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The Red Cross’ response to Hurricane Isaac and Superstorm is in the spotlight this week after an investigation by ProPublica and NPR revealed multiple failures by the organization, including accounts that the organization diverted resources for public relations purposes. The Red Cross disputes many of the facts in the story, and points to the tens of thousands of people helped in those disasters. We explore the issues.
- Justin Elliott Reporter, ProPublica.org
- Suzy DeFrancis Chief public affairs officer, American Red Cross
MS. JEN GOLBECKFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. I'm Jen Golbeck from the University of Maryland sitting in for Kojo. Later in the broadcast, the hidden terrorism economy. We'll talk about where ISIS gets its funds and what it takes to cut off the flow. But first, the American Red Cross' response to Hurricane Sandy and Isaac is in the spotlight this week. An investigation by ProPublica and NPR, airing this week on NPR, revealed multiple failures by the organization, shortcomings which left people in need after those disasters.
MS. JEN GOLBECKAdded to that are accounts that the organization diverted relief resources for PR purposes. The Red Cross disputes many of the facts and the conclusion of the story. They'll weigh in a little later but first joining us to discuss is Justin Elliott. He's a reporter with ProPublica and author along with Jesse Eisinger and Laura Sullivan of NPR of an investigation into the Red Cross response to Hurricanes Sandy and Isaac. Justin, thanks for being with us.
MR. JUSTIN ELLIOTTThanks a lot, Jen.
GOLBECKWhat were some of the issues you and your co-authors found with the Red Cross response to Hurricanes Isaac and Sandy?
ELLIOTTSure. So this investigation, which is based on a lot of internal Red Cross documents including assessments after those storms, as well as interviews with Red Cross officials who participated in the responses and many other, and we found that the Red Cross really botched big parts of its fundamental mission after Hurricane Isaac and Super Storm Sandy. Oftentimes they just didn't show up to the most affected areas after those storms.
ELLIOTTIn cases when they did show up there were serious problems of very high level of waste, you know, doing things like handing out flashlights without batteries. And then I think sort of most disturbingly we found that the leadership of the Red Cross has become so obsessed with public relations and sort of brand management that they actually undermined the disaster relief efforts by doing things like taking trucks that are supposed to be delivering food and supplies and instead using them as backdrops at press conferences. And again, those are problems cited in internal Red Rock assessments and also on the record accounts of Red Cross officials who were on the ground.
GOLBECKAnd you also have stories of people not following procedures where it led to things like handicap victims being left to sleep in their wheelchairs or sex offenders actually being allowed to wander into children's areas in Red Cross shelters.
ELLIOTTThat's right. One of the documents that we obtained and published in full at ProPublica is a lessons learned presented that was done out of Red Cross headquarters in Washington after Isaac and Sandy. And Isaac was the hurricane that hit the Gulf coast a couple months before Sandy back in 2012.
ELLIOTTAnd, you know, there's a fairly shocking litany of problems outlined in that document. One of them, as you mentioned, is in a shelter there -- if there are sex offenders in a shelter, there are procedures that you're supposed to follow about sort of where they are in the shelter and authorities being contacted and that sort of thing. And the staff hadn't been trained and it didn't know the procedures. So the document says that these sex offenders were all over the place, including playing in a children's area.
ELLIOTTIt talks about unrelated adults showering with children. There's another section that talks about some really serious problems that some storm victims with disabilities were having, the Red Cross is supposed to have obtained special cots that are able to incline, but they hadn't. And as a result of that, some of these victims with disabilities were forced to sleep in their wheelchairs for days. And, you know, there's many, many more examples like that that just go on for pages in this Power Point presentation.
GOLBECKTwo Red Cross employees you spoke with went to the Red Cross with their concerns after Hurricane Isaac. This was in 2012. What happened?
ELLIOTTRight. So, I mean, the remarkable thing is there's this whole email chain that again we published with the story on ProPublica where a couple of the high level disaster responders on the ground who were trying to do the sort of hard work of disaster relief were identifying these problems both the sort of the question of priorities of PR over actual work. And then lack of training, lack of sort of general preparation.
ELLIOTTAnd they wrote these detailed emails to Red Cross vice-presidents in headquarters in Washington. And in one case, the one you mentioned after Isaac, there's actually a chain where Red Cross vice-president for disaster services responds to one of these lengthy emails outlining problems and says, you know, I agree with you. These problems are extremely systemic. And unfortunately when similar emails and letters were sent after Sandy, the Red Cross official seemed to be sort of less receptive. And it's not clear that all that much has changed, though the Red Cross says that they have made a few reforms.
