WHILE the nation was absorbed in the glitz of the Republican National Convention in mid-August, the whispy strands of clouds over brewing Hurricane Andrew were just a question mark in the TV weatherman's forecast.
But here in a leafy Alexandria neighborhood, four days before Andrew and before most south Florida residents even imagined they could be homeless, the Red Cross National Disaster Operations Center was assembling crews to feed, clothe, and shelter possible hurricane victims.
On Aug. 24, Andrew plowed into Florida, then Louisiana a day later. Typhoon Omar landed on the American territory of Guam Aug. 28, and Hurricane Iniki hit Hawaii Sept. 11.
Through this most intense series of back-to-back disasters in American Red Cross history, the command center here - covered with floor-to-ceiling charts of volunteers in the field - was sending out the troops of relief workers in response to the distress calls.
While the reviews of the organization's work are largely positive, strains are showing as public expectations for disaster relief grow faster than donations.
"The Loma Prieta earthquake and Hurricane Hugo [in 1989] were a double whammy, but this was a triple whammy," says Bobby Baines, a Red Cross veteran who coordinates its disaster relief services with other volunteer and church groups.
The hurricanes hit at a particularly difficult time for the Red Cross, which has been in the middle of a disaster-services reorganization and a financial crisis that has seen 200 headquarters staff laid off this summer.
Tough lessons learned in the twin disasters of 1989 were put to the test in this round. Hurricane Andrew itself has already forced Red Cross policy shifts, observes James Hladecek, vice president of programs and services.
After the 1989 disasters, the organization doubled - from 3,200 to 6,400 - its pool of paid and volunteer disaster personnel who travel to stricken areas to man food-delivery programs, assess damages, and give out vouchers for clothing and household goods. The plan also consolidated three regional disaster centers into a single streamlined central command here in Alexandria, which had opened just a week before Andrew hit.
"Where we were hard pressed in Hugo to field the people [necessary], I don't know if we would have been able to get all the people where we needed them" if it were not for the enlarged pool of personnel and the centralized command, says Mr. Hladecek.
In the midst of what he says is "probably the most significant paradigm shift Red Cross disaster assistance has taken in a long time," Hurricane Andrew forced the organization to take more in-kind donations, or goods.
Normally the Red Cross prefers cash contributions. With cash, it is easier for the organization to buy and administer what is needed, as it is needed, Hladecek explains. Further, cash infusion can help the local economy get back on its feet.
But when President Bush appeared on television to ask for public donations, a third of the 30,000 calls received in just seven hours were for in-kind donations, Hladecek says.
"With this disaster we're talking about a magnitude far greater than we've ever been involved in before. And stopping to look at the disaster budget, at least 25 percent is household furnishings [replacements]. ... In-kind donations can help relieve that significantly."
When Hurricane Andrew hit, a six-month, $30 million fund raising drive had barely netted $10 million, explains spokesman Dave Giroux. But within days, public sympathy for victims of Andrew brought in $59 million. Unfortunately, Andrew itself will cost the Red Cross $65 million.
Yet in the Red Cross culture - the original "thousand points of light" movement founded in Switzerland in 1863 and later in the United States by Civil War heroine Clara Barton - the shortfall of money and the "triple whammy" are seen by many headquarters veterans as part of a continuum of disasters met by the spirit of American philanthropy and volunteerism.
"We can look back at the past and see that we've been faced with these challenges before. Even though it's been extremely difficult for us financially, we have often been surprised by the response of the public. ... That's why we've been around for over 110 years," observes Patrick F. Gilbo, Red Cross manager of historical resources.
He explains that, over time, it is the major disasters like floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, riots, plane crashes, and earthquakes that bring in the donations that pay for the 55,000 smaller, less-publicized disasters every year, like house fires that put families on the street. -PATHNAME- /usr/local/etc/httpd/plweb/DBGROUPS/paper/database/tape/92/sep/day30/30082.