Red Cross: Preparing for the next disaster (are you ready?)

The Red Cross is an international icon. When it comes to disaster at any scale — from a single-family house fire to a major event like Hurricane Katrina — the American Red Cross is ready with trained volunteers and staff to arrange delivery of food, shelter, blood products and medical supplies, counseling, disaster communications, logistics support and more.

During calmer times, local Red Cross offices provide training and services to help folks prevent and prepare for the next disaster. Workshops on life support, basic training for babysitters, psychological first aid, and recurring blood drives are some of the functions provided by the Western Carolinas office of the Red Cross, headquartered at 100 Edgewood Road (just off Merrimon Avenue).

Last Saturday, Jan. 21, instructor Harold Babb led one of the agency’s comprehensive training sessions for volunteers wishing to join the ranks of disaster workers.

Saturday’s session provided basic training for the agency’s Disaster Action Teams, centered in communities throughout Western North Carolina and northwestern South Carolina. These teams have to deploy on short notice when disaster strikes. In the 16 WNC counties last year, Disaster Action Teams delivered relief to 727 souls, mostly in Buncombe County, according to agency tallies.

“In the Red Cross, it takes a village,” Babb told last Saturday’s class. He emphasized the importance of local donations of funds, shelter facilities, and supplies of blood, medicine, and foodstuffs when disaster strikes. Local businesses and restaurants, churches, schools, and similar institutions are recruited in advance, and deployed when needed as critical elements of the agency’s disaster response network, he explained.

The organization defines disaster broadly, focusing on any case in which victims are displaced from their homes. In 2011, Red Cross volunteers from Buncombe County assisted in such events as individual house fires and the post-disaster scene of Hurricane Irene in April 2011, when 1,600 homes were rendered unliveable in the northeast quadrant of North Carolina. In the wake of that storm, the Red Cross operated emergency shelters in local schools and churches, and provided food, water, showers, and communications services; centers remained open until the last client found temporary living quarters.

All these services are provided free and without regard to nation of origin or residency status, according to the agency’s charter.

A key function the agency provides is post-disaster communications. Disaster victims can use the Red Cross “Safe and Well” system to post messages alerting loved ones about their status; users can register at to leave 260-character messages. “It’s a little better than Twitter,” at least when it comes to message size, says Babb. Computer access is now one of the key functions that Red Cross seeks to install quickly, post-disaster, he adds.

The American Red Cross was established in 1881 as an outgrowth of the International Red Cross, the latter a product of the 1864 Geneva Convention. The American agency signed a charter with Congress in 1900 to provide disaster relief and preparedness training to the nation. Emergency management is organized from Incident Command Posts, themselves connected by larger Emergency Operations Centers that open when the scale of a disaster warrants. In all cases, the Red Cross never self-deploys; rather, the agency waits for a government invitation to activate, whether at the local, regional or national scale.

And while the Red Cross is the nation’s largest private relief agency, in recent years it has weathered troubled times, as measured by staff reductions and reduced fundraising power.

The Red Cross has struggled with fund-raising following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, according to a report in the New York Times. The recession and the absence of a major disaster that draws donations — like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — has further slowed fundraising for this agency, according to that report. Facing a $200 million operating deficit back in 2008, the organization announced that it was preparing to cut up to 1,000 employees and trim regional management.

In the meantime, the organization has continued to respond to myriad small and mid-sized disasters, such as Hurricane Irene or the April 2011 tornadoes in Alabama.

In the wake of Katrina, disaster experts commented on how the agency struggled, particularly owing to the lack of a comprehensive management systems for accounting, volunteer training, and investments in communications technology. Dollars to support the improvement of management systems are difficult dollars to raise, experts say; most donors want to give money directly to the victims.

Local fundraising is key, since the organization relies heavily on cash in-hand, Babb reports; but some funds also come from the state office of the Red Cross. If a disaster is large enough, funds may be provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency; but the vast majority of disasters addressed by the agency are small and local in scale.

To learn more about how to get involved locally, visit the Western Carolinas Red Cross office website.

And stay tuned: Xpress is taking a look at a variety of disaster scenarios and how prepared we are to deal with them.

The World War II graphic that appears with this story is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States Federal Government.


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