GOLBECKOur listeners can also join the conversation. Have you ever donated to the Red Cross and are you confident about where your money's going when you give to disaster and relief organizations? You can join us by calling 1-800-433-8850 or send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Justin, the Red Cross has responded to your investigation and the articles and reports coming from it. They've issued a statement and had an extensive rebuttal on their website, and we'll talk to them shortly. But they're disputing pretty much everything that you've said. On what did you and your co-authors base all of your accounts?
ELLIOTTSure. So really the core of the story is the Red Cross' own documents. And these were not sort of marginal things that were written by low-level people. I mean, just to give a couple of examples, one thing we published were meeting minutes that was minutes taken from a meeting in December, 2012 about six weeks after Hurricane Sandy. And this was a meeting of the highest level of Red Cross executives, vice-presidents. They're the highest people in the organization below the CEO Gail McGovern.
ELLIOTTAnd they're giving this quite serious account of deep, deep problems in the Sandy response. I mean, some of the lines in there that we quote in the story, one of the executives says, we didn't have the sophistication for this size job. Another one says, our biggest problem is the caliber of our people. And then in parenthesis it says, this is not a training issue. So, I mean, that's one example.
ELLIOTTThere were -- there's the lesson learned Power Point I mentioned which we also published. But then also we interviewed dozens of people including many current and former Red Cross officials who corroborated the accounts in the documents. And we went to the Red Cross and we presented them with -- as we always do with everything that we were planning to report and incorporated their responses.
ELLIOTTI mean, I know that a Red Cross representative will be on later but, you know, I want to just point out that they've been serially misleading in this whole -- both during Sandy and also in their responses to us. I mean, just to give one brief example. A couple weeks after Sandy hit, the CEO of the Red Cross Gail McGovern went on NBC on national TV and said that the Red Cross' response had been quote "near flawless."
ELLIOTTNow, the meeting minutes that we obtained and published, which were only a couple weeks after that Gail McGovern interview, these are minutes, again, of a meeting with Red Cross executives. And they were just painting a starkly contrary picture of the response saying that they just weren't up to the job and that their people didn't have the skills necessary to respond. And other things like multiple of our systems failed. So it's really -- you know, it's been unfortunate that they have been attacking sort of broadly our story, although I also want to point out that they haven't actually come to us with anything that they say is actually inaccurate.
GOLBECKMost people are pretty familiar with the Red Cross and what they do, but I'd like you to give us a really quick background because they have a unique status.
ELLIOTTYeah, so it's a really interesting and important organization. It is a -- it's a private nonprofit but it has a unique status because it was actually -- it turns out created by congress by congressional charter back in the -- over 100 years ago. And so they actually have a legal mandate to respond to disasters alongside the federal government. And they have a memorandum of understanding with FEMA about what that involves. So it turns out there's actually some congressional oversight of the Red Cross, although it's been sort of spotty in the past.
ELLIOTTAnd, you know, they're mostly funded by private donations. I mean, after Sandy, one of the reasons we got interested in this was people -- Americans donated over $300 million to the Red Cross after Sandy. So we were originally looking at sort of what happened to that money, which we still have questions about. But they -- so they work alongside with the government and they have -- they also actually have a whole other arm of the organization that takes blood donations and works with the blood supply, which is really not part of our story.
ELLIOTTBut it's a huge organization, has about $3 billion in annual revenue. They have about 20 -- over 20,000 employees around the whole country. And, you know, we certainly believe that the Red Cross does do some good work. And the reason we're writing about it is that we think it's an incredibly important institution. And, in fact, many of our sources are really good people who really care deeply about the Red Cross and think that it's been led astray by the current leadership.
GOLBECKAt this point I'd like to bring in Suzy DeFrancis. She's the chief public affairs officer with the American Red Cross. Suzy, thanks for joining us.
MS. SUZY DEFRANCISThank you, Jen.
GOLBECKSo you heard what Justin had to say. What's the organization's response to this investigation?
DEFRANCISWell, of course, we believe that ProPublica painted a very distorted and inaccurate picture of the Red Cross response. This was a response that helped tens of thousands of people who urgently needed our services, whether it was hot meals or shelter, relief supplies, financial support. And basically they took things that we were looking at, issues that we self-identified that we needed to either prove upon, fix or change. And they took that to characterize the entire response.
DEFRANCISNow, let me give you a context for this. We had operations in 13 states for Sandy. This was a massive, enormous response. We served, during that time, 17.5 million meals and snacks. In fact, there was a point during the response when every day for weeks on end, if you took a sold out Yankee Stadium and a sold out Giants Stadium, we were feeding everybody in there every day for weeks. And they were not in those stadiums. They were all over the city.
