In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Isaac in 2012, the American Red Cross was consumed with public relations even as it struggled to meet the basic needs of victims, ProPublica and National Public Radio report.
Based on confidential reports, internal emails, and accounts from employees, the investigation found that Red Cross officials at national headquarters compounded the organization's inadequate relief efforts by "diverting assets for public relations purposes" and allowing politics to drive the distribution of resources. The report cites instances of emergency vehicles being assigned to serve as backdrops for press conferences instead of delivering relief supplies, while Richard Rieckenberg, who oversaw aspects of the organization's efforts to provide food, shelter, and supplies, told ProPublica that three out of ten meals that were prepared by the Red Cross went to waste because the organization was unable to locate many victims of the storm.
Other examples cited by current and former employees include Red Cross officials preventing volunteers from leaving Tampa — which Hurricane Isaac skirted but where the Republican National Convention was being held — to join relief efforts in harder-hit areas. Similarly, in the days after Superstorm Sandy made landfall, a photo-op for a supermodel interrupted efforts to deliver supplies to storm victims, while later in the year, Red Cross officials fired a senior disaster responder after a demonstration for donors who had funded a giant mobile kitchen hit a snag. "Public relations became the issue," said Bob Scheifele, who was mass care chief for New York at the time. "It was a dog-and-pony show."
Meanwhile, an internal document detailing lessons learned from Isaac and Sandy revealed that victims with disabilities "slept in their wheelchairs for days" because the charity had failed to secure the right kind of cots. In one shelter, sex offenders were "all over, including playing in children's area," because Red Cross staff "didn’t know/follow procedures." "Multiple systems failed," minutes from a closed-door meeting of top Red Cross officials in December noted, referring to logistics. "We didn't have the kind of sophistication needed for this size job," a vice president said, according to the minutes, while the official in charge of the organization's disaster response in New York acknowledged that the charity was "not good at scaling up" to the size of the disaster.
"Some of the issues were corrected immediately during the response, others we are taking additional steps to improve, and some deal with problems in shelters or facilities that may not have been ours," the organization said in a statement to ProPublica and NPR. "While it's impossible to meet every need in the first chaotic hours and days of a disaster, we are proud that we were able to provide millions of people with hot meals, shelter, relief supplies, and financial support during the 2012 hurricanes."
Update: Friday, October 31, 2014 - 11:10 a.m.
On October 29, the Red Cross posted a response on its website to the original ProPublica/NPR account of its many "failures" in the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac and Superstorm Sandy. We have included the relief organization's point-by-point rebuttal to the allegations in the piece below. (Boldface indicates an allegation to which the Red Cross is responding; the organization's responses are in quotation marks.)
The American Red Cross cares more about its image and reputation than providing service to those in need.
"Our mission is to alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies, and that alone is what guided our service delivery decisions during Sandy and during every emergency. With the help of our donors and 17,000 workers — 90% of whom are volunteers — we delivered 17 million meals and snacks, 7 million relief items, and hosted 74,000 overnight stays in shelters to people who urgently needed our services. Every year, the Red Cross responds to more than 70,000 disasters, most of which are home fires that never make headlines. If the Red Cross cared more about image and PR than providing services, we wouldn't spend time responding to these silent disasters."
The Red Cross diverted vehicles and resources to press conferences instead of using them to deliver services.
"This is patently untrue. The Red Cross did not host any press conferences during the first months of Sandy. We participated in a limited number of press events hosted by others, but most of those took 15 minutes and took place in locations where services were already happening, and we continued those services long after the cameras left. We also had hundreds of requests from media outlets to see our services. We informed the media where we were providing services. While ProPublica claims we could not tell them how many ERVs were in New York on November 2, we did, in fact, provide them with evidence that 77 of our vehicles were providing service in New York and Long Island to residents in need. They chose not to include our response."
Richard Rieckenberg, the source of much of the information for these reports, was "the" Mass Care Chief and a high-ranking Red Cross official, before he quit.
"That is incorrect. Mr. Rieckenberg was one of 79 chiefs on the Sandy operation and had a limited view of the operation that lasted less than a few weeks. He reported into a larger chain of command that had a much broader perspective of the relief we provided."
The Red Cross sent too many volunteers to Tampa during Hurricane Isaac, when the storm actually had a greater impact in Mississippi and Louisiana.
"The Red Cross must make decisions about where we are going to deploy volunteers as many as five days in advance, and we follow forecasts from the National Hurricane Center. At that point, the cone is still large, but we need to act in order to get people and materials in place before weather conditions worsen and travel is made more difficult. Of paramount concern was the safety of our disaster responders. Due to the potential onset of gale force winds and potential storm surge, Red Cross workers stayed in place until they could move safely. As part of our annual planning for hurricanes in Florida, the Red Cross has a standing commitment to shelter 100,000 people in the Tampa area during a storm. Tampa is prone to flooding and has a vulnerable elderly population. The volunteers and resources deployed to Florida did not come at the expense of other states. At the same time we deployed volunteers to Tampa, we also deployed them in other states including Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas — and we did provide ProPublica with those numbers. As the storm track kept shifting, there was a threat to the Florida panhandle and to South Florida so it made sense to keep workers centrally located in case they needed to move to those areas. To be clear, the Red Cross was not the only organization that made plans to contend with the storm. Media outlets covered the storm's potential landfall, and the Republican National Committee canceled the first day of its convention as a precaution."
