Texas of­fi­cial af­ter Har­vey: The ‘Red Cross Was Not There’

Once again, there were ap­peals for do­na­tions to the Red Cross. And once again, lo­cal of­fi­cials are say­ing the char­ity hasn’t de­liv­ered.

Walker County Messenger - - Front Page - By Justin El­liott, Jes­sica Huse­man and Decca Mul­downey

Red Cross that they kicked out a char­ity em­ployee as­signed to work with gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials from the head­quar­ters for the storm re­sponse.

“Ev­ery­thing we asked him to do, I didn’t feel was get­ting done in a timely man­ner,” said Mike White, Jef­fer­son County’s deputy emer­gency man­age­ment co­or­di­na­tor.

In Colorado County, west of Hous­ton, a lo­cal of­fi­cial told col­leagues on Aug. 30 the char­ity had sim­ply failed to show up at a shel­ter as promised.

“Per­sons need­ing in­ter­me­di­ateterm shel­ters have been trans­ferred to the Red Cross Shel­ter in Sealy. Red Cross ap­proved the shel­ter, but the promised shel­ter man­age­ment teams and the sup­ply trailer never ar­rived, nor do they know where they went,” Charles Rogers, the county’s emer­gency man­age­ment co­or­di­na­tor, wrote.

On Aug. 27, two days af­ter Har­vey made land­fall, the fire mar­shal of Hum­ble, a small city in the Hous­ton metro area, sent an ur­gent plea as his city faced se­vere flood­ing: Could the Red Cross help to staff a shel­ter in his area?

“I hate to say this but the Red Cross is com­pletely out of re­sources and have al­most no road ac­ces­si­bil­ity,” re­sponded Kristina Clark, an emer­gency man­age­ment of­fi­cial in Har­ris County, which con­tains Hous­ton. “The best thing I can rec­om­mend is to open some­thing and mes­sage to your peo­ple to bring THEIR OWN food, sleep­ing bags, clothes, med­i­ca­tion, etc.”

The Red Cross said in a state­ment that, over­all, it has pro­vided more than 414,000 overnight shel­ter stays, and with its part­ners served “al­most 3.2 mil­lion meals and snacks.”

Pro­vid­ing re­lief in the wake of the storm was an enor­mously dif­fi­cult task. Tom McCasland, Hous­ton’s di­rec­tor of hous­ing and com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ment, said in an in­ter­view that it wasn’t just the Red Cross — but also city and county gov­ern­ments — that didn’t have the re­sources to re­spond to the storm. The storm de­stroyed over 15,000 homes and dam­aged over 200,000.

“No one was pre­pared for this in terms of mag­ni­tude of num­bers that showed up” at the Ge­orge R. Brown Con­ven­tion Cen­ter, one of the ma­jor shel­ters in Hous­ton, McCasland said. “Given the cir­cum­stances, I can say that [the Red Cross] worked their hearts out.”

Many oth­ers sin­gled out the Red Cross for crit­i­cism. At a pub­lic meet­ing ear­lier this month, Hous­ton City Coun­cil­man Dave Mar­tin let loose on the char­ity for be­ing the “most in­ept, un­or­ga­nized or­ga­ni­za­tion I’ve ever ex­pe­ri­enced.”

Mar­tin urged Hous­to­ni­ans not to do­nate. “I have not seen a sin­gle per­son in King­wood or Clear Lake that’s a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Red Cross,” he said, re­fer­ring to two hard-hit ar­eas. “You know who opened our shel­ters? We did. You know who sent wa­ter and sup­plies? We did.”

In an in­ter­view with ProPublica, Mar­tin said he ran into Gail McGovern, the char­ity’s CEO, in a park­ing lot sev­eral days af­ter Har­vey hit. When he raised his con­cerns to her, Mar­tin said she re­sponded: “Do you know how much we raised with Ka­t­rina? $2 bil­lion. We won’t even raise hun­dreds of mil­lions here.’ I just thought, ‘Re­ally, Gail? That’s your re­sponse to me?’”

Asked about McGovern’s con­ver­sa­tion with the city coun­cil­man, the Red Cross said, “We un­der­stand his frus­tra­tion.” The char­ity said it has raised around $350 mil­lion for Har­vey.

