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American Red Cross Responds to Inaccuracies in ProPublica and NPR Stories

This morning, NPR and ProPublica published stories detailing criticisms of the Red Cross response to Hurricanes Sandy and Isaac. The matrix below documents information provided to these news outlets that was omitted in their reporting.

 

Myth

Fact

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.

 

 

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  1. These points represent what I know to be true about this organization: The Red Cross is transparent in its work, and while not perfect, is quick to admit mistakes, amend them, and work to improve for the next time. Very disappointed in NPR.

  2. It is sad when the ARC has to submit to such bullying when it is the ARC who provides FREE basic safety and care for disaster stricken people/communities. Nobody ever said the ARC was supposed to be responsible for every cotton picking thing that should be available to clients. To me, the ARC provides caring, humane, temporary sustenance to folks needing it. It is a small hand-out to help victims stay as stabilized as possible. And that is no small feat. What if the Red Cross decided not to show up? What if the Red Cross couldn’t show up because there were no Volunteers working areas of disaster? People need to be grateful for what they get and quit griping about what they “think” they should get and don’t. What a bunch of panty-waists. Wah, wah, wah! American Red Cross – you people rock!

  3. I was late going to Sandy–but there was very much a need
    I came home wondering if I had doing enough so many people that needed our help we went every where and saw people waiting for us because we had been coming there so appreciative of what we fed–

  4. During Sandy, I served as Health Service interim State manager in Connecticut.
    Not only did our shelters performs outstanding work, contacting home health agencies to follow their clients in our shelters, condolence teams visited the 9 families who lost loved ones due to the storm. That count showed up on the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality report of the deaths during Sandy.

  5. I am a long term ARC volunteer and was at Sandy & Isaac as Mass Care / Shelter Supervisor.
    As with any large operations there are always issues to be worked out, but most of the problems we encountered with Sandy were more due to things NOT within our control since we were not running the shelters as the state of NY was. I think we did a good job under the circumstances.

  6. I was never so proud of our staff during Sandy in NY. Our ERV teams worked beyond the call of duty, with all the hardships that were against us. The SBC and our MN/SV worked well together with unheard of conditions.
    I can document more hero stories then I have room here>
    But it was Teamwork that won the day!

    David Moodie, Kitchen/Site MN, K-2, Most of Nov. 2012

  7. I am a Red Cross Volunteer. Red Cross Volunteers are required to have training and work their way up to greater levels of responsibility, but surprisingly, we are not perfect. Perhaps the people who wrote these stories would like to consider what would have happened without the response of the 17,000 Red Cross Volunteers? With only the government to respond in these disasters, there would have been no shelters, no meals, no ERVs . . .
    The Red Cross prepares and trains all of the time when there is no disaster, not publicity and sometimes, no donations so we can respond when the time comes. Who else is doing that?

  8. I served as a volunteer for both Isaac and Sandy. At Isaac I served as a Disaster Assessment supervisor and later DA lead in NOLA.
    #1 Isaac My team was restricted from entering La. until the roads were opened, After we arrived in Baton Rogue several roads were still closed to vehicles. Later while in NOLA, Plaquemine Parish roads were closed until very late in the event. I saw no wasted vehicle movement.
    #2 Hurricane Sandy, I made 4 trips to served as a volunteer 3 times at Kitchen #1 on Staten Island and my final trip was as a warehouse supervisor in NJ. I will address wasted food. I was “YARD DOG”,at kichen #1, we recieved vast amounts of donated food. A great deal of the food was less than a week from it’s experation date. Due to food contamination possibilities we discarded expired food. I personally had people approach me about the discarding of expired food. My kitchen manager agreed with the tossing the bad food. We also recieved food scheduled for the canceled NY City marathon. This was prepared food that had a very limited life span. Much of it was also discarded. Many private individuals brought food to us for use. Some of it was cooked at home some was still in the original packaging.The prepared food we informed people we could not accept. The privately donated food we sent to food pantrys in the area. I failed to see the wasted food as an issue. Food prepared by the Southern Baptist and not distributed was held for a nominal time for our own-team consumption.
    We sent food to every nook and cranny of Staten Island and some days some of the trucks returned with little or no food left and some days(very few early in the event) trucks returned with 70-100 meals left over.
    With every event there will be some clients and public officials not pleased with the American Red Cross perfomance

  9. Has anyone broken down the number of ‘meals and snacks’ to determine how many actual meals were served? The Red Cross identifies a bottle of water as a snack. Doing that, most red cross volunteers can tell you the numbers of actual meals served ( not a pastry for a breakfast meal) is much less than stated and quite misleading.