The relief operation for Hurricane Isaac was chaotic and inadequate.
"During Isaac, the Red Cross opened nearly 160 shelters, served nearly 649,000 meals and snacks, distributed more the 140,000 relief items, deployed more than 5,300 workers and mobilized more than 250 relief vehicles. It was not clear where Isaac would impact until 48 hours pre-landfall, and gale force winds and surge risk limited the mobility of our staff and resources. Still, the Red Cross coordinated closely with local officials in each state and as resource gaps were identified we moved quickly to fill them."
After landfall, the Red Cross sent 80 empty emergency response vehicles through neighborhoods in Mississippi, only for show.
"There is no evidence to support that. The Red Cross often uses its vehicles to conduct damage assessment in affected areas, so we can better coordinate service. But drivers would have been instructed to provide critical intelligence on where we should deploy our resources to better serve those in need. This helps plan feeding routes and other supply needs."
Sandy survivors were dissatisfied with the work of the Red Cross.
"The ProPublica story cites one unsatisfied Sandy survivor. We provided NPR and ProPublica with client satisfaction surveys showing that three out of four Red Cross clients in New York and New Jersey expressed a positive experience with the Red Cross. Those surveys were not included in the stories."
In the early days of Sandy, the Red Cross was wasting an average of 30% of the meals it was producing.
"We have no evidence this happened. What we do know is that we served 17 million meals and snacks, and our feeding trucks emptied out almost as soon as they went out. Every day, for weeks on end, we were feeding the equivalent of sold out crowds at Yankee and Giant stadiums combined. The individual who supplied this anecdotal information claimed to be in charge of feeding. He was not. He was on location for just two weeks and only saw a limited portion of the response in one part of New York."
Red Cross disaster workers who served on Sandy complained to headquarters about the response operation.
"The facts just don’t support this claim. Our worker surveys after Sandy show that the overwhelming majority — more than 70% — of them were satisfied with their experience. ProPublica and NPR chose not to include information from this survey and instead focused on three dis-satisfied workers who had a very limited role in the relief operation."
Red Cross workers did not have adequate training or experience to serve on a relief operation as large as Sandy.
"Here are the details we told ProPublica and NPR about this issue that didn't make it into either story: Of the 11,000 Red Cross disaster responders we deployed to work on the Sandy operation, over 5,500 of them had experience responding to a large disaster. Specifically in the Mass Care function — which was responsible for feeding and sheltering — our records show that nearly 70% had experience on a major relief operation. Our volunteers are trained at the local level and rise through the ranks by volunteering to assist on local fires and regional disasters. People who work in shelters or drive ERVs undergo specific simulation training. There are many jobs on a relief operation and we used more than 6,000 local and spontaneous workers, many of whom may have been responding to their first disaster. We used these volunteers — who simply wanted to help their neighbors — for activities that don't require technical expertise, such as packing and handing out relief supplies."
The Red Cross allowed sex offenders in shelters.
"The Red Cross has policies and procedures in place to handle the presence of sex offenders in shelters and works closely with law enforcement in the shelter management process. Shelter registration forms ask if people are required to register with the state for any reason. If the answer is 'yes' the shelter manager must speak with the individual immediately. If a shelter resident is identified as a registered sex offender, the Red Cross will work with local law enforcement to determine what's best for the safety of those in the shelter. There was at least one situation during Sandy where a shelter resident identified someone who he/she thought was a sex offender. When this was brought to our attention, we brought in additional resources and handled the matter. We provided this information to NPR and Pro Publica, and they chose not to include it."
The Red Cross left wheelchair bound shelter residents sitting in their chairs for days without proper care.
"The Red Cross is committed to helping people with a wide range of needs during disasters, including people with disabilities, people with mental illnesses, people with chronic health concerns and the elderly. We have worked closely with disability groups and have an excellent track record in this area. There have been isolated instances when entire assisted living facilities have been dropped off unexpectedly at our shelters and have briefly overwhelmed the systems we have in place. We believe that the comments in the document referencing wheelchair bound clients may refer to a specific situation during Hurricane Isaac in which that happened. In those cases, our staff and volunteers work with shelter residents to determine the best course of action, so they can remain safe until we have the physical resources to better manage their individual situations and needs. The bottom line is: If we're unable to provide suitable equipment to address these needs immediately, we bring in the resources necessary to address them as quickly as possible. But in the interim, our health and mental health staff ensures that the shelter residents are safe and cared for."
Update: Friday, October 31, 2014 - 5:10 p.m.
At around 1:00 p.m ET, Eric Umansky, assistant managing editor at ProPublica and co-founder of DocumentCloud, an open-source "tool for document-based investigative reporting," let us know via tweet that "Responses from @RedCross [above] are countered by their own documents. Which are posted as part of our story." The documents (a dozen in all) referred to in Umansky's tweet are posted on the ProPublica site for the public to read and comment on.