With hur­ri­canes, Red Cross finds donors, crit­ics

The Mercury News Weekend - - NEWS - By David Crary

NEW YORK » Con­fronted with back- to- back ma­jor hur­ri­canes, the Amer­i­can Red Cross has re­ceived a huge out­pour­ing of fi­nan­cial sup­port — and a si­mul­ta­ne­ous bar­rage of crit­i­cism based on its strug­gles to re­spond to sev­eral past dis­as­ters.

To date, com­bined do­na­tions to the Red Cross for hur­ri­canes Har­vey and Irma have topped $ 300 mil­lion. For­mer President Barack Obama tweeted a link to a Red Cross fundrais­ing site. Many pro sports teams, celebri­ties and ma­jor cor­po­ra­tions have an­nounced large do­na­tions.

Yet even in the early stages of the re­sponse to Har­vey in Texas, a NoRed- Cross hash­tag cir­cu­lated widely on Twit­ter. Some prom­i­nent jour­nal­ists wrote ar­ti­cles sug­gest­ing that peo­ple should not do­nate to the or­ga­ni­za­tion. The New York Times, in an ed­i­to­rial, urged prospec­tive donors to be skep­ti­cal.

“Its record on largescale op­er­a­tions is spotty,” said the ed­i­to­rial, as­sert­ing that “there has been less ac­count­abil­ity than Amer­i­cans might ex­pect emanating from its grand mar­ble head­quar­ters in Wash­ing­ton.”

The crit­i­cism has been sting­ing to Red Cross vol­un­teers and many have used so­cial me­dia to re­but the neg­a­tive com­men­tary.

“I worry that our vol­un­teers need to feel ap­pre­ci­ated,” Red Cross President Gail McGovern said in a tele­phone in­ter­view. “Af­ter 12-hour shifts, they come back to their ho­tel re­ally ex­hausted. They don’t want to read this stuff.”

Some lo­cal of­fi­cials in Texas and Florida have com­plained about glitches in the Red Cross re­sponse to Har­vey and Irma, while oth­ers have ex­pressed thanks. But much of the cur­rent mis­trust of the Red Cross arises from the af­ter­math of other ma­jor dis­as­ters over the past 16 years.

Af­ter the 2001 ter­ror at­tacks, the Red Cross irked many donors by ear­mark­ing some 9/11 gifts for un­re­lated pur­poses, in­clud­ing fu­ture needs. It was widely crit­i­cized for its re­sponse to Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina in 2005, and af­ter­ward ac­knowl­edged prob­lems that in­cluded over­whelmed vol­un­teers, in­ad­e­quate an­tifraud mea­sures and too few strong part­ner­ships with lo­cal char­i­ties and civic groups.

More re­cently, in­ves­tiga­tive re­port­ing by Pro Publica and Na­tional Pub­lic Ra­dio made the case that the Red Cross re­sponses to the Haiti earth­quake in 2010 and Su­per­storm Sandy in 2012 were flawed in mul­ti­ple ways. One key al­le­ga­tion was that the Red Cross failed to ad­e­quately doc­u­ment how it was spend­ing the $488 mil­lion it raised for its work in Haiti.

Last year, the Red Cross posted a de­tailed break­down of its spend­ing in Haiti. But that did not de­ter some crit­ics from us­ing so­cial me­dia as the new hur­ri­canes ar­rived to post Haitire­lated head­lines like this: “How Red Cross Raised Half a Bil­lion Dol­lars and Built Only Six Homes.”

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