Red Cross spent millions accommodating nonresident volunteers during wildfires
By Maureen Magee
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
November 10, 2007
Volunteers from as far away as Alaska, Hawaii and New York are packing up and leaving San Diego County, as the largest Red Cross disaster relief effort since Hurricane Katrina winds down in fire-ravaged Southern California.
Davis said she was turned away at other sites because of the mass of nonresident volunteers. More than 5,200 Red Cross workers, including 2,509 who came to San Diego County from all 50 states, helped wildfire evacuees in Southern California. By the end of the weekend, about 100 will remain in the county as the recovery work is handed off to locals.
Shortly after fires began burning out of control last month, the local Red Cross called its national office for help. Officials in Washington, D.C., launched a 16-day deployment of registered volunteers.
They prepared for the worst. As a result, they may have overstaffed the effort.
“If I had the whole thing to do over . . . I probably would have brought in fewer (volunteers), but I didn't have the hindsight I do now,” said Joe Becker, senior vice president of disaster services for the national Red Cross headquarters. “In the early days, I was worried. I didn't know how bad it was going to get.”
Even more so than hurricanes, tornados and floods, fires are perhaps the most unpredictable disasters to manage, Red Cross officials said. And the Southern California wildfires were especially tough to gauge.
Fueled by powerful Santa Ana winds, the series of blazes in the county began Oct. 21 and forced 600,000 residents from their homes. The fires killed at least nine people and destroyed nearly 1,700 homes. Other wildfires hopscotched a path of destruction north to Santa Barbara.
Although the relief effort relied on volunteers, costs added up.
Officials have yet to tally expenses for the effort, but the Red Cross estimates that its average daily cost per volunteer – based on a 10-day stay – was $139. That includes shared hotel rooms and rental cars, airfare, meals and incidentals.
More than 2,500 nonresidents volunteered.Based on those figures, the out-of-town volunteers will cost the Red Cross more than $2.6 million.
Some local Red Cross volunteers question whether the money was well-spent. They say too many out-of-towners descended on the region, pushing aside capable residents.
“It was all very frustrating because I wanted to help,” said Mira Mesa resident Marcia Davis, who volunteered at the Red Cross relief efforts after Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. “San Diegans like to help out fellow San Diegans, but it seems like everyone was from someplace else.”
Local Red Cross officials turned to the national headquarters as the enormity of the disaster became apparent.
“We integrate our people in with the direction of the national director,” said Joe Craver, interim CEO of the San Diego/Imperial Counties chapter of the American Red Cross.
Local and national Red Cross officials said they were unaware of any discontent, and locals have priority in relief work.
Although many local volunteers were evacuating their own homes, hundreds sprung into action early in the disaster.
In the first two days of the fires, all Red Cross volunteers – 135 on the first day and 225 on the second – were from the chapter serving San Diego and Imperial counties. On the third day, 1,505 local volunteers were aided by 113 out-of-towners sent by the national headquarters, according to Red Cross data.
But by Oct. 27, all but 14 of the 1,584 Red Cross volunteers were from out of town.
The number of locally based volunteers has been rising since the beginning of the month.
Officials point out that the national effort relies on volunteers who are specially trained to carry out 37 jobs – everything from food preparation and warehouse management to nursing and mental health care.
High-end arrangementsThe total cost of the Red Cross' disaster relief for the Southern California wildfires is estimated at $12 million to $15 million, officials said. About three-quarters of that will be used in San Diego County.
About $15.7 million has been donated to the Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund specifically for Southern California wildfire recovery. An additional $4.3 million in undesignated money has been given to the Disaster Relief Fund since the fires started. Expenses include the cost of providing shelter, food, clothing and counseling to evacuees.
The Red Cross estimates that it will provide financial assistance to about 2,000 families.
The Red Cross was criticized for housing some volunteers in luxury venues, such as the Hotel del Coronado, La Costa Resort and high-end Hiltons. Becker, however, noted that the organization negotiated sharply discounted room rates. Still, Becker said the high-end accommodations were inappropriate.
For some local volunteers, word of the swanky resort stays for their out-of-town counterparts strained already-tense relationships. But mostly, the locals were upset that their offers of help were turned down.
Cameron Peter of Point Loma had volunteered for the Red Cross during the deadly 2003 Cedar fire and wanted to lend a hand once again. Like Davis, the volunteer from Mira Mesa, Peter said she was sent on several assignments that fizzled.
“I'm not sure why I kept going back,” Peter said. “I felt like they really didn't want me there, like I was in the way.”