An unprecedented string of natural disasters from Florida to Guam has left the American Red Cross and sister agencies in need of relief themselves.
Hurricane Andrew was only the most visible of one of the worst strings of natural calamities in modern times. Hundreds of thousands have been victimized by rapid-fire blows from Andrew in Florida and Louisiana, tornadoes in Wisconsin, Typhoon Omar in Guam and the latest, Hurricane Iniki on the Hawaiian island of Kauai."It's fair to say that this kind of situation is unprecedented," Red Cross spokesman David Giroux said Monday.
"These cataclysmic events are almost biblical in proportion," Salvation Army Col. Leon Ferraez said. "We think there's going to be a real crunch" in resources for disaster relief, estimating the Salvation Army will spend $40 million to $50 million on Andrew aid.
The Red Cross says it is spending $65 million to assist the victims of Andrew, well beyond the $51.7 million for its next most expensive disaster, Hurricane Hugo that ravaged the Caribbean and the Carolinas in 1989.
Another $5 million will be spent in Guam, where three Red Cross shelters still are operating and more than 275,000 meals have been served. There are no estimates yet from Kauai, where 10,000 homes were badly damaged in the worst storm to hit Hawaii this century.
And worse, this marks the fourth year in a row to strain relief budgets.
National and local Red Cross offices spent a record $224 million in the 1989-90 fiscal year, which included Hugo and the San Francisco earthquake. And 1990-91 wasn't much better, with expenditures of $184.4 million.
In this fiscal year ending June 30, with Cyclone Val in American Samoa, mudslides in Puerto Rico and floods in Texas, Louisiana and Southern California, the national Red Cross alone had committed $62 million, well over its $42 million budget.
In an April speech kicking off a $30 million fund-raising campaign, American Red Cross President Elizabeth Dole said the Red Cross had eliminated 204 positions at its national headquarters, imposed a hiring and purchasing freeze and slashed travel budgets by 40 percent.
The pinch from Andrew, Omar and Iniki is being felt by the government as well. The Federal Emergency Relief Agency said Monday it has suspended about $80 million in payments to some disaster areas until Congress refills its depleted reserves.
The strains go beyond finances. Jim Burton of the Southern Baptist Convention in Memphis said many volunteers have used all their vacation time and it's hard to replace them.
He said his organization, which has dispatched 500 people to help provide 1 million meals in Florida, rotates volunteers every four days because of the heat and devastation. "It's stretched our resources," he said.
Jeanne Hamrick of Goodwill Industries said 200 people employed through Goodwill, most with serious disabilities, lost their jobs with the destruction of Homestead Air Force Base in south Florida. She said projected annual revenues in Miami dropped overnight from $11 million to $5 million because of damage to three Goodwill stores.
Ironically, major disasters such as Andrew do bring in the donations, at least while they are in the news. The Red Cross has received $51 million in pledges since Andrew struck, helped in part by a personal appeal from President Bush and a $10 million gift from the government of Kuwait.
"The challenge is six months from now, a year from now, when there isn't record-breaking disasters to maintain that awareness," Giroux said.