DEFRANCISWe mobilized 17,000 workers. Ninety percent of them were volunteers either from New York or New Jersey or people who came from all over the country, left their homes and came here during Thanksgiving. I mean, it did a terrible disservice to those people who worked their hearts out. In fact, we even had volunteers like the Gargiolas from Long Island who we had provided food to after Sandy. And they wanted to help us so they got back in our emergency response trucks and they went around on Thanksgiving and provided food. (unintelligible) ...
GOLBECKSo Suzy, let me -- I have some more questions for you, so I want to...Suzy, I want to ask you some more questions, and we don't have a lot of time here, so I'm going to follow up on that. What about the former Red Cross employees and volunteers who have said that the organization is too focused on PR to the detriment of the mission?
DEFRANCISWell, let me address that, since I am the chief public affairs officer of the American Red Cross, so I deal with PR. But I can tell you, Jen, that I never am able to tell an emergency response vehicle where to go. The routes of our emergency response vehicles, where they go are set by our disaster experts on the ground.
DEFRANCISThe example that ProPublica uses where they said that there were some of our trucks in the backdrop of the press conference, well, of course they were there. It was at a staging area where we were bringing our trucks to send them out on feeding routes. The Salvation Army were there, other groups were there. The borough president of Staten Island specifically requested we be there because Staten Island had a lot of needs. And after the cameras left, the Red Cross continued to serve meals. So we totally reject that.
DEFRANCISYou know, every night in Washington, Jen, there's a house fire and somebody is left without a home, without clothing, without a place to stay for the night. the American Red Cross is there and we don't get any coverage for that.
GOLBECKLet me stick on this issue of Hurricane Sandy and Isaac response. The reports that ProPublica and NPR highlight, in those reports they highlight internal documents and meeting minutes which support the conclusion that the Red Cross was aware of failures on multiple levels. And it leads people to ask, why two weeks after the hurricane, as Justin mentioned, did the chief executive describe the response as near flawless when the organization itself knew that not to be the case.
DEFRANCISWell, no, that's not the case. When you do an after action, we call them, you sit down after a disaster, you say, what went right, what went wrong, you throw everything out there. Anything that somebody had seen, heard, whatever. You know, you try to get it all out there. That's the culture we have at the Red Cross so that we can continuously improve, so that we can change and fix things.
DEFRANCISBut that doesn't mean that because you had a problem here or a problem there that the whole response was flawed. I mean, a disaster by definition means that something's going wrong. And if you've ever worked on a disaster response, you'll know it's chaotic in the beginning. You're bringing in people from all over. Some -- a lot of them volunteers, some of them may not have worked with each other before. You're trying to get systems in place. You're trying to scale up so you can serve this enormous amount of relief that we served and that, I think, only the American Red Cross can serve.
DEFRANCISAnd sure there's going to be breakdowns and problems. But, you know, we haven't been in operation and doing this for 130 years -- and by the way, Justin had something wrong. It was Clara Barton who founded the American Red Cross, not (unintelligible) ...
GOLBECKSuzy, let me keep this on the issue that we're talking about here. We're very low on time but I want to have -- I have one more question for you. So you did this after action. You came up with these things that you wanted to fix. What reforms has the Red Cross undertaken since Hurricane Sandy to address the shortcomings that the organization itself said hindered the response?
DEFRANCISSure. Well, one of the things we've done is when you have a disaster as widespread as Sandy, 13 states, you need coordination from your headquarters in Washington. But we also believe you need to give more decision-making authority to the folks on the ground. And so we have implemented that post Sandy. We moved about a third of our disaster positions out of national headquarters in Washington and into the chapters and fields where we work.
DEFRANCISAnother thing we've done is we've looked a lot at what it's like to respond in an urban environment. You know, responding in New York City was very different than when we responded in Moore, Okla. And there you can see the Red Cross trucks in Moore, Okla. because the town was flattened. In New York we had a hard time, you know, letting people know where our services were. And actually the media plays an important role. They're an important partner for us in letting people know where we are. And we found that social media has become a really important part.
DEFRANCISWe had so many people on social media saying, what can I do to help? We'd tell them tweet out where the American Red Cross trucks were, and they would. They'd say they're at the corner of Beech and Howard Avenue and they're serving Salisbury steak today.
DEFRANCISAnd one other thing we've done is the number of spontaneous volunteers that showed up in New York and New Jersey was huge. These are people who just want to come out and help. And so we've developed an app now called Team Red Cross app that people can register on, they can sign up for. We hope all of your listeners will do this, so that the next time there's a disaster in your community, you can come out and help.
GOLBECKI think that's all the time we have for this conversation, but I'd like to thank Suzy DeFrancis and Justin Elliott for joining us for this discussion of the NPR and ProPublica report on the Red Cross. I'm Jen Golbeck sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. We'll be back after a short break. Stay tuned.
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