Column: Why is the Red Cross upending its local chapter at the peak of hurricane season?

Aug 22, 2011

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Eve Samples:  Why is the Red Cross upending its local chapter at the peak of hurricane season?

I have hunkered down during direct hits from three hurricanes, and they happen to rank alphabetically in terms of nastiness.

Andrew, a Category 5 storm that struck my hometown of Miami in 1992, left our neighborhood without power for two weeks.

Frances made landfall at Sewall’s Point in 2004, and she took her sweet time getting out of town. I rode out the Category 2 storm from the American Red Cross shelter at Pinewood Elementary School where the roof leaked so badly that some shelter-dwellers had to be evacuated during the eye of the storm. Those of us who remained were soggy and miserable.

Jeanne came just three weeks after Frances, wreaking havoc on the makeshift repairs residents were living with until their insurance claims were settled.

Each hurricane posed its own challenges, but two things remain constant when it comes to disaster response and recovery:

First, we need experienced people guiding us through the chaos — especially during long-lasting, messy storms like Frances.

Second, we need those people to know our neighborhoods and, preferably, live in them, too.

That’s why it’s difficult to understand why the American Red Cross would eliminate two of its most seasoned leaders in Martin County — during the peak of hurricane season, no less.

A “restructuring” of the nonprofit’s Martin, Greater Palm Beach and North Treasure Coast Chapters means 10 fewer people will work for the Red Cross in our region.

Among them is Mary Sawyer, the chief executive officer of the Martin County Chapter since 1988. The official word is that she is retiring Sept. 2, but she and Red Cross officials have declined to elaborate about her departure.

Unofficially, board members say Sawyer was forced out after more than 37 years with the agency.

Another loss was Rob Shelt, the disaster director for the Martin County Chapter. He was the go-to guy during the 2004 and 2005 hurricanes — but he’s now gone from his post.

A Red Cross spokeswoman said she could not comment on any specific departures because of privacy concerns. But, unofficially, we know Shelt was forced out, too. He had been with the organization for 19 years.

Other casualties of the reorganization: Mary Jones, community disaster education director and special events coordinator, and Betty Springer, administrative assistant in disaster services.

As Hurricane Irene churns in our general direction, the shake-up raises the question: Will the Martin County Chapter of the Red Cross respond as adeptly as it has in the past?

When I called to speak to Sawyer on Monday, the local office directed me to a regional spokeswoman who was fielding calls. This in itself is a shift. During past storms, local experts including Shelt were very accessible and informed — especially when a hurricane was approaching.

When I reached the spokeswoman, she repeatedly reassured me.

“This is absolutely not going to affect our ability to respond,” the spokeswoman, Jill Masters, told me when I asked about the shake-up.

She pointed to two new hires — Bill Dion, disaster director for the Northeast Florida chapter who will serve as interim director of emergency services, and Jim Hagen, the new manager of community relations — as evidence that Martin County is prepared if a storm strikes.

The Red Cross prides itself on ensuring that 91 cents of every dollar go to disaster relief, she said. The changes aim to keep it that way.

“It’s part of this national restructuring to make sure we’re continuing to use our donors’ dollars in the most responsible way,” Masters said.

I understand the importance of keeping overhead costs low. After decades on the job, we can imagine Sawyer and Shelt’s salaries were low-hanging fruit for the regional bean-counters.

But the departures prompted an exodus from the Martin County Chapter’s board, too. Several members have resigned, stripping the agency of even more institutional knowledge.

Red Cross chapters across the country are going through similar job cuts and reorganizations.

Martin County is not alone. From Alabama to Virginia and Michigan, the Red Cross is cutting jobs and consolidating chapters, all in the name of budget cuts.

But in Florida, the cuts happen to arrive at the worst possible time of the year.

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