Mark Edelman, Greater New York Chapter, American Red Cross: 9/11 and Its Aftermath

December 7, 2001
Mark Edelman, Greater New York Chapter, American Red Cross: 9/11 and Its Aftermath

On the morning of September 11, two hijacked Boeing 767s carrying a total of 157 passengers and crew were deliberately crashed, eighteen minutes apart, into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center at the southern tip of Manhattan. The subsequent catastrophic collapse of both towers, resulting in the death of some 3,000 civilians and rescue personnel, and the almost simultaneous crashes of two hijacked 757s into the Pentagon and in a field southeast of Pittsburgh horrified the nation and the world and, in the days that followed, galvanized an unprecedented outpouring of volunteer and monetary support for relief and recovery efforts.

The lion's share of individual contributions to those efforts were directed to the American Red Cross, which by mid-October had collected more than $452 million in donations for 9/11 relief (a figure that would rise to $550 million by the end of the month, when the organization closed its Liberty Fund to further donations). However, the sheer magnitude of the charitable response to the events of September 11, coupled with the decision by Red Cross executives to use a significant portion of the donated funds for programs other than direct emergency relief, soon drew the attention of the national media, and the resulting firestorm of criticism eventually led to the resignation of Red Cross president Bernadine Healy and a reversal of the controversial policy.

In early October, Philanthropy News Digest sat down with Mark Edelman, chief external relations officer of the Greater New York Chapter of the American Red Cross, to discuss the events of September 11 and the relief agency's response to those events. In subsequent conversations, Mr. Edelman responded to additional questions about the criticism and turmoil that, for a time, engulfed the organization and also offered his view that, while mistakes had been made, the Red Cross had moved quickly and publicly to rectify them.

Edelman joined the American Red Cross in Greater New York as chief external relations officer in June 1999. In that capacity, he is responsible for managing the organization's financial development, health and safety services, and community outreach and marketing efforts.

Before joining the Red Cross, Edelman served for eight years as director of marketing and communications for the national headquarters of the Anti-Defamation League, where he was responsible for marketing the organization, including its headquarters' divisions and thirty regional offices. Prior to joining the Anti-Defamation League, he owned his own advertising and new products agency in New York, where he worked on such accounts as Procter & Gamble, Cheesebrough-Ponds, Hertz, and Prime Computer, and was vice president/management supervisor at Cabot Communications, where he managed accounts for the American Red Cross National Blood Drive, the Harvard Community HMO, and the New England Electric Company.

Originally hailing from Walden, New York, Edelman is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and served as an officer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for five years. He is currently an adjunct professor at the New York University School of Education, where he teaches a popular course in "Communication and Advertising," and resides with his family in Hartsdale, New York.

Philanthropy News Digest: Where were you on the morning of September eleventh?

Mark Edelman: I think, as with John Kennedy's assassination, everybody's going to remember exactly where they were that morning. I was at a breakfast business meeting, right across the street from our offices on Amsterdam Avenue. Around ten after nine, my secretary ran in — I was kind of shocked, because I've never seen her do that — and she said to the four of us at the table, "They think an airplane hit the World Trade Center; they need you right away." So we got up, rushed back over to the operations center here, and watched television, mesmerized, like everybody else.

PND: When did you realize this wasn't an ordinary disaster?

ME: When the second plane hit, I knew this was no accident.

PND: Were you surprised by the outpouring of support, both financial and from people who wanted to volunteer, in the days and weeks following the disaster?

ME: I think everybody was, to some extent. It's hard to say that we were totally surprised, because this is New York, this is America, and Americans are very giving and...they just want to help. But the outpouring after the eleventh was unbelievable — it's hard to even quantify. This building seemed to be a magnet for people in the first couple of days after the attacks. They just came — they didn't even know why they were coming, a lot of them. It got so incredibly chaotic here that we had to separate various functions. We were taking blood right here in this building, and the very next day we started taking blood in the Martin Luther King high school building across the street because we couldn't handle the thousands, literally thousands, of people who were just walking in. It was amazing. Kids walked in with their piggy banks. People who had been out on the street collecting money would just walk in and dump out checks and dollar bills. I think the first day or two there were some ten or twelve thousand people who just walked in off the street to volunteer. As a result, we now have twenty-five thousand names of volunteers in our database that we didn't have before. It's really, really gratifying.

