(NEW YORK) MintPress – Another major disaster, another case of the American Red Cross getting flak, not necessarily justified, for its response.
“They’re always the ones under the microscope,” said Major George Hood of the Salvation Army, which considers itself a Red Cross partner during times of disaster even though it competes with them for donations.
In the case of Hurricane Sandy, which spanned 1,000 miles and killed more than 100 people in 10 states, the criticism came almost immediately in New York City, an area that was among the hardest hit.
A few days after the storm, the Staten Island borough president, James Molinaro, who felt that the Red Cross was slow to get its emergency response vehicles into stricken areas and to open its mobile kitchens, termed its efforts an “absolute disgrace.” He also called on residents to stop donating money to the nation’s largest private relief agency.
Each year, the American Red Cross responds to more than 70,000 natural and man-made disasters. Its authority to provide relief was formalized in 1905, when it was granted a congressional charter to “carry on a system of national and international relief in time of peace and apply the same in mitigating the sufferings caused by pestilence, famine, fire, floods and other great national calamities, and to devise and carry on measures for preventing the same.”
The charter also obligates the Red Cross to perform its duties to help disaster victims and to uphold its responsibility to the people who support it with their donations.
“We expect people to have high expectations of us,” said Gail McGovern, the Red Cross president since 2008. “It keeps us on our toes.”
And McGovern, along with other agency officials, reject the notion that the organization dropped the ball this time around.
Obstacles to action
Some Red Cross staffers, in fact, said the Bloomberg administration was responsible for the slow response.
In an interview on local TV station NY1 on Thursday, Red Cross spokesman Sam Kille maintained that the charity was merely following emergency-response plans “drawn up by the New York City Office of Emergency Management.”
Added to the bureaucratic quagmire was a logistical one. Although the Red Cross attempts to get relief supplies into threatened areas before a hurricane arrives, it says the sheer enormity of Sandy made it difficult.
“We never put personnel or supplies in the path of a hurricane,” said Josh Lockwood, CEO of the Red Cross of greater New York. “That did present challenges in this case.”
By Wednesday, two days after Sandy hit, the agency realized the disaster required huge assistance from outside the city, but road closures and heavy duty traffic made it hard to deliver resources over land. It took until Thursday and Friday for the influx of vehicles and goods to speed up.
“The magnitude of Sandy was so broad, so deep, so severe, with millions of people affected, that no single agency could address the challenges,” claimed Lockwood.
Indeed, one of the other relief agencies responding to Sandy, Save the Children, became so frustrated with logistical problems that it resorted to Twitter to seek help.
Containing the controversy
In the past, the Red Cross has in fact been proactive in undertaking needed reforms within the agency.
After 9/11, it was criticized for its handling of donations, which were designed for relief for victims of the attacks. Survivors complained about the bureaucracy involved in requesting funds and the slow delivery of the money.
Congressional hearings were called, and then New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer investigated the Red Cross. In the end, the charity appointed former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell to handle distribution of the funds. Its president, Dr. Bernadine Healy, was forced to resign, and the agency pledged that all funds would go to directly benefit the victims.
Significant changes were also made to policies for Red Cross fundraising and earmarking donations.
The organization encountered criticism once again after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. In March 2006, the Louisiana Attorney General and the FBI launched investigations of allegations of fraud and theft by volunteers and contractors within the Red Cross Katrina operations.
In response, the agency increased the amount of information it put out about its fraud and waste hotline for confidential reporting to a third party agency. It also implemented a policy of conducting background checks for all volunteers and staff.
More help is on the way
Meanwhile, Red Cross fundraising for Sandy-related relief has surged, with backing from the National Football League, a benefit concert on NBC and myriad other sources. As of Sunday afternoon, the organization reported $85 million in donations for its response to Sandy, with the amount continuing to rise.
According to Lockwood , it now has more than 70 emergency response vehicles in New York City, each carrying 1,000 pounds of food, water and supplies.
He said he and his colleagues would eventually conduct an in-depth review of the response to Sandy to determine what went right and what went wrong.
“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.”