Red Cross Chief Quits; Internal Politics Blamed
American Red Cross President Marsha J. Evans, who led the agency through an uneven and much-criticized response to Hurricane Katrina, resigned Tuesday in yet another sign of troubles inside the organization that bears prime responsibility for delivering relief to victims of disasters.
Evans’ departure, which Red Cross officials attributed to conflicts with the board of directors rather than to her performance in the Katrina crisis, came as members of Congress and critics outside government again were suggesting that the organization’s fundamental role might need to be reconsidered.
Although the Red Cross is a private, nonprofit charitable organization, it carries responsibilities on a scale usually associated with government. In the National Response Plan, the federal government’s blueprint for dealing with disasters, the Red Cross is designated as the primary agency responsible for sheltering, feeding and offering medical care to people after emergencies, whether they are man-made, such as terrorist attacks, or natural disasters.
The size of that role -- and the Red Cross’ dominance when it comes to raising private donations for disaster relief -- have contributed to making the once-sacrosanct organization a target of increasingly sharp criticism in recent years.
“After witnessing the American Red Cross’ struggles during Katrina and [Hurricane] Rita, I am not sure it is prudent for Congress to place such great responsibility in the hands of one organization,” said Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.), who testified about Katrina’s effect in his district during a congressional hearing Tuesday.
In the hectic days after Katrina and the subsequent flooding of New Orleans, the Red Cross struggled to keep up with demands for shelter, food and medical care. And some evacuees, as well as some local officials and leaders of other relief groups, complained that the Red Cross had sometimes been slow to respond, had not reached out to remote areas, and had shown insensitivity in its treatment of some poor and disabled storm victims.
For its part, the organization pointed out that it had sent more than 200,000 volunteers into areas devastated by Katrina, gave financial assistance to about 1.2 million families, and provided food and temporary shelter for several million evacuees.
Moreover, defenders noted, the massive challenges posed by Katrina and its floodwaters had overwhelmed federal, state and local government agencies as well.
Still, Evans was the second president to resign since 2001 after running afoul of the organization’s 50-member board. This led some analysts to suggest that the internal politics of the Red Cross may be as much in need of reform as its system for delivering emergency aid.
“I think it’s the board at fault here,” said Paul C. Light, a professor of organizational studies at New York University. “The missing story is the board and its responsibility in hiring people it doesn’t get along with and its responsibility in building an effective infrastructure that can operate with chapters in a time of crisis.”
He said the agency had resisted investing in systems to better manage supplies, inventory and volunteers, all of which hurt its response in the Gulf Coast.
Light and others said that the agency’s board was an unwieldy size, especially for a nonprofit, and that made decision-making difficult.
Also, they said, tensions between the national organization and strong regional chapters play themselves out in struggles within the board, which has 30 members from units around the country, 12 members nominated by the board of governors, and eight chosen by the president of the United States.
Evans’ resignation “is a sign that something needs to change, that it’s not any one particular person but a problem with the organization,” said Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. “The board has always been a pretty contentious one, because people from the chapters and the national organization want control.”
Charles D. Connor, the agency’s spokesman, said: “We believe that we have a fine board, and the board’s functionality is very effective.”
He said the board’s concern with Evans “were with the frequency and quality of her consultation with the board that has oversight of the Red Cross.”
Jack McGuire, executive vice president for biomedical services, will step in as interim president and chief executive. McGuire has been at the Red Cross since 2004; he was hired to repair frayed relations with the Food and Drug Administration after a controversy over the handling of blood products.
Evans had been brought in to deal with controversy over the way the Red Cross used and distributed donations after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In particular, some critics complained that it failed to give money to victims quickly enough and that it set aside some Sept. 11 contributions for use in future emergencies without explaining that to the public.
Then-President Dr. Bernadine P. Healy resigned in 2001 and Evans started in 2002. A congressional investigation led the agency to change its fundraising practices and to be more candid about what donations would support.
After Katrina, Americans gave more than $2.6 billion in hurricane relief, the single largest charitable response to a disaster in U.S. history. Of that, $1.86 billion was raised by the Red Cross.
The agency spent Katrina money so quickly that it borrowed about $350 million. “I don’t think they have any clue as to how they’re going to repay those loans,” said Light, who said that Evans’ aggressive spending might have been a reaction to criticism after 2001.
“Evans went in the opposite direction, spending quite heavily and the board may be reacting to that,” he said.
At the hearing of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on oversight, witnesses and congressmen expressed doubts about the agency’s organization even as they praised its efforts.
Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.), committee chairman, discussed one Mississippi town that was minimally damaged yet received Red Cross relief checks that residents used to buy DVDs, jewelry and electronics.
“If Americans don’t think their donations are being used wisely, they might not be so generous when the next disaster strikes,” Ramstad said.