Vineyard Red Cross chapter upgrades
The Martha's Vineyard chapter of the American Red Cross will upgrade from a part-time chapter to a full-time chapter, according to chapter chairman Arthur Flathers. The move is in response to a need for better preparation for the threat of natural catastrophes, such as hurricanes, winter storms, or forest fires, as well as the demand for the everyday services of the local chapter and the shadowy threat of terrorism which now clouds the national landscape.
Deborah Medders, appointed part-time executive director in 2004, replacing Glenn Carpenter, became full-time director at the start of this year. One of her new responsibilities will be to get the word out to Vineyard residents, both seasonal and year-round, about the work of the local chapter and its importance in preparing for the kinds of trouble everyone hopes will never come. According to Mr. Flathers, the work of the local chapter has not been as well understood here as it should be.
Tom Dresser gives blood Tuesday under the supervision of Sandra Luce, Red Cross blood services coordinator, and volunteers Beatrice Silvia and Barbara Child. Photo by Ezra Blair
The lessons of Katrina
The aftermath of the disasters of 2005 highlighted national as well as local confusion about what the Red Cross is, how it is financed, and how local chapters fit into the national picture. A part of the confusion comes with the dual nature of the Red Cross.
When images from a disaster such as hurricane Katrina fill the news, the national Red Cross will be there, of course. Since 1900, the Red Cross has had a special relationship with the federal government, and today it is charged, among other things, with maintaining a system of domestic and international disaster relief, including mandated responsibilities under the Federal Response Plan coordinated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). When trouble happens anywhere, the chances are very good that the Red Cross will collect more disaster-relief money than any other agency.
For example, the Red Cross alone collected about three fourths of the nearly $2 billion raised for Katrina relief. Vineyarders contributed almost $200,000 by phone or via the Internet, or at Red Cross tables set up across the Island. Vineyard volunteers, trained here, traveled to New Orleans or helped evacuees who were temporarily housed at the Otis Air National Guard Base on the Cape.
However, recently the Red Cross has been under fire in the media. Disturbing reports from the Gulf Coast soon after the hurricane suggested that the national Red Cross might be better at collecting money than delivering aid. That criticism is a symptom of the confusion about how the Red Cross works.
The role of local chapters
The local chapters in the Gulf states obviously could not be expected to have the resources to deal with widespread devastation - that's not their job. It's the job of the national Red Cross. For New Orleans, Biloxi, Mobile, and elsewhere in the gulf, national Red Cross aid was ready to go as soon as volunteers were allowed on site, but it was not always requested in a timely way. Like FEMA, the national Red Cross can't act until asked by local authorities. Problems arose because there was poor coordination between local chapters and local emergency management, and resources which might have been brought to bear almost immediately were delayed.
What was the matter with the local chapters? According to Mr. Flathers, many rural local chapters have gone out of business, absorbed by big-city chapters, and the big, centralized chapters in the Gulf states were stretched too thin and hadn't sufficiently prepared. "The Red Cross won't work well in chapters that serve more than about 10 communities," he says. "The local chapter needs to know all the public safety officials and work with them to prepare long before an emergency happens." That wasn't the case in the areas hit by Katrina.
Mr. Flathers told The Times that in 1960 there were about 4,000 local chapters of the Red Cross, which worked out to about one chapter for each county. Today there are only about 800 chapters nationwide, mostly in big cities. As an example of a chapter that serves too many communities, he pointed to the Massachusetts Bay chapter, which serves 175 towns, including Boston. "There's no way the Boston chapter people can know all the emergency management folks in that area," he said. Because of the population growth on Cape Cod, even the Cape Cod chapter, which serves about 16 towns, may also be stretched too far, in Mr. Flathers's opinion. Nantucket has no Red Cross chapter at all, and relies on the Cape Cod chapter.
However, the Martha's Vineyard Red Cross, which serves only six towns, is the smallest chapter in the nation. That's a very good thing, Mr. Flathers says, because it means that the Vineyard can avoid the problems of poor preparation and communication failure that happened in the Gulf states.
Mr. Flathers even suggests that the Red Cross would do well to replicate the Vineyard model nationwide. Mr. Flathers calls a return to small chapters "franchising" and says that the Red Cross could learn a lot from Dunkin' Donuts. Many small local Red Cross "franchises" might have avoided some of the problems the Red Cross had in dealing with Katrina along the Gulf Coast.
Because it is a small chapter, the Vineyard Red Cross is well integrated into Island emergency management planning. We are an island with limited boundaries and special needs (consider the problem of an evacuation!). Therefore Vineyard Red Cross officials have to know our emergency managers well and work with them, not only to plan responses to disasters but also to help to train volunteers to prepare for them.
A strong, full-time local chapter can avoid most of the problems that surfaced with the Red Cross's efforts in Katrina. But preparedness cost money.
Confusions about money
Donors who sent off a check to the Red Cross for Katrina relief, or dropped bills in a canister at Cronig's, may think they have made all the contribution to "the Red Cross" that they need to make. It is true that they have made an important and possibly life-saving contribution, but that contribution went off-Island. The donor may not understand that the local chapter is also "the Red Cross," and the local chapter, financed separately from campaigns for disaster relief, is perhaps even more important in surviving a disaster.
If we suffered widespread devastation from a particularly destructive hurricane, we should reasonably expect that contributions to the national Red Cross would pour in from all over the country to help us. But we need systems in place to use that help. It is in the preparations for trouble that the local Red Cross is important to the Vineyard. No national funds are pouring in for that.
The local Red Cross chapter trains persons in CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) and first aid, and trains disaster volunteers and mental health volunteers. It purchases emergency radios and other equipment and provides volunteers to help at emergency shelters and at house fires, plane crashes, or other local emergencies. It coordinates with the ham radio operators who live or summer on the Island. The Island Red Cross teaches children and adults to swim and certifies life guards. It helps the victims of tragedies large and small, from disastrous house fires to small humanitarian needs. It keeps loved ones in touch with victims elsewhere. It conducts several blood drives a year. And it continues to network with local, state, and national agencies to prepare for a Katrina-scale disaster, if one should ever come here.
Who pays for all that the local Red Cross chapter does? Not the national organization. Preparing for a disaster, as well as all the other services the local Red Cross chapter provides, is the responsibility of the local population. Mr. Flathers thinks that the chapter has not yet sufficiently explained to Vineyarders how a local chapter is funded and why it is important to their safety.
A first step, Mr. Flathers suggests, will be to convince Martha's Vineyard that a contribution to the local chapter of $10 per household, year-round and seasonal, would be money very well spent - a kind of insurance policy protecting the Vineyard against the shortcomings that hampered the Katrina disaster relief.