Disaster onslaught: Relief groups scramble to cope

Wednesday, May 25, 2011 | 5:56 p.m. CDT

Confronted with an unprecedented string of tornadoes, floods and wildfires, the American Red Cross and other relief groups are scrambling to raise money fast enough to meet the demand for help.

"The disasters just keep coming," said Red Cross spokesman Roger Lowe, reporting that the organization has spent $41 million thus far responding to the seven-week onslaught while raising $33.6 million to cover the costs.

Those figures were tallied before the latest violent storm system rampaged through the Midwest starting late Tuesday.

None of the recent disasters — not even the cataclysmic tornado in Joplin, Mo., on Sunday — poses a challenge on the scale that the Red Cross confronted after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. However, Red Cross officials said the period that began March 31 is unique in their memory for the sheer number of major natural disasters in such a short span.

During that period, the Red Cross launched 29 relief operations in 22 states, responding to wildfires in Texas, flooding along swollen rivers and the rash of tornadoes that has killed more than 500 people. More than 9,200 Red Cross disaster-responders have been deployed; they've served more than 2.1 million meals and snacks and opened more than 200 shelters.

Lowe said costs are running high, due in part to the long-term effects of many of these home-destroying disasters. For example, he said 93 people were still living in Red Cross shelters in Alabama, where tornadoes wrecked their homes a month ago.

"The public truly has been very generous, but the series of tornadoes and floods is really stretching our resources," Lowe said. "The fundraising is not keeping up with our extended needs, and we don't know how long we need to be providing shelter, food, mental health assistance."

So far, Lowe said, the Red Cross has been able to meet essential needs despite the gap between expenses and fundraising. One reason is the charity's Annual Disaster Giving Program, involving 28 companies that collectively donate more than $15 million a year so that money is in place for immediate disaster response.

Aside from government entities, the Red Cross is by far the largest U.S. disaster-relief organization. Many other national and local groups are also facing fundraising challenges as they respond to the recent calamities.

"We are really struggling," said Roger Conner, spokesman for Catholic Charities USA. "We've not seen this number and extent of spring storms in 40 years, ... and we just don't have the outpouring of donations we would like. The need is huge."

Through mid-May — before the Joplin tornado — Catholic Charities had received about $300,000 for the spring disasters, which Conner described as very low. He noted that the charity raised $2 million in the same time span after hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2008.

The Salvation Army said it raised $7.7 million in response to the tornadoes in the South in April, but it doesn't have an updated figure to account for this month's disasters. By comparison, it raised $382 million for Katrina relief efforts.

The Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board, which engages in disaster relief, said it has raised only about $100,000 thus far for tornado relief work in a half-dozen states.

"That doesn't go far — to do as much as we're trying to do," said board spokesman Mike Ebert. In contrast, the board raised $25 million for Katrina relief.

"The desire is there to help," Ebert said, referring to a steady supply of volunteers. "It's the donation part that seems to be lagging. ... A lot of these folks have ongoing economic issues and are in a recovery mode themselves."

Jim Rettew, a Red Cross spokesman deployed to Joplin, said another factor in the fundraising challenge is the tsunami and earthquake disaster in Japan, which prompted an outpouring of donations from Americans in March.

"What we've seen is when there are international disasters, the local donations go down," Rettew said. "We try to help them make a distinction — that we really appreciate that they've given to the international relief effort, ... and now we need your help locally."

Local efforts to help have taken myriad forms — telethons, blood drives, collection drives. MU, in support of the United Way's relief campaign in Joplin, is selling T-shirts with the slogan "One State. One Spirit. One Mizzou."

Greg James, development director for the southern Missouri region of the Red Cross, said some corporate donors have been generous. He cited gifts of $1 million from Joplin-based Tamko Building Products Inc., $500,000 from PotashCorp., a fertilizer company, and $350,000 from Wal-Mart Corp.

In Joplin, Red Cross volunteers running a shelter at Missouri Southern State University said they have all the donated food and clothing they can handle.

The shelter — which accommodated about 350 people on Tuesday night — still needs money to assist the throngs of displaced residents, said volunteer Angela Statton-Hunt. As hospitals begin to release patients, and people who fled Joplin on Sunday start to return, many people are finding their homes destroyed or severely damaged, she said.

"We really, really are in a need for monetary donations," Statton-Hunt said. She wasn't sure how much the local Red Cross branch received but said, "I know we don't have enough."

The temporary shelter, where hundreds of cots lined the floor, could be needed for a prolonged period. Many new arrivals said they had nowhere else to go and no idea what they would do next.

Joe Petronis, whose apartment was destroyed, sat on a cot and fed his 2-year-old son, Alikia, spoonfuls from a cup of peaches. They had spent two nights in the shelter and were unsure how long they would stay.

"We're talking about moving," Petronis said. "We haven't really figured it out yet."

At this stage, Red Cross officials are making no assumptions that the disaster onslaught will abate. The six-month Atlantic hurricane season begins June 1, and government forecasters expect it to be an above-average season.


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