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Along Battered Gulf, Katrina Aid Stirs Unintended Rivalry

Along Battered Gulf,
Katrina Aid Stirs
Unintended Rivalry Salvation Army Wins Hearts,
Red Cross Faces Critics;
Two Different Missions

September 29, 2005; Page A1

EAST BILOXI, Miss. -- The town hall meeting last week started like a church revival, with more than 200 Katrina survivors singing "Amazing Grace" under a big red tent on a football field here.

The opening prayer asked the Lord to strengthen hands, feet and minds for the rebuilding ahead. Then city officials and residents counted their blessings, thanking the dozens of volunteers who had arrived here after the storm and the donors who had sent money and supplies. People in the crowd saved their biggest applause for the Salvation Army.

"They were the only ones here in the beginning," Eula Crowell, 57 years old, said after the meeting. She lost her house to the massive storm surge that inundated East Biloxi, where many of the city's poorest people live. For the past month, she has relied on the Salvation Army for water, hot meals, groceries and other basic goods. The group also gave her $50.

The Salvation Army has the biggest presence among the nonprofit groups and churches helping out at East Biloxi's Yankie Stadium, the hub of local relief efforts. Volunteers live in tents on the football field -- "Camp Bayou," as some call it. In the parking lot, volunteers unload pallets of water, apple juice, canned goods and diapers. Last week, the Salvation Army began passing out boxes of cleaning supplies.

The American Red Cross was mentioned at the meeting too, but in a different way. "We want to know where the money is," Ms. Crowell said when she cornered a Red Cross official who attended the gathering. "All these people across America are giving money over the TV. I would tell them to put it back in their pocket."

Across the hurricane disaster zone, stretching from Alabama to Texas, an unexpected and unintended rivalry has developed between the two nonprofit organizations most closely associated with the aftermath of calamity. Here in some of the poorest parts of Mississippi and much of the Gulf Coast, the Salvation Army is drawing praise for its swift arrival in the most distressed areas and clearly winning the hearts of desperate residents. To some people here, the Red Cross, under growing criticism for letting bureaucratic hurdles slow down aid in the disaster area, suffers by comparison.

The Salvation Army is helped by its military-style structure, which is designed for rapid mobilization and which puts a premium on training people in advance to deal with disasters. It can draw on more than 65,000 employees in the U.S., nearly double the paid staff of the Red Cross.

The Salvation Army's daily work in permanent shelters with the homeless and poor and with people trying to put their lives back together after an apartment fire or years of alcohol and drug abuse helps too. The organization's focus on alleviating human suffering in the name of Jesus Christ resonates in this section of the Bible Belt.

Lightning Rod

The Red Cross, the world's dominant relief group, is naturally a lightning rod for criticism. Among aid groups, it stands out for its international reach, breadth of services and fund-raising prowess. The organization has raised nearly $1 billion in donations since Katrina hit, representing about seven of every 10 dollars given for hurricane relief, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

The Red Cross has been more ambitious than any other organization in the Katrina aftermath, dispatching 163,000 staff and volunteers to shelters and aid centers. Many are volunteers working in a disaster for the first time and armed with only a few hours of training. Several volunteers at the Baton Rouge River Center, one of the largest Red Cross shelters, quit over the disorganization they saw there. Others were sent home early because they couldn't handle the work emotionally, according to volunteers there.
A destroyed building on Biloxi's east side.

Charlotte McGee of Harvey, La., has slept in the Baton Rouge River Center auditorium for three weeks along with four daughters and four grandchildren. "Everyone in here I talk to is complaining about the same things. These volunteers just treat us like crap," Ms. McGee said. "We don't want to be here, either, but if you didn't volunteer for the right reasons, then go back home."

Only people living at the Baton Rouge shelter could apply for emergency financial aid there. Volunteers say that rule frustrated many other storm victims who walked in seeking help and got a flier instead urging them to keep calling a busy toll-free number. The Red Cross pays out $360 for a single person to $1,565 for a family of five or more.

The Red Cross acknowledges that its phone lines have been overwhelmed. It is expanding its phone bank operations, hoping to process up to 40,000 financial-aid claims per day.

A spokeswoman for the Red Cross says the disaster is so massive that complaints and glitches are inevitable. And with more than 100,000 volunteers in the field, some inevitably won't be up to the job. "We were challenged like never before" by Katrina, said Devorah Goldburg, spokeswoman for the Red Cross in Washington. "I think we rose to the challenge. We know we are not perfect. We are asking people to be patient with us."

