Hectic year drains Red Cross's fund for disaster relief. 3 hurricanes largely to blame for deficit midway through budget year

Largely as a result of three hurricanes that struck the Gulf Coast within three months this year, the American Red Cross's disaster-relief budget has been taken by storm. The national organization faces a multimillion-dollar deficit in its disaster-relief fund, which provides emergency aid such as shelter, food, clothing, bedding, furniture, and appliance repairs to people involved in disasters.

With the agency's fiscal year not over until July, things could get worse before they get better, says Jean Nunley, director of disaster services for the Midwestern states. Red Cross officials say snow storms in the West and Midwest are expected to make further demands on disaster-relief funds.

Initially, the American Red Cross budgeted $17 million nationally for disaster relief. That figure was boosted to $30 million when money was shifted from a revolving fund. But the number of hurricanes, floods, and other disasters so far this year has forced the agency to commit $48 million to disaster relief.

Relief efforts related to Hurricane Juan alone account for nearly $10 million of that: The storm struck Louisiana in late October and spawned severe flooding along parts of the East Coast as it moved inland and weakened.

``We got hit by five hardballs this year. I don't know what will happen if someone throws a sixth,'' says Daniel Rosenthal, director of emergency services for the Southeast Louisiana Chapter of the American Red Cross, referring to the season's various hurricanes and floods.

In the past, Texas, Florida, and Mississippi have tended to bear the brunt of hurricanes and tropical storms, but this year Louisiana was the worst hit. Some 19,000 Louisiana families were affected by Juan, the state's most destructive hurricane of the year.

Some Louisiana families were so severely affected by the season's hurricanes ``that they barely had the mattresses out of the plastic after Elena when Juan struck,'' Mr. Rosenthal says. Hurricanes Danny and Elena hit Louisiana within a two-week period beginning in mid-August, followed by Juan in late October. Dozens of Red Cross shelters were opened statewide to aid victims. It was the most massive shelter operation in Louisiana since Hurricane Camille in 1969.

Because of the enormous financial burden that Juan placed on Red Cross disaster funds, a statewide disaster-funds campaign was launched in early November. A mass mailing of nearly 600,000 ``disastergrams'' went out to request financial contributions. To date about $392,000 has been raised in Louisiana, according to Ms. Nunley.

Red Cross officials are surprised to find money coming in because requests came on the heels of a drive by the United Way, which largely funds the Red Cross. ``People are waking up to each other again, maybe because they're becoming disaster conscious,'' Rosenthal says.

The Southeast Louisiana chapter was also troubled financially in recent weeks when it discovered that $20,000 worth of vouchers had been stolen. Police have arrested one Red Cross volunteer and charged him with fraud and theft. Another volunteer is being sought in connection with the theft.

``There is a crisis,'' says the Southeast Louisiana Chapter's Rosenthal, ``but we'll get the money. We're shifting funds from other allocations so no one has to wait for help.''

``Under normal times we don't get money from the parent [Red Cross] organization'' in Washington, D.C., says Sally Donlon, public relations assistant for the Southeast Louisiana Chapter, which is among the largest in the nation. Each chapter must raise its own operating budget, plus contribute to the parent group.

Every five years or so, disasters result in a financial crisis for the Red Cross, says Rosenthal, and extra fund-raising campaigns become necessary. The Gulf Coast is especially susceptible to bad weather. ``If storms don't get us in September, spring floods get us in April,'' he says.

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