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Red Cross storm response called 'secret disaster'

Volunteer organizations do a world of good, but the largest one in the U.S. -- the American Red Cross -- is more concerned with looking good than doing good, according to a critical report published Wednesday.

"The Red Cross' Secret Disaster," a joint effort by non-profits NPR and ProPublica, says the humanitarian organization "botched key elements of its mission ... leaving behind a trail of unmet needs and acrimony" after Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Isaac struck the U.S. in 2012.

Superstorm Sandy, the second-costliest storm in U.S. history, resulted in massive damage in New York and New Jersey in November. Earlier in the year, in August, Hurricane Isaac brought $2 billion in damage to Gulf Coast states.

Responding to storms of that magnitude isn't easy, and there's bound to be a few problems with any relief effort, but the article, which cites confidential reports, internal emails and accounts from current and former disaster relief specialists, says the Red Cross seemed more concerned with appearances than actually helping people.

Red Cross officials say decisions were based on need, not public relations, and defended the agency's performance after the storms.

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Allegations made in the article include:

  • Red Cross supervisors ordering trucks usually deployed to deliver aid to be driven around nearly empty “just to be seen.”
  • Emergency vehicles being taken away from relief work and assigned to serve as backdrops for press conferences.
  • Handicapped victims “slept in their wheelchairs for days” because the charity had not secured proper cots.
  • Sex offenders were “all over including playing in children’s area” because Red Cross staff “didn’t know/follow procedures.”
  • The Red Cross threw out 70,000 meals in one incident because it couldn’t find people who needed them.
  • The Red Cross ordered 90 percent of its Isaac volunteers to stay in Tampa, site of the Republican National Convention, long after forecasters said the hurricane would miss the area. This prevented preparations being made where Isaac hit hardest, Louisiana and Mississippi. One former executive said this prevented any shelters being opened in Mississippi before Isaac made landfall.
  • After Sandy, when many residents New York and New Jersey could not get drinking water, more than a dozen Red Cross emergency response vehicles were assigned to public relations.
  • The Red Cross brought a truck full of pork lunches to a Jewish retirement high-rise.

Vignettes after Sandy are telling.

A photo op with Heidi Klum resulted in one official saying “Did you know it takes a Victoria’s Secret model five hours to unload one box off a truck?”

Other charities  called the Red Cross' efforts ineffectual and at times "absurdist." Weeks after Sandy, Red Cross volunteers appeared at a hard-hit area and began distributing flashlights without batteries. When a Red Cross staffer asked another charity to donate batteries, he was told "Didn’t Lady Gaga just donate a million dollars to you guys? Buy some batteries with it."

America counts on volunteer organizations, and, despite this report, I am sure the Red Cross helped countless thousands of people when they needed it. But it makes me wonder if the organization, with a budget of $3.5 billion, is too big to not fail.

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