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Red Cross seeks to add diversity

Officials respond to the criticism of Katrina aid effort

WASHINGTON -- The American Red Cross has launched an aggressive effort to reach out to racial and ethnic minorities and add more of them to the charity's vast network of volunteers, in response to criticism that it treated them callously during the Hurricane Katrina relief effort.

More than two months after Katrina and Hurricane Rita ripped through the Gulf Coast and caused tens of thousands of people to flee their homes for Red Cross shelters, the organization is dealing with allegations that it failed to provide enough translators and overlooked cultural sensitivities. The concerns have been raised by members of Congress and groups representing blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans.

In large Red Cross shelters, where most volunteers were white, the mostly minority evacuees ''felt like they were being herded like cattle," said the Rev. Anthony Evans of the National Black Church Initiative.

Red Cross leaders say most problems were issues of perception and not cultural insensitivity -- and certainly not racism. The organization was inundated by the magnitude of the storms and the issues presented by the large number of racial and ethnic groups affected, officials said.

At the peak of the Katrina emergency in early September, the organization was sheltering 143,000 people in more than 500 facilities across the nation. ''We had never had the huge number of diverse groups of people affected by a disaster like we had in this situation," said Rick Pogue, the Red Cross's chief diversity officer.

In recent weeks, the organization has begun various initiatives to increase the diversity of the staff at its headquarters and 800 chapters and draw more minority volunteers.

Its faith-based initiative is designed to recruit and train volunteers in religious organizations -- particularly churches with high concentrations of blacks, Hispanics, and Asians, officials said.

The charity, which has raised $1.68 billion from the US public to help victims of Katrina and Rita, also is moving to sign up more churches to operate as shelters in future disasters.

Last month, it signed an agreement with the Helping Hands Coalition, a Houston nonprofit organization representing 100 predominantly black churches and community groups.

In the aftermath of the storms, minority evacuees said they encountered many problems in Red Cross shelters. Evacuees who spoke little or no English -- Hispanic and Asian immigrants along the Gulf Coast, as well as French-speaking members of the Houma United Nation tribe in Louisiana -- struggled to make themselves understood because there were so few translators.

Some minority groups expressed concern that shelters were set up in white neighborhoods, far from minority communities.

Small indignities festered: Black people were offended that Red Cross volunteers running the Astrodome facility in Houston wore latex gloves. In Oklahoma, volunteers from a Hispanic community group who offered to come to a shelter and help translate for several dozen Spanish-speaking evacuees were told they needed Red Cross training first.

Red Cross officials said the explanations are more innocent. Because of the destruction of the storm, it could not get into some rural areas quickly.

In the Astrodome, volunteers wore gloves for several days, they said, because supplies of hand sanitizer were short and many evacuees were coming straight from contaminated New Orleans floodwaters. In the case of the translators, all volunteers are required to take Red Cross training, said spokeswoman Carrie Martin.

Nevertheless, the charity has launched a major outreach effort to organizations of various races and ethnic groups. Chief Executive Marsha Evans and other Red Cross officials have held dozens of sometimes-tense meetings with members of Congress, religious and civil rights leaders, and members of minority groups.

According to the organization's most recent survey, only 5 percent of its volunteers are black, 2 percent are Hispanic, and 2 percent are of Asian origin. Recent data show that black people make up about 13 percent of the US population, Hispanics about 14 percent, and Asians about 4 percent.

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