American Red Cross hampered its emergency response to bolster its public image, says report

Red Cross volunteer Catherine Barde loads boxes full of comfort kits into emergency response vehicles to be delivered, along with hot meals, to neighborhoods in Staten Island. Photo Credit: Patricia Billinger/American Red Cross

The American Red Cross, one of the go-to charities for people to support when disaster strikes, has come under criticism from its former employees and volunteers. An investigation by NPR and ProPublica reveals the ways in which the venerable organization mismanaged the response to the devastation caused to the U.S. East Coast two years ago by Superstorm Sandy. It is further supported by internal Red Cross documents that further expose the organization’s problematic response.

Immediately following the report, the Red Cross published blog posts refuting the reporting by NPR and ProPublica. The organization resoundingly denounced the reporting by the collaborative investigative team, calling it an “attack” and “advocacy reporting.”

“ProPublica and NPR have been hyping their sensationalized attack on the Red Cross response to Superstorm Sandy, in distortion-filled stories that are the result of months of reporting that sought only to find negative information,” blogged Laura Howe, Vice President of Public Relations at the American Red Cross. “Both of these pieces blatantly disregard the fact that hundreds of thousands of people who urgently needed our services were helped with food, water, shelter, supplies and other assistance.”

The findings are damning with regard to the way that the Red Cross does its work. Americans donated in droves following Sandy, with more than $300 million going to the Red Cross alone. Entire neighborhoods were destroyed, displacing people from their homes and putting them in need of disaster assistance. The Red Cross says it “served more than 17.5 million meals and snacks, distributed 7 million relief items and provided 74,000 overnight stays in shelters” during the response.

The organization that was trusted by so many Americans did not live up to its public image, says the NPR and ProPublica report. Problems ranged from mismanagement of food, leading to “excessive” waste, to diverting needed trucks to be used as backdrops for public relations purposes. In another case, some 200,000 additional meals were produced in one day to increase the organization’s totals for later reports. Most of the food then went to waste because it was not meant for anyone. Following Hurricane Isaac, which hit Mississippi and Louisiana in 2012, empty or mostly empty Red Cross trucks were driven around just to keep up the appearance  that the organization was present and responding.

“It was just clear to me that they weren’t interested in doing mass care; they were interested in the illusion of mass care,” said Richard Rieckenberg, who helped lead the Red Cross’ response to Sandy and Hurricane Isaac, to NPR.

Howe also published a point-by-point refutation of claims made in the report, to the Red Cross blog. She says that Rieckenberg was only one of 79 chiefs taking part in the Sandy operation. His position left him with a “limited view of the operation.” The Red Cross also defended itself on television programs like PBS NewsHour and CBS This Morning.

Some are not convinced by the statements made by the Red Cross. A Sunday OpEd from the New Jersey newspaper Times of Trenton’s Editorial Board sharply criticized the organization. The editors suggest that some significant reforms within the American Red Cross may be in order, following what was exposed by the report.

“Katrina exposed the weaknesses of FEMA. Sandy seems to have bared problems within the Red Cross management,” the paper writes. “With 35,000 employees and about 500,000 volunteers, perhaps the Red Cross has become too unwieldy to respond nimbly to the shifting circumstances of calamities. It’s time for a federal review of the agency’s administration to make sure its priorities are in order before the next disaster strikes.”

It is something the American Red Cross appears to be trying to sort out itself. Red Cross Chief Public Relations Officer Suzy DeFrancis admitted to CBS that their response was not perfect. However, she did not specify which changes the organization is undertaking.

“Did we have mistakes and problems? Of course. Are we fixing them? Yes. We made a number of changes,” she said

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.