NEW YORK - American Red Cross President Marsha Evans announced her resignation Tuesday because of friction with the board of governors, shortly before witnesses at a congressional hearing assailed the charity's response to Hurricane Katrina.
Red Cross spokesman Charles Connor said the board was not unhappy with Evans' handling of the hurricane crisis, "but had concerns about her management approach, and coordination and communication with the board." It was the second time in three years that such feuding led to a leadership change after a national disaster.
Jack McGuire, executive vice president of the charity's Biomedical Services, was named to serve as interim president while a search for Evans' permanent successor is conducted.
A former Navy rear admiral who previously ran the Girl Scouts of the USA, Evans took over at the Red Cross in August 2002 as the organization was shaking off criticism of how it handled some donations sent in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Evans's predecessor, Dr. Bernadine Healy, said she was forced to resign after two years on the job partly because of disagreements with the board over whether money coming in after Sept. 11 should be placed in a separate fund or a general disaster fund. Some donors were upset that $200 million was set aside for future terrorist incidents.
Healy, now a health columnist with U.S. News & World Report, said in a telephone interview that her departure and Evans' removal reflected serious problems in how the 50-member Red Cross board addresses its internal conflicts and clashes with its top executives.
"You can't have 50 people making decisions," Healy said. "The Red Cross is a public treasure that belongs to America and must serve America. Until these governance problems can be sorted out, it won't be able to do so effectively."
She noted that the Red Cross is chartered by Congress, and the U.S. president is its honorary chairman. "The only people who can fix it are at that level," she said.
After the Sept. 11 donation dispute, the Red Cross promised greater accountability. But the unprecedented challenges posed by this year's hurricanes raised new problems.
Critics said the Red Cross failed to respond quickly enough in some low-income, minority areas; others faulted it for balking at cooperation with local grass-roots organizations even as it collected the bulk of hurricane relief funds - more than $1.8 billion to date.
On the positive side, the Red Cross mobilized roughly 220,000 volunteers in response to the hurricanes, accommodated hundreds of thousands of evacuees in shelters, and provided financial aid to about 1.2 million families.
Evans, 58, acknowledged in September that the organization's response to Katrina and Hurricane Rita had been uneven, saying the destructive power of the storms "eclipsed even our direst, worst-case scenarios."
In recent weeks, the organization has vowed to address some of the criticisms by seeking greater diversity within its ranks and establishing partnerships with local groups.
At the congressional hearing, Rep. Jim McCrery, a Louisiana Republican, assailed the Red Cross and called on Congress to reconsider whether to continue giving the charity a lead role in responding to natural disasters. Having such a designation gave the organization a substantial boost in fundraising, absorbing about 60 percent of all donations, he said.
"If it is not the responsibility of the National Red Cross to step in when a Category 4 hurricane decimates a major metropolitan area and overwhelms one of their local chapters, whose responsibility is it?" asked McCrery.
Joseph C. Becker, senior vice president for response and preparedness for the Red Cross, said the group did its best. "We chose to help those whom we could without delay, while striving to serve all who needed us," he said.
Evans, in a message to her colleagues, said she had been thinking about leaving the Red Cross earlier, but stayed on after Katrina struck to "lead our pivotal response to that epic tragedy."
Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, who chairs the Red Cross board, praised Evans' performance, including a reorganization at the Washington headquarters and a strengthening of local disaster response practices. Her statement did not elaborate on the board's friction with Evans.
Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University and expert on charities, said the rapid turnover at the helm of the Red Cross raised serious questions about the board of governors, which he described as too large and disjointed.
"The problem isn't the president - it's the board," Light said. "Sacking the president isn't the panacea for what ails the Red Cross."
He said the Red Cross needed to upgrade its technology and organization, and recruit new volunteers "who are representative of the communities hit hardest by disasters."
McGuire, the interim leader, has been with the Red Cross since March 2004; he previously was president of Whatman, PLC North America, a British-based manufacturer.
As head of Biomedical Services for the Red Cross, he has sought to improve relations with the Food and Drug Administration, which has charged the Red Cross with repeatedly violating federal safety rules in its handling of blood collection.