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Red Cross criticized on relief effort, fund sharing

NEW YORK -- As its hurricane relief donations near the $1 billion mark, more than double all other charities combined, the American Red Cross is encountering sharp criticism of its efforts and mounting pressure to share funds with smaller groups.

The complaints -- that Red Cross operations were chaotic in some places, inequitable in others -- have stung an organization that is proud of its overall response to Hurricane Katrina, by far the most devastating natural disaster it has confronted on US soil.

''It's frustrating to our thousands of volunteers out there every day, away from their families, helping people," said spokeswoman Devorah Goldburg. ''We never said we were perfect -- we're trying to do our best under extraordinary circumstances."

Part of the frustration developed because the Red Cross has worked to avoid a recurrence of the humbling fund-raising controversy that flared after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Back then the Red Cross raised about $1.1 billion, its record so far for a single disaster, but the organization was assailed when donors belatedly learned that $200 million of their gifts was being earmarked to prepare for future crises rather than to help victims. Red Cross president Bernadine Healy resigned, the money was shifted back to the Sept. 11 Liberty Fund, and the organization promised greater accountability in fund-raising campaigns.

Because of that experience, Goldburg said, the Red Cross is determined to use its massive donations for purposes its donors were asked to support. These include emergency shelter and food, plus short-term financial aid, but not longer-term recovery or rebuilding. Such efforts have never been part of the Red Cross mission.

''After 9/11, we learned we had to be very specific as to where our money is going," Goldburg said. ''Our donors are saying to us, 'We want this money spent on Katrina right now.' "

The Red Cross estimates it will need $2 billion to finance Katrina-related emergency services. Even if the goal is reached, Goldburg said, any policy change that would allow support of recovery programs would have to be authorized by the Red Cross board of governors.

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