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Triple Hit on Red Cross, But Preparation Paid Off

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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.

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