October 24 , 2005
In defense of the Red Cross
Leroy Davis is associate professor of history and African American studies.
I began volunteering at the Red Cross shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and thousands of evacuees began arriving in metro Atlanta. For more than a month, my weekend job description included driving U-Haul trucks, providing in-house security and handling Red Cross casework.
I was fortunate enough to work at all three disaster mega-centers in the Atlanta area, opened to serve thousands of Katrina victims. Admittedly, I was motivated by the sheer magnitude of the disaster and the racial and class make-up of most evacuees, which mirrored many of my own friends and relatives.
My motivation for this work also sprang from the twin objectives of our philosophy in the Department of African American Studies here at Emory, where faculty and students commit to both academic excellence and social responsibility. A resident of metro Atlanta for more than 20 years, I’ve always believed we are privileged to work and study at a university in this city, but I also believe that privilege comes with a serious commitment to service outside the ivory towers of academia.
My first arrival at a suburban Red Cross branch (the mega-centers had not yet opened) mirrored the reaction of many novice volunteers. Seasoned Red Cross administrators and veteran volunteers in gray and red smocks seemed to move about aimlessly, as crowds of Katrina victims, constituting part of a growing New Orleans diaspora, waited in the parking lot for help. At the time, the Red Cross was the only organization giving out lump sums of cash through its debit card system. Katrina evacuees eventually could receive funds from the Federal Emergency Management Association, but they first had to register through a toll-free number, and it was very difficult for them to get calls through.
Normal training for a Red Cross case-worker lasts six to eight hours; I received barely 20 minutes (which amounted to working on two or three cases with a seasoned volunteer) before being abandoned to process my own evacuee clients. On that hectic first day, I informed evacuees that debit cards would be activated in 24 hours, only to find out later it would take twice that long. Available manpower simply could not keep up. Not unexpectedly, frustrated evacuees returned later to complain their cards did not work; Red Cross workers adjusted and tried to resolve debit card issues as they arose.
The next day my responsibilities shifted to building security. Two problems prompted this need: The fire marshall reportedly had paid the mega-center an unexpected visit and promised to shut us down if we continued to allow unsafe numbers inside. In addition, we had gone to a numbered system to control building entry, but many desperate evacuees still walked in to take care of personal needs (such as to use the toilet facilities) and then saw case workers ahead of time.
The security assignment allowed me to really appreciate the efforts of the many volunteers. Like the young black man in his 30s who addressed the crowds outside, explaining the ticket system and what was necessary to ensure it remained fair and equitable. At times with tears in his eyes, he pounded his chest at frustrated evacuees to show his compassion, repeating that he had “seen the bodies” in New Orleans and was doing his best to serve evacuee interests.
Yet as Hurricane Katrina brought out the best in some people, it brought out the worst in others. Red Cross administrators and volunteer caseworkers soon realized some claims were fraudulent. Initially caseworkers were instructed to take all claimants at their word and process evacuees without any identification. Some Georgia residents evidently took advantage of this lenient policy and made fraudulent claims. There also were those who allegedly made multiple claims with different centers, claiming to have more family members physically with them in order to get more financial assistance.
In part because of this fraudulent activity, the Red Cross was forced to modify its policy on identification, and evacuees who legitimately had lost their ID became even more frustrated. Many knew of Katrina victims who had received assistance without proper ID just a day earlier, and they did not want to accept the change in policy. Unfortunately, legitimate claims did suffer, but I witnessed and participated in conversations with Red Cross supervisors who enabled obvious victims of the Katrina disaster to apply for assistance without “proper identification.” I even orchestrated situations where elderly evacuees, some in their late 70s and 80s, were quietly allowed to meet with caseworkers before their scheduled times. There were more victims, some with obvious mental problems, others with apparent medical conditions (such as pregnant women), whom the Red Cross accommodated by bending rules.
Before the last of the three mega-disaster centers closed in early October, numerous complaints had been levied against the Red Cross—from affected victims in Louisiana and Mississippi, but also from political figures in Georgia and across the country. One county official in suburban Atlanta actually evicted the Red Cross from a popular relief center, charging the organization with providing poor service and insensitivity to evacuees’ needs. Other critics rightly applauded the generous support from churches in Katrina disaster relief, hinting that the federal government should perhaps allow faith-based organizations to share in what has been the Red Cross’ mission for over a hundred years.
Still others expected the Red Cross to help bear the responsibility of municipalities burdened with new and unexpected residents. The arrival of hundreds of evacuees in metro Atlanta, for example, no doubt put a financial strain on municipal services, and public officials had every right to try and negotiate fair compensation for those extra services.
However, the Red Cross was correct in disallowing these issues to interrupt the primary objective of providing as much service as possible to evacuees. Federal support of the Red Cross as the first NGO (nongovernmental organization) defense against disaster was—and still is—worthy of conversation, but it did nothing to provide immediate help to Katrina victims, nor did raising questions about money. Many critics of the Red Cross ignored the thousands aided by the relief organization and the millions of dollars dispensed throughout Georgia and across the nation to evacuees.
I’m fully aware that the Red Cross has a controversial past when it comes to its interactions with minorities, especially African Americans. And, in this latest national emergency, it probably could have worked more efficiently using current technology. Yet my experience with the organization did not convince me that the Red Cross was insensitive to the needs of evacuees, nor did the organization deliver poor service. Hurricane Katrina was undoubtedly the largest relief effort it ever undertook, yet never did the Red Cross throw up its hands and abandon its mission.
During my volunteering, I became a student again, and I learned things are not always what they seem. But that’s the value of community service on a grass-roots level, isn’t it? We get an opportunity to test our theories about human interaction and factor in those experiences in the academic models we construct. Yet, even more importantly, community service on this level helps to bridge what at times appears an unabridgeable gap between “town and gown.” Reconnecting and interacting with everyday people and problems stimulates mentally and intellectually, and providing help in the “real world” simply feels good.