PND: Were you and your colleagues going twenty-four hours a day that first week?

ME: Pretty much. I would say eighteen to twenty hours a day that first week, and nobody took a day off. For the first month, I didn't wear a tie because I just didn't have the time to bother with it. At some point, I actually met with a crisis counselor for a debriefing, and he said, "You know, you should try to get back to normal in little ways." So one of the things I did was to start wearing a tie again. And it helped somewhat.

PND: What was the most difficult thing for you personally in the immediate aftermath of the attacks?

ME: I think it was the overwhelming feeling that there were just too many things that had to be done and not enough resources or people to do them. But the Red Cross is an amazing organization; there's an incredible support structure in place. Our office — or for that matter, any of the 1,200 Red Cross offices — is responsible for handling a major disaster in their area for the first day or two. I think we handled the World Trade Center effort ourselves for three or four days before staff from other chapters started to come in. In the first few days, staff from Syracuse and Rochester came in to help, and then people from the national office began to come in. The way it works is that eventually the national office takes over the job from the local chapter and volunteers from around the country are sent to the scene of the disaster. So for the first three or four days we did it, and then we started to transition it to the many, many Red Cross volunteers who came from other places.

Right now we have twenty-five hundred Red Cross volunteers and staff at our Brooklyn headquarters running this huge, huge relief operation. No local organization can handle that kind of operation without a great deal of support. The people in the Red Cross are well trained; they've responded to other disasters. There are twenty-three different functions, from accounting, to running a service center, to processing in-kind donations, and everything is very well organized, with policies in place for everything.

What we learned from this disaster, which was unprecedented in its magnitude and very unlike the hurricanes or floods or tornados we're used to, because it occurred in an urban environment and because it had to do with terrorism, was that we had to think outside the box. We're not operating in our normal fashion; we're operating in a very different way. We're trying hard to understand the needs of the different population groups that have been affected. No matter what Red Cross policy is, we're looking at it in terms of, "Well, should we do this, or should we do that?"

For example, the Family Gift Program we created for families of those who died or were severely injured is unprecedented in the history of the Red Cross. We've never really done anything like it before. But it was an idea that everybody recognized was completely appropriate, and so within hours we got the program going. In fact, we announced the program on September 18 and we were in the office the prior weekend calling our board members and all of their friends and contacts to try to locate the CEOs of the three hundred and fifty companies that were in the World Trade Center before the towers collapsed. We were trying to get the names and phone numbers of family members of the victims. Once we had that information, we conducted a brief interview with each of them over the phone and then provided them with checks to meet their financial needs for the next three months. That was unprecedented for the Red Cross.

PND: I think it would be helpful for our readers to put this into context. What was the largest disaster handled by the New York City Chapter of the Red Cross prior to the attacks on the World Trade Center?

ME: Well, I've been here for two and a half years, so my personal knowledge only goes back that far. The Red Cross, on the other hand, has been in New York City since 1906, so we've handled large disasters. But the biggest one in the last few years was the crane that fell over in Times Square about three years ago. It toppled into a building where a lot of elderly people live, and it became a very large operation. There were many people displaced and people who needed medication, so service centers were set up. Then there was the crash of TWA Flight 800 in the summer of 1996, which was a major disaster. In my time with the organization, we've had to assist with the EgyptAir disaster [editor's note: EgyptAir Flight 990 plunged into the Atlantic Ocean shortly after takeoff from John F. Kennedy International airport on October 31, 1999], where our role was to provide mental health and grief counseling to the families.

PND: Have your September 11 efforts been confined to individuals, or have you helped small businesses and nonprofit agencies that have been affected as well?

