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A little-known American Red Cross aid program for Hurricane Katrina victims has unleashed criticism from evacuees, who say the program, which pays up to $20,000 for building materials, used cars and other unmet needs, has been too secretive and strict and its money too limited.

Red Cross officials say the $39-million program, called Means to Recovery, has only enough money to serve about 4,000 families who have undertaken an extensive planning process with caseworkers from the Red Cross and other charities. Families that have not yet started that process or made an appointment to do so can no longer be accommodated, they said last week.

More than 80,000 phone calls have poured in to the Red Cross and protesters have picketed its offices since evacuees began drawing attention to the program three weeks ago. The flare-up illustrates the tricky nature of deploying limited finances in the face of unlimited need.

Evacuees and charities whose caseworkers have applied for money for their clients accuse the Red Cross of obstruction, pointing out that initially the application form was more than 20 pages long and that some families have waited months for a response. Because the program was not advertised, many families had no opportunity to apply.

Red Cross officials counter that they have changed the program in response to criticism, including reducing the application form to eight pages, and are trying to decrease the processing time while protecting the Red Cross from the fraud and abuse that marred distribution of money immediately after the storm. They note that the Red Cross typically addresses the immediate needs of disaster victims and leaves long-term recovery to other organizations.

"We did our traditional role, and now we're trying to do our best as a relatively small piece of a huge recovery," said Red Cross chief executive Mark Everson.