  10. It is clear that Pro Publica and NPR are grasping at straws to find something wrong. What would they do if the Red Cross would not have helped. Would they do better?
    I volunteer for the Red Cross and admire this organization in the training and detail they put into their mission. With the amount of work they did in this venture is is feasible that some mistakes were made. But they always debrief and discuss how to make things better. Do the critics do this or is just criticizing easier.

  11. I am a Red Cross disaster volunteer. I went to Staten Island to work with the ERV drivers. I met some amazing people We worked from 7am to late at night to help feed people. We went after Thanksgiving and there was still a great need,. I am proud to say that we helped many people who had just found out that they would not get any FEMA money and needed the food that we brought. We did not ever return any food. We delieved food in neighborhoods and then took it to shelters for people in need. The Red Cross works hard to train volunteers and the volunteers work hard and give up their time to help others.

  12. Thanks for posting it. I am so mad at NPR I am ready to quit supporting my state public radio. We do great work at the Red Cross! I am proud to be a Red Crosser!

  13. Very disappointed in the negative reporting. I was deployed to Hurricane Isaac specifically as a Registered Nurse to address and troubleshoot Functional Needs for clients in shelters…and did stage in Florida prior to the hurricanes landfall. Once in Louisiana, I encountered one of my most challenging but rewarding deployments. I worked with Mass Care Chief’s and developed integrated teams to expedite the needs of current client’s and prepare for future clients with functional needs. I was called to many shelters to assist as a subject expert where I myself witnessed bus loads of unexpected clients with functional needs just “dropped off” at the front door. I witnessed vans pulling up and dropping someone off in a wheelchair in torrential rains during the worst of the hurricane, and then drive off. I went out in 80mph winds to retrieve several of these people as it happened multiple times. I had thousands of contacts during Isaac….I worked with multiple local, state, and federal agencies. We met the needs of every client I/we came in contact with…and there were times I’m still amazed at was accomplished. I would suggest interviews with the “boots on the ground” Crossers I work side by side with as a Team on a DRO. We’re spokes in a wheel…and there’s lots of them that make our DRO’s a success. One broken spoke does not mean the entire wheel is no good. PROUD CROSSER HERE!

  14. I too was at Sandy but honestly guys…talking to each other is not what we should do. Please send a letter to the editor of your local paper and write your local VPR affiliate. Mary

  15. I am disappointed in NPR. I’ve always looked at their reporting as constructive and informative, however this article paints a completely different picture of the company. Having worked with disaster response and been deployed to disasters, I know the ARC follows forecasts by NOAA and deploys volunteers based upon local and state needs, which is usually determined by the EOC or government officials. I wasn’t deployed to Sandy or Issac, so I can’t comment on the response, but the response I went to was coordinated properly based upon information obtained by government officials. I also discredit their article since the majority of their information came from 3-4 dissatisfied people. If they truly had a negative picture to paint, they should have acquired more information from more sources. Writing a successful and informative news article is like conducting an academic study or writing a scholarly paper, the less sources you have the less credible your study or paper is. The lack of sources they cite leaves me to completely discredit their article. Another issue they pointed out was the age of volunteers. In a time where volunteerism is almost dead, the people that do volunteer their time and effort are now being undermined by this article. While it’s true that a majority of our volunteers are aging, it’s difficult to obtain and dispatch younger people as the majority of them are either working or in school (whether it’s high school or college, and they can’t afford to miss their studies as many colleges will not permit students to miss class). This limits us to those that are available to volunteer which are elderly people who have most likely retired and still want to continue to help out. I want to state I do NOT speak for the Red Cross, and these opinions are mine and mine alone, but I do support the Red Cross and know the internal struggles that the company has faced. I know we will continue to do our absolute best to help people in need regardless of this biased, lambasting article.