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Roundtable Discussion

A year after Katrina hit, Charity Navigator led a roundtable discussion among several leaders of charities that provided programs and services in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. We asked these non-profit professionals to share their unique perspective with donors.

The Contributors

The Conversation

Charity Navigator: What really went wrong after Katrina?

Thomas Tighe: In general, much of went wrong after Katrina and Rita is what often goes wrong after large-scale disasters. Communication and coordination were poor. Role definition -- who was supposed to do what -- was fuzzy from the outset and never seemed to get in focus.

As to the health area in which we have been involved, a big problem that arose was that many of the people with the best information, providing essential services, and already plugged into the affected communities were overlooked as response efforts were being undertaken by federal and state responders.

Neal Denton
American Red Cross

"The long-standing culture of the Red Cross was built on being self-sufficient. We learned that, we are most effective when working with others."

The thin health safety net that exists for people without insurance or much money had a big hole ripped through it and there was no fallback plan. This situation plays itself out daily throughout much of the country, but it is significantly pronounced in Louisiana and Mississippi where preexisting chronic conditions were and are very serious.

As we've seen in our almost 60 years of disaster relief efforts those who do the best work in hard-hit areas are the folks who live there. A dilemma for any disaster -- and this is true with Katrina and Rita -- is that rarely are these people and organizations the best at fundraising during the key period of heightened media attention. They are too busy doing the essential work.

Danny Wuerffel: The issues with violence and looting after the storm were tied into issues which were widespread before Katrina: impoverished communities, violence, drugs, poor education, lack of personal responsibility and the ongoing effects of a history of oppression and injustice.

John G. Davies: Despite overwhelmingly inadequate available services, the bodies responsible--the Louisiana state government, the City of New Orleans, the federal government, and the American Red Cross--never coordinated their relief efforts with the hundreds of nonprofits and churches in the area (who were eagerly organizing their own programs). Additionally, the communications among those agencies was often incoherent, making it impossible for a consolidated relief effort to take shape.

John G. Davies
Baton Rouge Area Foundation

"Frankly, we are not prepared for another incident like this."

Unfortunately, in the case of Louisiana and the State's response to Katrina, virtually no proactive approach to planning on the community level was taken. Instead, a "reactive" approach was taken after the damage was done, leaving less of a chance for animals and their owners to survive this disaster, as witnessed by all.

Neal Denton: Our biggest failure was a failure of imagination. The 2004 Florida hurricanes had been the largest disaster relief effort that we'd ever experienced. The 2005 season was some TWENTY times larger than anything we had dealt with previously. While we're proud of the work of our staff and volunteers, the 2005 trio of hurricanes stretched us more than ever before. In the end, we provided basic necessities for more than 1.4 million families, but it took us about seven weeks reach everyone because we didn't have the capacity to respond to so many people. We now have a system that would allow us to help upwards of a million families in a 10-day period.

But there's one other thing that folks just haven't addressed and I think it played a major role in response to this disaster. Hurricane Katrina affected among the most vulnerable people in America. In so many circumstances, we were providing care for those who needed assistance even before they were affected by Katrina.

Richard Walden: The response was complicated by the compelling nature of the disaster. It attracted most of America's "brand name" relief groups (except for CARE, which despite being in nearby Atlanta, wisely if not regretfully, decided that this wasn't their area of expertise or continuing interest). It also attracted America's brand name religious organizations. And, too, America's brand name televangelists like Rev Pat Robertson, Rev Franklin Graham and Rev Larry Jones. So, too, did it attract virtually every well meaning individual and local (out of area) group which wanted either to help or profit from Katrina's misery.

Danny Wuerffel

Desire Street Ministries

"New Orleans is, even with the best of plans and intentions, still very vulnerable."