ME: The more typical role of the Red Cross is to work with individuals. So that's been the focus of our operation here in New York. We've helped people whose apartments have been damaged, or people whose employment status has been affected, people who were or are emotionally traumatized, and so on. However, as I said earlier, everything about this disaster is unprecedented. We know that there were many small businesses in the area immediately around ground zero that were destroyed. And there are many businesses — shoeshine shops and newsstands — whose physical plant is pretty much intact but whose customers haven't returned, for whatever reason. So we're continuing to explore what role, if any, there is for the Red Cross to play. We're working with the New York City Partnership, with the state and the city and other nonprofits and governmental agencies, because there's great concern about the economic fallout from this disaster. I saw a number somewhere — something like fourteen or fifteen thousand businesses were affected. We don't have the answer yet, but we have staff working on it.

PND: Many people, including members of Congress, have criticized the Red Cross for taking advantage of September 11 to raise funds for purposes other than direct disaster relief. Did the Red Cross mislead people as to the ultimate use of the cash contributions it received in the weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon?

ME: First of all, the Red Cross honors donor intent. If a donor was specific about his or her desires on the check, or in the letter that accompanied the check, that's where the money goes. And we set up different accounts with just this option in mind. There's the Liberty Fund, which was created for this particular disaster. And there's a general disaster relief fund, which we try to keep filled with a certain amount of money in the event a disaster hits somewhere. For example, during the months of April, May, and June of this year, that fund had gotten down to levels that were, in our view, sort of dangerous. So we began a national campaign to persuade people to contribute to that fund, to get it back to more normal levels, just in case there was a disaster that required the Red Cross to go in and do the things that the public expects of us. I think it makes a lot of sense to do it that way.

Regarding the funds raised since September 11, I don't think anyone at the Red Cross anticipated just how generous Americans could be. As the amount of contributions continued to climb, we announced how we envisioned the funds would be utilized. But it became clear that this wasn't what the public wanted, and so we changed course on November 14 and announced that all contributions to the Liberty Fund would go to those who were directly affected by the September 11 tragedy and to support the emergency workers working at ground zero.

PND: The Red Cross also has been criticized for taking too long to distribute the contributions that poured into the Liberty Fund and for creating an application process that was excessively bureaucratic. Is that criticism justified?

ME: I think there's some validity to it. But I think we've corrected the problems. I've been told that all the money — you have to understand, first of all, that the numbers are huge. I think we've opened twenty-seven thousand cases, which means there are potentially twenty-seven thousand families or individuals who have or could get some sort of assistance from the Red Cross, and we've been opening about three hundred new cases every day. That's a huge number and it just underscores how unprecedented this disaster is.

But we did start to disburse funds quickly. We announced an unprecedented Family Gift Program a week after September 11 and we called every victim's family we could find and offered them three months' worth of living expenses. To date, the total distributed through that program is about $56 million. And we're contacting all the families now — about twenty-six hundred families in total — and, after a short needs-assessment by a qualified case-worker, we'll send checks for six more months of expenses.

PND: There has been a lot of reporting on, and confusion about, tax liability issues. Is that something that families of the victims should be concerned about?

ME: I'm not a tax expert, so I can't tell you much, other than that the Emergency Gift Program I mentioned is a tax-free program. Those gifts are not stipends. They're gifts, and they're tax-free.

PND: In November, after weeks of media criticism, the Red Cross announced that it would return donations to any and all individuals who requested a refund. Is that still the official policy?

ME: That is and has always been our policy. If someone changes his or her mind, we always return the donation. You should know, however, that very few people asked for their donation back; the number was extremely small here in New York and elsewhere.

PND: I think it was a surprise to almost everyone when Dr. Bernadine Healy, the president of the national organization, announced her resignation, effective December 31, back in October. To what extent was the fairly widespread belief that the Red Cross had been less than forthcoming about its plans for the Liberty Fund a factor in Dr. Healy's resignation?

