Red Cross carries on despite storm-response flak
NEW YORK -- It happened after the 9/11 terror attacks, after Hurricane Katrina and now, once again, after Superstorm Sandy: The American Red Cross takes flak for its response to a major disaster.
It’s a burden that comes with being the nation’s largest private relief agency, and the Red Cross’ pride in its work is constantly coupled with promises to do better next time.
"We expect people to have high expectations of us," said Gail McGovern, the Red Cross president since 2008. "It keeps us on our toes."
In the case of Sandy, which spanned 1,000 miles and killed more than 100 people in 10 states, the criticism flared in hard-hit New York City a few days after the storm, most notably in a televised outburst Thursday by the top elected official on flooding-ravaged Staten Island.
"Do not donate to the Red Cross," said Borough President James Molinaro, who termed the agency’s response at that stage "an absolute disgrace." He and other critics felt the Red Cross was slow to get its emergency response vehicles into stricken areas and to open its mobile kitchens.
By the next day, Molinaro was hugging McGovern at a joint appearance, commending her organization’s intensified efforts and attributing his earlier diatribe to anger and frustration over the plight of his constituents.
Meanwhile, Red Cross fundraising for Sandy-related relief has surged, with backing from the National Football League, a star-studded benefit concert on NBC and numerous other sources. As of Sunday afternoon, the charity reported $85 million in donations for its response to Sandy, with the amount rising each day.
Nonetheless, the brief flurry of criticism was an emphatic reminder that the Red Cross, with its iconic name and its recent series of controversies, is a lightning rod in a way that other relief agencies are not.
"They’re always the ones under the microscope," said Major George Hood of the Salvation Army, which considers itself a partner of the Red Cross during times of disaster even as it competes with them for donors’ dollars.
McGovern acknowledged that the initial response to Sandy in the New York region went slower than hoped, and she expressed understanding for Molinaro’s criticism.
"His constituents are cold, frightened. They’re without power, they’re frustrated," she said. "We were frustrated, too. I wish I could have clicked my fingers and gotten all the supplies and trucks and volunteers there faster."
The first batch of Red Cross trucks reached Staten Island on Thursday, three days after the storm and just before Molinaro’s outburst. McGovern attributed the delay largely to badly snarled traffic and road closures in the region.
Josh Lockwood, CEO of the Red Cross of greater New York, said he and his colleagues would eventually conduct an in-depth review of the response to Sandy to assess what went right and wrong as lessons for future disasters. For now, though, he said ongoing relief efforts made any such assessment impossible.
"After the disaster relief is done, I will look back at our whole operation," Lockwood said. "If we could be one minute faster, we will see what changes we can make."
After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Red Cross was criticized for its handling of donations -- a controversy that contributed to a change in leadership and new policies for earmarking donations.
The agency encountered withering criticism once again -- some from within its own ranks -- after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. An internal report cited overwhelmed volunteers, inflexible attitudes and inadequate anti-fraud measures.
One major change since then is a greater focus on getting relief supplies into threatened areas before a hurricane arrives. But this pre-positioning had its limits with the response to a storm as vast as Sandy.
"We never put personnel or supplies in the path of a hurricane. You have to come in after the fact," Lockwood said. "That did present challenges in this case."
In fact, he said his staff moved some supplies out of the city before Sandy’s arrival, as a precaution against storm damage.
By Wednesday, two days after the storm, the local Red Cross realized that the scope of the disaster would require large-scale assistance from outside the city. But at that point, a host of logistical problems made it difficult to expedite deliveries overland. Only by Thursday and Friday did the stream of relief goods and vehicles pick up speed, Lockwood said.
The agency now has 70 emergency response vehicles in New York City, each carrying 1,000 pounds of food, water and supplies. They supplied about 128,000 meals on Saturday, he said.
"Every major disaster is different from one another," Lockwood said. "The magnitude of Sandy was so broad, so deep, so severe, with millions of people affected, that no single agency could address the challenges."
"Perhaps we are a bit of a target, because of our brand," he added. "My colleagues and I are so proud to be affiliated with this organization and this mission. If we’re going to take our lumps, that’s part of being in the disaster-relief business."
One of the other relief agencies responding to Sandy, Save the Children, became sufficiently frustrated with logistical problems that it resorted to Twitter to seek help.
"We can’t reach many kids affected by Sandy due to lack of gas," it said in a Twitter message Saturday, asking its followers to relay the message to the governors of New York and New Jersey.
Save the Children’s CEO, Carolyn Miles, was visiting displaced families Sunday at a Red Cross shelter in Atlantic City. In a telephone interview, she said the Red Cross had indeed become a lightning rod for second-guessing.
"Are they supplying people with what they need? Yes, they are," Miles said. "Could things be better? Yes, there are always things that could be better ... but there are people here who don’t have other places to go who are being taken care of."
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