The American Red Cross New Orleans chapter was ordered out of the city in the immediate aftermath of Katrina and shamefully obeyed its Washington headquarters. ARC, with what was a $111 million PR, advertising and fund raising budget (I-990 2003), focused on massive funding appeals with outreach via the media and Internet; but its outreach outran its ability to program an influx of what would be over $2 billion and over 100,000 mostly white and mostly untrained volunteers. Its responsibilities, however, while massive and important, were circumscribed by its governmental funders: shelter, tracing missing persons, social services, first aid, trauma counseling. FEMA tasked ARC in most cases and local chapters' better understanding of local needs were subordinated to Headquarters demands and hidebound procedures. Of particular and problematic note was ARC's long standing policy of not funding smaller, partner NGOs more conversant with local needs and more aware of local resources. Other than the Southern Baptist Convention (which cooks ARC shelter meals), ARC did not subcontract or directly fund local groups.

Neal Denton: There are some things in Richard's remarks that should be clarified or corrected. The American Red Cross Chapter in New Orleans wasn't ordered out of town by National Headquarters. Richard should visit our Canal Street building (and our next door neighbor at United Way). The high muddy water marks are very evident. We were forced to evacuate. Frankly, everyone was forced to evacuate. Federal, state and local officials alike all agreed that it was imperative that we get victims out of the flood plain as soon as possible. We didn't stay on Canal Street, and we didn't stay in the dome. Those locations were perilous and unsafe and we do not send our volunteers or invite evacuees to stay anywhere that is unsafe. It makes no sense to set up a shelter in the flood plain. Though the Red Cross was prepared to reenter New Orleans with relief assistance, state emergency officials directed otherwise; the public record is very clear on this point. Before continuing to spread incorrect information critical to the good work of Katrina volunteers, I would encourage Richard to read any of the House or Senate investigative reports or view our New Orleans Chapter CEO's testimony before the Senate HELP Committee.

CN: What went right?

Danny Wuerffel: The incredible national volunteer response consisting of support through service and financial assistance, as well as care given to displaced residents.

John G. Davies: Despite the widespread confusion and lack of leadership from government groups and the lead agencies, local organizations found significant ways to contribute. These efforts prevented thousands of displaced residents from going un-served. Relying on field assessments and local cooperation, the Foundation and its partners were able to cover gaps in the larger response, and connect impacted people with the best care available.

To do so, many of our local organizations put their normal operations on hold and adjusted their missions to put the needs of the displaced first. For example, independent shelters in Louisiana cared for almost as many displaced residents as the Red Cross--though few of them ever received federal or Red Cross funding for that role.

Furthermore, nearly every household in Baton Rouge welcomed evacuees, and many people devoted themselves, immediately after the storms, to service. Our doctors and nurses, notably, worked to make sure that displaced residents had access to proper health care--they started temporary medical centers, found desperately needed supplies, and visited shelters across the region.

Richard Walden: So far, very little except what "could" perhaps augur well for the Red Cross. After sacrificing Martha Evans, its President, on the alter of fast-accumulating bad publicity and enduring 3 Congressional investigations and a GAO Report, the Red Cross--through its acting CEO--has been making noises about Board restructuring, partnering with other nonprofits, training more Black and Hispanic relief workers and refocusing its work into the post-emergency/community rebuilding phases of disasters. IF that happens, we will all be the better for it.

Thomas Tighe
Direct Relief International

"There is no substitute for donors doing their own homework, asking tough questions, before sending in a contribution."

What's right is the new-found sense of activism of many Katrina area communities who know it is they who have to be responsible for their own futures. Community foundations have been strengthened as well as a result of waking up to he value and talent of grassroots-level community groups.

Neal Denton: Hundreds of thousands of volunteers and charitable staffers answered the call to respond to our neighbors in need. I haven't seen all of the final numbers from the Salvation Army and others, but we're proud that some 245,000 Red Crossers served during the 2005 response and recovery efforts helping several million of our neighbors in the gulf region.

Could we all have done more in the immediate and emergency response for the victims? Certainly, yes. But the warm and caring response of neighbors helping neighbors was one of the more important things that went right in 2005.

Thomas Tighe: From our experience in the health sector, the response of medical professionals, healthcare companies, local hospital and clinic directors, and the national and state associations of community clinics and free clinics was exceptionally positive.

The generosity of regular people was inspiring.

Also, for all the documented shortcomings, there were political leaders and public officials who did a very good job in assessing, responding, galvanizing resources, and getting things done.

