September 11: The Sorrow and the Purse Strings

Getting money and services to terrorism's victims isn't easy

On a cold afternoon in late December, Robert J. Hurst strode into a meeting geared up to do right. The Goldman, Sachs & Co. vice-chairman had just volunteered to be chief executive of the 9/11 United Services Group. His job: to make sure 9/11's 13 agencies speed money and services to victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks. It's a daunting task. The charities, including the Red Cross and Salvation Army, hold over half the $1.4 billion in donations.

The Dec. 20 session was his first with Give Your Voice, a group of about 1,600 victims growing more frustrated each day they dealt with the charities. Their representative, Patrick Cartier, who lost a brother at the World Trade Center, got to the point: Bereaved families weren't getting the help they needed. In fact, several feared they would go broke over the holidays.

Charged with cutting through red tape, Hurst and Monsignor Kevin Sullivan--chairman of the new group and executive director of the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York--pledged immediate action. Thennothing. Hurst and Sullivan claim that, after the meeting, they never heard from Cartier, who says he left one message and gave up, discouraged. A classic office snafu, but with a sad result: No one in Give Your Voice got a dime after the talk with Hurst and Sullivan. Sullivan called Cartier on Jan. 4, right after a reporter inquired about the case. "We are very committed to trying to help," says Hurst.

No doubt. Still, the incident highlights the sensitive nature of the task faced by the well-intentioned Hurst. At 56, he could be concentrating on finishing a long career on a high note. Instead, he has become the point man for one of the most difficult aspects of New York's recovery. September 11 started a tidal wave of donations for the estimated 200,000 people who were injured or lost relatives, jobs, or homes in the attacks. Yet the funds might be wasted without oversight: Victims claim they keep filling out forms but never get assistance. In response, New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer created Hurst's group.

Hurst got the job partly because of his negotiating skills. He has pulled off some of Goldman Sachs's biggest mergers and helped nonprofits--including a long list of arts groups and social service agencies--by serving as a board member or trustee. "He is able to see all sides of an issue and bring people together," says Henry M. Paulson Jr., Goldman Sachs's chief executive.

It's no socialite charity. Hurst says he's juggling both jobs from 6 a.m. until 9:30 p.m. every day. With six new employees and help from IBM and consultant McKinsey & Co., he is building a database to ensure that victims don't get overlooked or receive duplicate services. Trouble is, many nonprofits keep scant records, and what they have is often on paper. Even so, the database already has over 40,000 requests for help.

The toughest part of Hurst's job is rebuilding trust between charities and victims by cutting bureaucracy and improving communication. "The biggest surprise to me has been the gulf between perception and reality," says Hurst. Despite criticism of the charities, "there has been an enormous commitment." Hurst estimates that the agencies in his group have doled out $425 million. The Red Cross told Hurst that it has distributed about 10 million meals and met with 150,000 people one-on-one. Another agency, LifeNet, has handled 20,000 calls for mental health referrals, double the volume of a year ago. Still, some claims are questionable: One small agency said it helped "hundreds of thousands" of people on its own.

Why would anyone want this assignment? "I wanted to do more than give money," says Hurst, an engineer's whiz kid born in Queens, N.Y., who got his MBA at 22. His new job is as demanding as the investment banking business. With intense media coverage of victims' complaints, Hurst is under pressure to produce results. "The nature of this project, which requires a quick startup, is very appropriate to the skills Bob brings to the task," says Sullivan, the group's chairman.

Hurst knows he must build a system that can function for years. After taking the job, he flew to Oklahoma City, where 168 people died and 853 were injured in the 1995 Murrah Federal Building bombing. Seven years later, many victims still seek services and medical care. "Ten years from now," says Hurst, "we will still have people who need help." That's why it's so urgent to bridge the chasm between the victims and their would-be helpers.

By Emily Thornton in New York

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