November 14, 2001 11:00 pm

The Sept. 11 attack on America resulted in one of the greatest outpourings of generosity the United States has ever seen. Americans demonstrated over and over again how they wanted to help. And for most of us, the only way we could help the people who were most affected by the attacks was to open up our pocketbooks and contribute to relief efforts. Americans did so in record numbers and amounts, both as individuals and through corporations.

They did so even though no formal process was put in place, no priorities were set, no information was available as to how the money would be distributed or how much was needed. Americans, being the caring people that they are, were anxious to give. They poured out their hearts in the form of dollars. So significant were the contributions to the national fund-raising effort that local charities all across the nation are fearing their service needs might not be met because there wont be enough charity to go around.

The national office of the American Red Cross came under fire because its directors had decided to put $200 million of the more than $500 million collected since Sept. 11 in reserve in case it is needed for other terrorist attacks. Because of the controversy that was ignited, the Red Cross announced Tuesday that it was willing to return donations to any contributor who requests a refund.

The Red Cross haD some explaining to do about its decision to bank $200 million for future needs, but on Wednesday interim CEO Harold Decker announced the organization would make sure the money goes to victims. Its a good thing. The money that was contributed to Sept. 11 relief efforts was sent out of the goodness of Americans hearts. It wasnt intended as a bankroll for the Red Cross.

It would have been difficult to watch the Red Cross line its coffers as local charities make due with less because donation money is spread thin this year. The local Red Cross office is struggling to survive. Oregon Special Olympics has announced it is expecting a $500,000 shortfall in donations this year, and local United Way organizations are fearing they wont meet the needs of the thousands of people served by the agencies they fund. It would have been frustrating to see Red Cross bank the bucks as local charities also victims of the attacks and the economy struggle.

Americans are a caring people. Nothing in recent memory reflects that more than how everyone rallied to help in the wake of the attacks. To set aside and earn interest on money sent to help people in need would have been a terrible mistake. The Red Cross should have realized sooner that if there are future attacks, Americans would give again.

The Red Cross was wise in doing an about-face on its decision to bank the money. What it and all Americans are going to have to realize is that victims of the Sept. 11 tragedy are spread throughout the country. This disaster wears many faces.