CN: What role should charities play in such a disaster?

Thomas Tighe: Charities usually fill the gaps that exist between what markets do naturally and what governments are willing or able to do. In this case, particularly with regard to health services, these gaps were huge, so a large role existed.

Richard Walden
Operation USA

"ARC is simply a congressionally chartered entity and does not work or smell or run like a charity."

Our organization thinks it is important to stick to what we are particularly well suited to do and to coordinate with other nonprofit groups and governments to avoid any duplication of effort or wasted money.

Since nonprofits aren't burdened with all the considerations of government agencies, we can be more nimble and less bureaucratic.

John G. Davies: Although by statute the first responder to natural disasters is the Red Cross--followed by FEMA, many of us believe that we must all find ways to help--that nonprofits should, according to their missions, find ways to use their resources to contribute to relief efforts and spark positive change in the lives of those impacted by tragedy.

Local service organizations typically hold a wealth of information and can contribute invaluably to relief efforts.

Richard Walden: Charities in domestic disasters should first look to locally based groups at all levels to see how they survived and are meeting local needs. Operation USA was tasked by the Los Angeles Mayor's Office after the Northridge Earthquake to screen in or out donations being offered the City by companies and out of area nonprofits--some of which were embarrassingly self-serving and of no real value for what we needed. NGOs and other nonprofits need to work more closely with groups like the National Organization of Community Health Centers and statewide Primary Health Care associations rather than re-invent the wheel going in ice cold. Partnerships don't take as long to forge as is commonly thought.

Danny Wuerffel: It depends on the focus of the charity itself. If it is geared toward disaster relief or the meeting of specific needs, then the charity should be more than welcome to take a leading role, in fact, it is somewhat obligated.

CN: What did we learn from this disaster?

Danny Wuerffel: To evacuate! To adequately answer this, you'd have to write a book, but we certainly learned the power of nature, and the best and worst of human nature.

Thomas Tighe: At a very basic level, we learned that official response mechanisms buckled and often failed. Preparedness, information flow, situational assessments, decision making, resource allocation, and chain-of-command simply did not work as they should have, if at all.

On a broader level, the hurricanes pulled back the curtain on many underlying social issues that existed prior to their landfall and continue today. For whatever reason, maybe because it becomes familiar, we forget that millions of people who are low income, uninsured, un-banked, underemployed, or with medical problems do not have it very good on the best of days.

John G. Davies: First, communications among service providers is essential to creating a comprehensive response that adequately addresses the needs of the displaced population. Such a system would better enable individual organizations to find their roles and begin making contributions that add to the overall effort and prevent needless duplication.

Second, organizations should have the ability to plug into the system and immediately begin offering services. A new coordination and communications system should feature this plug-and-play concept, allowing national organizations to implement the relief process successfully with smaller organizations from any locale.

At the local level, it is imperative that organizations ensure the physical and mental well-being of their staff first. The toll of disaster response on staff can, if unchecked, cripple even the most capable organizations.

Finally, we learned that humans are a caring, supportive, and loving species. People from our local region and from around the country and world found some really innovative and amazing ways to contribute to this cause, many times without regard to their own interests.

Richard Walden: There is no substitute for competence and experience. Local, state and national government leaders have ample time before and even after a disaster to demand that outside national charities or start-up groups desiring to help disaster victims act in a coordinated fashion.

Neal Denton: We learned that we needed to build stronger partnerships with other nonprofits if we are to increase our capacity to deliver services to a wide and varied disaster site. The diversity of our response team would have been improved if we had partnered better. Our coverage area would have been increased.

The long-standing culture of the Red Cross was built on being self-sufficient. We learned that, in the event of large catastrophic disasters, we are most effective when working with others.

CN: Are we prepared if this were to happen again?

John G. Davies: Frankly, we are not prepared for another incident like this. While we have learned a lot at every level, few corrections have been implemented at the top, and there still remains a need for a plug-and-play system that will allow local organizations to synch with FEMA and the American Red Cross.

We are, though, better prepared for another storm than we were for these, especially for the emotional and organizational strains of response. We have increased our capacity by adding staff, created a disaster operations manual that preserves many of the lessons we've learned, and strengthened our alliances and networks.