ME: Dr. Healy's resignation was a matter between her and the National Red Cross Board of Governors. I have no inside information on that issue.

PND: Do you think Harold Decker, who was appointed interim CEO of the Red Cross on the same day that Dr. Healy announced her resignation, will be asked to stay on as CEO?

ME: I have heard Harold Decker say publicly that he is not a candidate for the job. I believe the Board of Governors will appoint a search committee to find Dr. Healy's successor.

PND: Back in September, New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer announced that his office planned to create a centralized 9/11 database of donors and recipients, with an eye to coordinating the efforts of various nonprofit and government agencies involved in relief and recovery efforts. Initially, the Red Cross expressed its reluctance to join in that effort. Now the organization says it will cooperate with the attorney general's office. Why the change?

ME: The American Red Cross fully supports efforts that coordinate relief resources with other organizations. The concern that we expressed early on is in the area of confidentiality — we're always vigilant when it comes to that. And we do not believe that personal information should be shared unless the people we are dealing with provide us with a release form that allows us to share that information. This is standard with the Red Cross. We will share information as long as we know that the confidentiality of the people involved is being protected. To that end, we will offer those who received assistance the opportunity to protect their personal information by restricting its use only to relief agencies and not by making any future assistance conditional on participation in the database.

PND: How badly has the national organization been hurt by the controversy of the last few months?

ME: I think the Red Cross heard what Americans were saying, and I give the organization a lot of credit for admitting a mistake and for publicly regretting that it took so long to get back on course. But, in reality, it was only a two-month period, whereas the Red Cross has been a credible, trusted mainstay of the public life of this country for more than a century. Most importantly, let's not forget that the Red Cross was on site at the World Trade Center within minutes of the second plane hitting the South Tower, and we've been there every day since helping anyone and everyone who needs assistance.

PND: Are you confident that, in the event of another major disaster, the New York Chapter is prepared to respond in its usual fashion?

ME: On November 12, just two months after the World Trade Center tragedy, we had to go into action again when American Airlines Flight 587 crashed into the Rockaways. Without missing a beat, the Greater New York Chapter responded — as the public expects us to — within minutes, and we are still working with the victims' families in a variety of ways.

At some point, the presence of the national office at the World Trade Center will get smaller, and eventually the Greater New York Chapter will take over again. Based on our experience in Oklahoma City, where six and half years later the Red Cross still has a very active service center and is still regularly providing services to many of the one hundred and sixty-eight families, we think we're probably going to be dealing with this disaster for the next eight to twelve years.

So, we know we're going to be here for a long time, dealing with the consequences, known and unknown, of September 11. And I would say that the Red Cross knows that it has to be prepared for any domestic disaster; that's our mission. So, yes, the Red Cross will be prepared.

PND: Looking ahead, is the New York City Chapter preparing for any specific contingencies?

ME: If you're talking about terrorism, the answer is yes. We've been working on the possibility of a bioterror attack since Oklahoma City. We know this is a threat. In fact, the very Saturday before September 11, there was a bioterror drill at LaGuardia airport. So we're always in preparation mode, and I think we'll be ready for the next disaster, whatever it is.

PND: Finally, what would you say to the average individual who has been following the 9/11 story, particularly as it relates to the Red Cross, and is maybe thinking twice about sending in a donation?

ME: This has been a challenging time for the Red Cross. This organization is working day and night to meet the needs of people affected by the tragedies, and at the same time we've found ourselves in the position of having to account for our actions at an unprecedented level. We understand that we have an enormous public responsibility — which is why we've made changes to narrow our activities and put them in line with the expectations and desires of the American people. I think we will come out of this better and stronger.

PND: Well, thank you for speaking with us.

ME: Thank you.

Mitch Nauffts, PND's editorial director, interviewed Edelman at the headquarters of the Greater New York Chapter of the American Red Cross in early October and subsequently ask for additional information from via e-mail. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch at mfn@foundationcenter.org.