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American Red Cross:  Willing Hands, Empty Pockets - 2003-08-27

The American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund has dropped to its lowest level in more than a decade. That spells risky business for those in the United States who will be the victims of the next natural or man-made disaster.

The very instant a disaster strikes, the American Red Cross is activated. Much like everyday emergency personnel such as police or firefighters, staff and volunteers for the Red Cross are on the move providing disaster victims with blankets, food and clean water. The organization responds to more than 67-thousand disasters a year, from single family house fires to the multi-victim catastrophes caused by tornadoes and hurricanes.

Although the Red Cross has had a costly year giving assistance to those in need contributions have been sparse. Larry Rockwell, senior associate for Disaster Public Affairs at the American Red Cross, National Headquarters, says high expenditures and minimal compensation have caused a budget crisis.

"Over the past year the American Red Cross spent a $114.3 million out of our disaster relief fund. That was to help the victims of more than 3,300 disasters across the United States and its territories," he explained. "However, because those disasters did not garner a lot of media attention, the American Red Cross has received donations totaling just over $39 million. So as a result the Red Cross relief fund has dipped to its lowest level in more than a decade."

Mr. Rockwell points out that recent surveys conducted by the American Red Cross have found some good explanations for the decrease in contributions over the year.

"Polling show that contributions to the Disaster Relief Fund are down simply because, number one, the public doesn't have awareness that there are those natural disasters occurring," he said. "For example, the largest disaster relief operation that we spent money on last year was super typhoon Ponsonga that hit Guam in December of last year. Most people don't remember Guam is even a United States territory, let alone care that there was disaster to the Island, that cost the Red Cross $19 million. We received only $1 million in contributions for that disaster. So one of the primary reasons that we're seeing the fund go is because those disasters are what we call the silent disasters they're not seen.

"Secondly our polling is showing us that it's simply the economy. That money is tight, people are holding onto their purse strings a little tighter to make sure they have their bills paid. People are not certain about the economic times and their job future. And in that essence the Red Cross is not alone, it's a down time for a lot of non-profit organizations," Mr. Rockwell went on to say.

Disaster relief is an unending job. On August 7, the American Red Cross gave relief support to the residents of north Palm Beach County, Florida, after a tornado tore through three miles of residential neighborhoods, damaging or destroying at least 500 homes. Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, the Red Cross has been assisting forest service personnel and fire marshals as wild fires blaze in Arizona, Utah, and Montana. But although Volunteers continue to provide helpless victims with warm meals and temporary shelters for displaced persons, the budget crisis grows worse. And Mr. Rockwell points to another factor that threatens to put even more stress on diminished resources.

"The stated Atlantic Hurricane season that we worry most about begins on June 1 and runs all the way to November 30," he said. "In addition to that, the most active months for Hurricane development run from mid August through the end of October. So we are just now hitting the peak season for Hurricane activity, which is one of the other reasons why we are so concerned about the low level of the relief fund."

Based upon annual expenditures spent over the years on natural disasters, analysts at the American Red Cross estimate $56 million is needed to keep the relief fund at a healthy level. Currently their disaster relief fund totals barely $1.2 million an amount that could be easily depleted were a single hurricane to hit American soil in the near future.