Richard Walden: No. This is like Spring Training in baseball. Every team must go through training to perform well and disaster preparedness is the weak step child of this entire system. Once a disaster is old news, funds, media coverage and interest by government or foundation funders dissipates rapidly.

Neal Denton: Again, the key word here is "if THIS" were to happen again. We've addressed our lessons learned after the 2005 storms to build capacity, prestock supplies and ramp up infrastructure as if there were another Katrina around the corner. Have we also addressed our biggest failure in 2005? Have we addressed our failure to imagine something worse? What if the "next one" is even more widespread or with different twists and features? Is the nonprofit community ready for a pandemic? An earthquake on the west coast or in the Midwest? What about a manmade disaster? Anthrax or worse?

Are we prepared if THIS were to happen again? Probably. Is the nonprofit community properly prepared for the next unknown disaster? Necessity is the mother of invention. We've done extensive modeling and incorporated "flexibility" into our strategies for the future. Together, we're all getting better at it everyday.

Just as importantly, however, are individuals more prepared? I've seen studies that indicate that regardless of the scenes of Katrina, we still live in a society where "THAT will never happen to ME ... " We need to be more creative in helping people prepare. As a nation, we cannot be complacent.

Thomas Tighe: My impression, again limited by my experience, is that as a country we are somewhat better prepared, but not fully prepared. The respective roles of federal, state, and local governments and private nonprofit organizations are still being sorted out in the allocation of funds, which appears to be moving very slowly.

From our own organization's perspective, we have formally established ourselves as licensed pharmacy wholesalers or exporters in all the Gulf States. We are able to move fast with the excellent Gulf State partners we've been working with for the past year, and we have seen a number of companies preposition products with us to be better prepared for rapid emergency response.

Danny Wuerffel: People at every level are thinking through the issues pertaining to a storm of this magnitude. However, geographically, New Orleans is in a different position and so even with the best of plans and intentions, it is still very vulnerable, especially this year as the levees are not yet completely reinforced.

CN: How did this disaster differ from ones that happen overseas?

Thomas Tighe: The similarities were much more apparent than the differences. One difference was the intensive, real-time media coverage that occurred as events unfolded.

Richard Walden: The main difference is in the total 24/7 coverage Katrina received and the unprecedented generosity of the American public to help those in need.

Neal Denton: All disasters are really local events. The immediate response is as strong--or as weak--as the local capability to evacuate people, provide them with the essentials of everyday life--food, clothing, shelter--and help them rebuild their lives. In that sense, Hurricane Katrina had a lot in common with disasters we see in developing countries because of the massive loss of infrastructure and the long-term displacement of so many people.

CN: In advance of the next disaster, the American Red Cross has adopted a policy that allows it to distribute donations it received to other charities -- including religious groups. Undoubtedly, some donors contribute to the Red Cross because they do not wish to support religious causes. In light of that fact, how do you justify this policy?

Neal Denton: We're not going to be supporting religious groups in pursuit of religious missions or causes -- we have not done so in the past. We are pre-positioning supplies, cots and blankets to those who have demonstrated an interest and an ability to open a shelter. It may be a mosque or synagogue in a remote area that won't see help from any other relief agencies until the roads are cleared. It may be the small Vietnamese church in the gulf port fishing village. We're going to support those nonprofit partners that can aid in the care, feeding and sheltering of emergency disaster victims.

We took a hard look at this because handing over donated funds to another organization, and particularly a religious organization, is an important decision that we must make with the understanding and consent of those who have generously contributed to our relief efforts. We must stretch our resources by relying upon strong partnerships to extend our mission. Our partners have to accept our seven fundamental principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality. The only requirement for Red Cross assistance is need.

I saw a line in a recent note from a reader of Trent Stamp's Take that I liked quite a bit. "Red Cross assistance to sheltering partners is used for blankets and beds -- not bibles."

CN: Do you have a problem with the Red Cross garnering over half of the donor funding, and if so, what's the problem, and what should we do about it?