As ProPublica has pre­vi­ously de­tailed, the char­ity’s at­tempts to re­spond to large dis­as­ters in re­cent years have been harshly crit­i­cized by vic­tims, gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and, in many cases, by the Red Cross’ own staff. Re­con­struc­tion ef­forts af­ter the 2010 Haiti earth­quake fell far short of the char­ity’s pub­lic claims. Af­ter Su­per­storm Sandy hit New York in 2012, Red Cross lead­er­ship di­verted dis­as­ter re­lief re­sources for pub­lic-re­la­tions pur­poses. And af­ter floods in Louisiana, a state of­fi­cial wrote that the Red Cross “failed for 12 days.”

While the Red Cross op­er­ates largely as a pri­vate non­profit, it was cre­ated by Congress more than a cen­tury ago and has an of­fi­cially man­dated role to work with the gov­ern­ment in pro­vid­ing food and shel­ter af­ter dis­as­ters.

As dis­as­ters have got­ten larger and more fre­quent, the Red Cross has got­ten smaller. Un­der the nine-year ten­ure of McGovern, who came from the pri­vate sec­tor, the group has had bud­get short­falls and cut staff sharply. Lo­cal chap­ters, in­clud­ing in Texas, have been shut­tered.

The cuts have stripped the char­ity of ex­pe­ri­enced dis­as­ter man­age­ment personnel. Un­der McGovern, the num­ber of paid em­ploy­ees has shrunk from 36,000 in 2008 to just over 21,000 in 2015, ac­cord­ing to tax fil­ings.

The group sent fewer re­spon­ders af­ter Har­vey than it did af­ter Su­per­storm Sandy hit the East Coast five years ago. Six days af­ter Sandy hit New York, the char­ity re­ported it had “more than 5,000 Red Cross work­ers” re­spond­ing to the dis­as­ter. Six days af­ter Har­vey made land­fall, the Red Cross re­ported “2,300 dis­as­ter work­ers” in Texas. A Red Cross spokesper­son told ProPublica the Sandy re­sponse was larger be­cause the storm af­fected 11 states. It also said tech­nol­ogy has re­sulted in the char­ity be­com­ing “more ef­fi­cient and ef­fec­tive in our re­sponse.”

The char­ity has said it would give $400 di­rectly to house­holds in the most af­fected ar­eas. But the pro­gram has been be­set by tech­ni­cal glitches and un­ex­plained de­nials, ac­cord­ing to re­port­ing by NBC News and sev­eral Texas out­lets. The Red Cross has apol­o­gized for the prob­lems.

There have also been prob­lems with a Red Cross hot­line for dis­as­ter vic­tims. The hot­line is staffed by em­ploy­ees of a con­trac­tor, TeleTech. A staffer at the firm de­scribed fre­quent trou­ble with a sys­tem that was sup­posed to iden­tify open shel­ters for those who needed them.

“Their pro­grams we use to find shel­ters for the vic­tims are not work­ing prop­erly, of­ten telling agents that there [are] open­ings when in fact the shel­ter is full,” the staffer said. “Vic­tims get there and are turned around and call us back say­ing that they used the last of their gas, only to be di­rected to an­other shel­ter with the same re­sults.” The staffer re­quested anonymity for fear of reprisal for speak­ing to the me­dia.

The Red Cross said in re­sponse that “shel­ter pop­u­la­tions are chang­ing on a minute-by-minute ba­sis” dur­ing dis­as­ters, which some­times re­sults in re­ported fig­ures be­com­ing quickly out of date.

The Red Cross is still in Texas and is also re­spond­ing to Hur­ri­canes Irma and Maria. Over­all, the Red Cross says it has part­nered with lo­cal agen­cies to open shel­ters in eight states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Vir­gin Is­lands.

ProPublica is an in­de­pen­dent, non­profit news­room that pro­duces in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism with moral force. Its stated mis­sion: “To ex­pose abuses of power and be­tray­als of the pub­lic trust by gov­ern­ment, busi­ness, and other in­sti­tu­tions, us­ing the moral force of in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism to spur re­form through the sus­tained spot­light­ing of wrong­do­ing.”

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