunteers at the scene of a disaster. As it turned out, because this disaster was so much larger and more extensive than anything the Red Cross had undertaken previously and because I was volunteering several months after the hurricanes hit, my responsibilities turned out to be quite different from what I had expected to be doing. More on that later.

In a “normal” disaster, Red Cross assistance focuses on meeting the victims’ immediate emergency needs. Typically, this can involve providing food, clothing, short-term shelter and access to medical care. In some cases, as when a few families have been displaced by a fire, the Red Cross will cover three or four nights in a hotel and provide enough money to feed a family for a few days; in others, with a larger number of victims, the Red Cross may need to open a temporary shelter and kitchen. Depending on the amount of damage the victims have sustained, a small amount of financial assistance (currently no more than $1,565 for a family of five or more) may be provided. This money is intended to help the victims replace lost clothing and purchase other items needed to meet their immediate needs.

Because of this focus on helping people recover from the immediate emergency created by the disaster, the Red Cross does not typically provide direct long-term assistance. Once the initial emergency needs of the victims have been met, Red Cross caseworkers will work with people to connect them with local, state and federal resources that can help in their recovery. For instance, they might connect them with local agencies that can help them find housing, or a caseworker may assist a family in applying for federal loan programs. The goal is to enable victims of a disaster to independently resume their normal daily activities as quickly as possible.

Old Ways of Meeting New Needs

However, like disasters, disaster relief work doesn’t always follow the expected plan. And of course this was especially true in the case of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which were “off the charts” in almost every respect. In the days and weeks immediately after the hurricanes hit, the Red Cross provided food, shelter, and other emergency assistance to over a million people in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas and Florida. They mounted the sort of relief operation that they have done many times in response to past hurricanes and other disasters, but on a vastly larger scale.

At the time that I was volunteering, several months after the hurricanes, most people had resolved their immediate, disaster-caused needs one way or another, at least to a minimal level. But this was no ordinary disaster and the long-term needs of the disaster victims were, and continue to be, enormous and pressing. In order to respond effectively to this unprecedented need for a long-term response, the Red Cross decided that it needed to begin planning for programs in collaboration with other NGOs in order to support these rebuilding efforts. However, there was still a large backlog of requests for aid that had not yet been evaluated. And each of these cases needed to be resolved before the long-term response could be put into action.

Struggling to Help Those Struggling

Thus, the job that I and several other volunteers were asked to do in Baton Rouge was to contact people whose cases were still open, interview them about their current needs, and determine if they qualified for financial assistance from the Red Cross. Most of these cases were not from the most heavily damaged areas. In many cases it was clear that the family did not qualify for Red Cross emergency aid, either because they had already received financial aid from the Red Cross or because the damage to their homes, while extensive, fell short of rendering them “uninhabitable.”

(Remember, as we volunteers were often reminded, the mission of the Red Cross is to provide immediate, emergency assistance. For better or worse, we had to accept that Red Cross financial assistance to families is not intended to fund the rebuilding of damaged homes.) There were some people who were clearly still in need of emergency aid, and it was always very satisfying to be able to arrange for them to receive it. Unfortunately, at this stage of the relief effort this was not usually the case, and too often it was my unhappy job to tell the clients, almost all of whom were still struggling to recover, that they did not qualify for financial aid.

Of course, all of the other types of aid that the Red Cross provides to disaster victims – referrals to other agencies, medical and mental health support, mobile food deliveries to neighborhoods where people have returned to work on their houses, even some clean-up supplies – were still available. But that was not usually what these folks were hoping for.

This was difficult, discouraging work. In the face of such enormous needs, we often did not feel much like we were helping people to recover from the hurricane. We received a lot of support from the supervisors in the department (who were also volunteers). We were often reminded that although it might not seem that we were helping disaster victims, it was necessary for the Red Cross to finalize this phase of the operation in order to move into the second phase, which would include addressing some of the issues to which we were currently unable to respond.
 
Probably the most important support came from the other members of the team of volunteers with whom I worked most closely. We worked long hours – 10 hours a day, 6 days a week – and usually went out to dinner together at the end of the day. We shared our stories, both good and bad, and discussed the issues that were raised by the work that we were doing. We came from a wide variety of backgrounds and we did not always share the same vision of how to most effectively help people, especially poor people, in need. But, perhaps because we were all committed to doing the best we could for our “clients,” our conversations were honest and probing.

Considering a Variety of Perspectives

One recurring topic was the wisdom of the Red Cross policy not to restrict how people spend the financial aid that they received. The money is of course intended to help replace clothing and household items that have been lost and this is undoubtedly the way that most people use it. But, except for the purchase of guns, alcohol or explosives, the funds are unrestricted and there is nothing to keep a recipient from spending the money in ways that others might feel were unwise or wasteful.

Some Red Cross volunteers with whom I worked felt that since the money was donated to the Red Cross it should not be “wasted” and that it was the responsibility of the Red Cross to make sure that it wasn’t. Others, including me, felt that individuals were the best judge of what they most needed and that it would be demeaning and demoralizing for the Red Cross to pre-judge their ability to make good decisions.

I don’t know how much our discussions changed anyone’s opinions, but they were always civil and motivated by a deep concern for the problems we were directly experiencing. In our ordinary lives we tend to spend most of our time with people who share our world view; it is after all the way that most of us are most comfortable. If having to be the bearer of bad news was the worst part of volunteering in Baton Rouge, maybe the best part was having the opportunity to interact with good people who looked at things from different perspectives and who challenged me to reexamine my own assumptions.

Postscript

There has been a lot of criticism of the Red Cross’s response to the disasters on the Gulf Coast since I completed my volunteer service. From my own experiences, I know that some of it is justified. There were many communities that were well-served, but there were also some that received little or no attention from the Red Cross. The response was huge, but it was also sometimes chaotic and even ineffective. According to “A Failure of Initiative,” the congressional investigation of the preparation for and response to Hurricane Katrina issued in early 2006, “…the American Red Cross and other [charitable organizations] faced challenges due to the size of the mission, inadequate logistics capacity and a disorganized shelter process.”

That said, it is important to remember that the Red Cross accomplishes its work with a mostly volunteer workforce that turns over about every three weeks. The Katrina disaster was more than 20 times larger than any American Red Cross mission in its 125-year history. In response to hurricanes in all of calendar 2004, the Red Cross provided financial assistance to 73,000 families. For hurricane Katrina alone the figure is over 1.2 million families. Figures for nights of shelter, meals served and volunteers required are correspondingly in excess of all previous records.

The Red Cross clearly has a lot to learn from their experience with Katrina, and I hope that they are deeply involved in assessment and restructuring. However, as the congressional report makes clear, with all of its weaknesses and faults, the performance of the Red Cross and other charitable organizations was still far better than that of FEMA and other governmental agencies. “Despite falling short of being universally present everywhere there was a need,” the report explained, “the Red Cross and numerous other charitable organizations performed admirably and heroically in reaching the greatest number of people with impressive speed.” Perhaps there is something that our government agencies could learn from NGOs, should they care to look.

The congressional report on the preparation and response to Hurricane Katrina is available. At 380 pages you may not want to read it all, but overall it’s both informative and troubling.

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