John G. Davies: While I don't have a problem with the Red Cross receiving such a large portion of funding, I would like to see them deliver their services at a much higher level, including incorporating local nonprofits into their response effort. Unfortunately, FEMA and the Red Cross both neglected their opportunities to coordinate with locals following Katrina, and the result was inadequate services for displaced residents.

Thomas Tighe: The Red Cross is the world's signature charity, so it is understandable why so many people wanting to help chose to direct their money to the Red Cross. The organization also happens to be amazingly good at raising private funds.

No organization can do everything, and disasters cause such a broad range of needs that require attention. The dilemma arises if any one organization raises a disproportionate amount of money but it turns out what that organization does is not what people affected actually need or results in other priority areas being under-funded. Organizations can mitigate lopsided funding by being clear about what they are able to do and what they are not able to do.

People are smart, and our organization's goal has been to provide clear information about what we do and what it costs so they can make up their own minds if their dollar would be most helpful being directed to Direct Relief.

I do not fault either the Red Cross or obviously the people who made their individual decisions to donate to the Red Cross simply because the organization ultimately received a disproportionate amount of the overall private contributions.

But, I also think it's fair to observe that, just because a group has the most sophisticated fundraising techniques or receives the most money, it does not necessarily mean it does the most effective or efficient work to help people. There is no substitute for donors doing their own homework, asking tough questions, and letting the picture develop a bit before sending in a contribution.

CN: Richard, in your LA Times op/ed, you said "giving so high a percentage of all donations to one agency that defines itself only as a first-responder and not a rebuilder is not the wisest choice. Americans ought to give a much larger share of their generous charity to community foundations, grass-roots nonprofit groups based in the affected communities and a large number of international 'brand name' relief agencies with decades of expertise in rebuilding communities after disasters." Were American donors unwise to invest over $2 billion in the Red Cross? Would the victims be better off if your charity had received all that money?

Richard Walden: Yes, we would love to have had $2 billion to spend on both emergency care and reconstruction but NO we never wanted a penny of the funds flowing to the Red Cross.

We said from the start that money should have been much more equitably distributed between first responders and local community re-builders. The skewing of over 50% of those private funds to ARC and another 5-7% to The Salvation Army meant that those funds were far too narrowly allocated to meet people's short and long term needs. Since ARC gets significant government reimbursement for providing certain disaster services tasked to it by local, state and federal government under pre-existing agreements and is in the matrix of first responders, why does it need to be so avaricious in its funding appeals? It has the platinum brand and the big budget to raise what it needs to operate but it needs to develop a culture of partnering with local groups and not set itself apart from the rest of the nonprofit community. This is actually my "charitable" characterization; I usually say ARC is simply a congressionally chartered entity and does not work or smell or run like a charity.

Operation USA focused on its own area of expertise--community health care--and made cash grants to over 60 Katrina-area nonprofit clinics and used them and the statewide primary care associations as distribution points for the supplies we sent down just after Katrina hit. Other NGOs could have worked in their own areas of expertise and given survivors the benefits thereof. I "assume" that those international brand name charities collecting money have plans to spend all their Katrina funds ON KATRINA and will not simply re-designate them as unrestricted funds and use them elsewhere.

Neal Denton: Richard's comments about the split between early responders and community rebuilders are half-right. The generous contributions of the American public to assist the Red Cross in the initial response was appropriate and allowed us to meet the needs of millions of Americans during a terrible time. But there is so much more that must happen if we are to address the long term needs of the region. Trash and debris cleanup alone will run into millions and millions of dollars.

The problem isn't that donors were generous with the initial response -- it's that attention to the region has been diverted and those important charitable missions that are ongoing in the region are finding it difficult to capture the attention of American people.

With the one-year mark of the devastation on August 29 -- and all of the media coverage surrounding the week -- perhaps we can recapture the urgency that moved so many to contribute so much last year.

There is work to be done today, tomorrow and for a generation of families from the gulf region. Our local chapter colleagues wake up everyday with the reality of heart-wrenching casework to be done, mental health counseling to be administered and lives to rebuild. There's plenty of work for the entire nonprofit community -- and we're proud to play our part in those communities.

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