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American Red Cross Offers Helping Hand

Whether it's wildfires in California, a hurricane on the Gulf Coast or an earthquake in China, the distinctive emblem of the American Red Cross can be seen at the heart of the relief effort. Faith Lapidus has more on the organization that has worked to relieve and prevent suffering in war and peace, at home and abroad, for more than a century.

As Hurricane Ike churned up the Gulf of Mexico on its way toward Texas recently, the American Red Cross was getting ready.

"While the public is sleeping and hurricanes are forming out in the Gulf, the Red Cross is on the move," says Suzy DeFrancis, the organization's chief Public Affairs officer. "We're moving people, supplies, equipment, cots, blankets, kits to various areas."

The Red Cross was founded by Clara Barton in 1881 and chartered by Congress to "provide family communications and other forms of support to the U.S. military and maintain a system of domestic and international disaster relief."

Today, its mission has expanded to include supplying nearly half of the blood and blood products in this country and offering emergency resuscitation training and HIV/AIDS education. And, says DeFrancis, it remains on the front line of disaster relief.

"We set up evacuation centers for first 12 hours of the storm, and these become later shelters where people can have a place to sleep, a hot meal, some counseling as to what they should do next and as well as some mental health counseling," DeFrancis says.

Once the emergency is over and people can return to their homes, DeFrancis explains, the Red Cross continues its assistance, with meals, clean-up supplies and emotional support.

Volunteers make the difference

The organization relies on volunteers to do the bulk of that work and on voluntary donations from the public to pay for it all. President George W. Bush made note of that while in Texas to survey the damage done by Hurricane Ike.

"The Red Cross is a vital part of helping people recover and helping people find the compassionate care that our citizens expect when there is a disaster such as this," he said, urging Americans to support the Red Cross. "I hope the country does not have disaster fatigue," he added.

DeFrancis doesn't think disaster fatigue is a problem, although she admits that the high number of disasters the organization has responded to this year has drained its emergency fund.

"I think when people see others suffering, they give," she says, pointing to the response to the earthquake in Sichuan, China, in May. "The scale of that devastation being so large, we saw an outpouring of support from the public."

Relief efforts by the American Red Cross are not limited to the United States. It works with the more than 175 other national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies around the world, providing personnel and funding for relief and recovery efforts wherever they're needed.

Staying in touch during disasters

The American Red Cross has invested in state-of-the-art communication technology. DeFrancis says the confusion after Hurricane Katrina three years ago highlighted the importance of having reliable communication tools to share information among relief workers -- and with the public.

"We're, of course, on the radio and on the TV and in the newspapers talking about where you can go to get help, but we're also now on the Web," she says.

In addition to blogs and text messages, the Red Cross uses its Web site to update the public. Its online newsroom received more than 100,000 hits during a recent emergency, and volunteers in disaster areas routinely use cell phone recordings to post reports on the Web site about conditions in the area, as well as accounts of their experiences.

The Red Cross Web site also features a virtual check-in center; evacuees sign in, so friends and family outside the disaster area can check the site and learn they are safe.

A coordinated and cooperative response to emergencies

When a disaster strikes, the federal and state governments are also on the scene, and DeFrancis says her organization works closely with their relief agencies. FEMA and local police and fire departments, she notes, are responsible for rescuing or evacuating people.

"The American Red Cross is on the receiving end of those evacuees. We take them into shelters, we feed them, we give them comfort kits, we work with them on their recovery plans," she says.

The Red Cross also partners with churches, food banks and other social service organizations, because, DeFrancis says, they know their communities, and the communities know them.

"It's the kind of effort where government can't do it alone, and the Red Cross can't do it alone, but all of us working together can help these victims," she says.