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Red Cross Accused of Favoring Public Relations Over People

   Feb 06, 2015

An investigation by ProPublica and NPR into the relief efforts provided by the American Red Cross during the aftermaths of Hurricane Isaac and Superstorm Sandy in 2012 has uncovered that the Red Cross "botched key elements of its mission after Sandy and Isaac, leaving behind a trail of unmet needs and acrimony," according to the October 29, 2014 story posted on ProPublica’s website that can be found here

The scathing story cites confidential reports and internal emails from the Red Cross, plus accounts from current and former Red Cross disaster relief specialists.  The story states, "After both storms, the charity’s problems left some victims in dire circumstances or vulnerable to harm, the organization’s internal assessments acknowledge." Although the exposé reveals much more, some of the findings concerning the Red Cross performance after Isaac and Sandy include:

  • Delivery of services to Sandy victims being hindered by Red Cross officials at national headquarters “diverting assets for public relations purposes;”
  • Bulk distribution of relief supplies being “politically driven;”
  • Lack of availability of basic supplies like food, blankets and batteries to distribute to victims in the days just after the storms;
  • Children being sheltered with sex offenders due to staff not knowing or not following the procedures for sex offenders seeking shelter;
  • Disabled victims being left to sleep in their wheelchairs for days due to failure to secure proper cots; and
  • Tens of thousands of meals being wasted due to failure to gather information on the location of hungry victims.

The story notes that Red Cross officials defend the charity’s performance after Isaac and Sandy and deny that any decisions during the relief efforts were made for public relations purposes. On the Red Cross website Blog, the Red Cross’ Vice President of Public Relations posted two responses to the story on October 29, 2014 that include citing that more than 17.5 million meals and snacks were served, 7 million relief items were distributed, and 74,000 overnight stays in shelters were provided by 17,000 Sandy workers, 90% of whom were volunteers. The Red Cross claims that ProPublica and NPR omitted from the story the results of surveys showing that three out of four Sandy clients in New York and New Jersey expressed a positive experience with the Red Cross and that 70% of Red Cross volunteers were pleased with their volunteer experience. Also, the Red Cross describes that the "chaotic first few hours and days after a disaster" make it "impossible to meet every need, especially on a disaster as large as Sandy."

In response to the allegations that the Red Cross cares more about publicity than the people it serves, the Red Cross says that "is patently untrue" and that "[t]he needs of the people we serve drive every decision we make. Period." Of the $311.5 million raised by the Red Cross for Sandy response efforts, the Red Cross states that it has "quickly and wisely" spent or committed $310 million. The Red Cross does acknowledge that as is routine after all major disasters, as part of a thorough review of its Sandy response, it proactively sought feedback from hundreds of volunteers, staff and others, and that based on that feedback and its own evaluation, it implemented changes to strengthen its service delivery. The Red Cross' responses can be found here and here.

This is not the first time that the Red Cross has come under fire for performance or managerial issues. More of CharityWatch’s alerts concerning the Red Cross can be found below. 

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American Red Cross