Lisa Burbridge, an East Biloxi resident whose home was flooded, said she had no luck over the phone so she waited more than five hours at a Red Cross financial-assistance center on Saturday, Sept. 17. But it never opened that day. Late that evening, a police officer got on a bullhorn and told people waiting to go home empty-handed. "There is no organization from the Red Cross," said Ms. Burbridge. She has depended on groceries and other donated goods from the Salvation Army for the past month. "Thank God for them."

Both the Salvation Army and the Red Cross say they don't see themselves in competition and that the need for hurricane relief far surpasses the capability of any one organization. Salvation Army officials declined to comment on the Red Cross at all. Ms. Goldburg of the Red Cross said: "We think it's great the Salvation Army is out there. ...Our missions are a little bit different."

No one doubts that the Red Cross has touched many lives for the good in recent weeks. This past weekend, the organization housed 120,000 people in nearly 500 shelters across the country, split about evenly between people who evacuated for Katrina and Rita. The Red Cross is housing another 300,000 in hotels and has given 530,000 families some form of financial assistance.

The Salvation Army, founded in 1865 in London and best known for its bell-ringing santas soliciting donations to red kettles outside stores between Thanksgiving and Christmas, is both an evangelical Christian church and a major relief agency. It adopted a quasimilitary command structure in 1878, and today it still uses uniforms and military ranks for its 3,700 "officers," who are also ordained ministers. It has an additional 62,000 employees at its 9,000 Salvation Army centers around the country, which usually hold weekly worship services.

Tight Budget

Outside management experts have credited the Salvation Army with operating efficiently on a tight budget. That reputation has served it well as it took on a larger and larger role in disaster response since Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and the Northridge, Calif., earthquake two years later. Now that immediate assistance has been given, Salvation Army employees are beginning to work with residents on their long-term needs for housing, furniture, employment and help with utility bills and other financial issues.

"We do this extremely well because we are already there 365 days a year serving the poorest of the poor in these communities," said Maj. George Hood, national community relations secretary for the Salvation Army. "We are serving many of the same clients, but now they don't have homes."

The Salvation Army estimates it has helped about 500,000 storm victims in the past month by serving 4.3 million meals and handing out groceries, store vouchers, mops and buckets and other essential goods. It has rotated a team of about 12,000 employees and 28,000 volunteers into the field on two-week stints, drawing on donations of $185 million so far.

No Transportation

In East Biloxi, where many of the African-American, Hispanic and Vietnamese families had no cars or lost them in the storm, Ms. Crowell said she had no transportation to reach the closest Red Cross financial-aid center about 10 miles away. Many of the roads remain impassable, and traffic is painfully slow.

Brian Fern, an American Red Cross official on assignment from Muncie, Ind., looked Ms. Crowell in the eye after the town hall meeting and said, "I understand ma'am. We are stretched. We are stretched. We will have a site in East Biloxi soon. But I don't know where yet."

Frustrated that the Red Cross hadn't shown up, local math teacher Susan Turner took matters into her own hands. She became a Red Cross volunteer and began taking down people's information for cash payments under a small white tent in East Biloxi. "The Red Cross didn't do anything for us. They know they are in trouble just like FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency]," Ms. Turner said.

Late last week, nearly 100 people waited on folding chairs for their turn to apply for cash grants. Ms. Turner drives the paperwork each afternoon to the closest Red Cross center and retrieves the checks about two days later. She began passing out some of the first checks over the weekend.

Daniel Jackson, 59, was grateful Ms. Turner was there to fill out his application. He was set to receive $965. "We lost everything we got," said Mr. Jackson. His car was destroyed by the flooding. He says he needs money to pay his bills and to buy clothes for his 16-year-old daughter and himself. His wife is in a Biloxi hospital with lung cancer.

The Red Cross says it has struggled to have a presence in some of the hardest-hit areas because there are few buildings left standing with adequate space and parking for the large number of storm victims expected to show up. That was the challenge in East Biloxi.

"We are not in every neighborhood we need to be. We are in every neighborhood we can be," said Laura Howe, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross in Mississippi.

This week, a month after Katrina flattened most of East Biloxi, the Red Cross hoped to finally open a financial-aid center here. But the opening has been delayed.

--Jeff D. Opdyke and Betsy McKay contributed to this article.

Write to Chad Terhune at 1
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