In 2012, two massive storms pounded the United States, leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless, hungry or without power for days and weeks.
Americans did what they so often do after disasters. They sent hundreds of millions of dollars to the Red Cross, confident their money would ease the suffering left behind by Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Isaac in Florida. They believed the charity was up to the job.
They were wrong.
The Red Cross botched key elements of its mission after Sandy and Isaac, leaving behind a trail of unmet needs and acrimony, according to an investigation by ProPublica and NPR. The charity’s shortcomings were detailed in confidential reports and internal emails, as well as accounts from current and former disaster relief specialists.
What’s more, Red Cross officials at national headquarters in Washington, D.C., compounded the charity’s inability to provide relief by “diverting assets for public relations purposes,” as one internal report puts it. Distribution of relief supplies, the report said, was “politically driven.”
During Isaac, Red Cross supervisors ordered dozens of trucks usually deployed to deliver aid to be driven around nearly empty instead, “just to be seen,” one of the drivers, Jim Dunham, recalls.
“We were sent way down on the Gulf with nothing to give,” Dunham says. The Red Cross’ relief effort was “worse than the storm.”
During Sandy, emergency vehicles were taken away from relief work and assigned to serve as backdrops for press conferences, angering disaster responders on the ground.
After both storms, the charity’s problems left some victims in dire circumstances or vulnerable to harm, the organization’s internal assessments acknowledged. Handicapped victims “slept in their wheelchairs for days” because the charity had not secured proper cots. In one shelter, sex offenders were “all over including playing in children’s area” because Red Cross staff “didn’t know/follow procedures.”
According to interviews and documents, the Red Cross lacked basic supplies like food, blankets and batteries to distribute to victims in the days just after the storms. Sometimes, even when supplies were plentiful, they went to waste. In one case, the Red Cross had to throw out tens of thousands of meals because it couldn’t find the people who needed them.
The Red Cross marshalled an army of volunteers, but many were misdirected by the charity’s managers. Some were ordered to stay in Tampa long after it became clear that Isaac would bypass the city. After Sandy, volunteers wandered the streets of New York in search of stricken neighborhoods, lost because they had not been given GPS equipment to guide them.
The problems stand in stark contrast to the Red Cross’ standing in the realm of disaster relief. President Barack Obama, who is the charity’s honorary chairman, vouched for the group after Sandy, telling Americans to donate. “The Red Cross knows what they’re doing,” he said.
Two weeks after Sandy hit, Red Cross Chief Executive Gail McGovern declared that the group’s relief efforts had been “near flawless.”
The group’s self-assessments, drawn together just weeks later, were far less congratulatory.
“Multiple systems failed,” say minutes from a closed-door meeting of top officials in December 2012, referring to logistics. “We didn’t have the kind of sophistication needed for this size job,” noted a Red Cross vice president in the same meeting, the minutes say.
Red Cross officials deny the group had made decisions based on public relations. They defend the Red Cross’ performance after Isaac and Sandy.
“While it’s impossible to meet every need in the first chaotic hours and days of a disaster, we are proud that we were able to provide millions of people with hot meals, shelter, relief supplies and financial support during the 2012 hurricanes,” the charity wrote in a statement to ProPublica and NPR.
The Red Cross says it has cultivated a “culture of openness” that welcomes frank self-evaluation and says it has improved its ability to handle urban disasters.
One reform, the Red Cross says, moved nearly one-third of its “disaster positions” out of national headquarters and into the field, closer to the victims.
But some Red Cross veterans say they see few signs the organization has made the necessary changes since Sandy and Isaac to respond competently the next time disaster hits.
Richard Rieckenberg, who oversaw aspects of the Red Cross’ efforts to provide food, shelter and supplies after the 2012 storms, said the organization’s work was repeatedly undercut by its leadership.
Top Red Cross officials were concerned only “about the appearance of aid, not actually delivering it,” Rieckenberg says. “They were not interested in solving the problem — they were interested in looking good. That was incredibly demoralizing.”
In late August 2012, the Red Cross began to see the effects of McGovern’s changes when Hurricane Isaac slammed into the Gulf Coast. The storm lingered over Mississippi and Louisiana, causing major flooding and more than $2 billion in damage. In some low-lying areas, residents had to be rescued from the rooftops of their submerged homes.
The Red Cross mobilized hundreds of volunteers, equipment, emergency vehicles and supplies. But it couldn’t marshal them promptly enough to help many Isaac victims.
When Rieckenberg arrived in Mississippi to help coordinate victim care, he witnessed the incident that so troubled Dunham, the emergency vehicle driver. An official gave the order to send out 80 trucks and emergency response vehicles — normally full of meals or supplies like diapers, bleach and paper towels — entirely empty or carrying a few snacks.
The volunteers “were told to drive around and look like you’re giving disaster relief,” Rieckenberg says. The official was anticipating a visit by Red Cross brass and wanted to impress them with the level of activity, he says.
The disarray and deception in Mississippi made Rieckenberg “furious,” he recalls. Rieckenberg, 62, had spent his career as a nuclear engineer on a Navy sub during the Cold War. He joined the Red Cross after seeing the images of Katrina’s devastation.
He was quickly promoted and became part of a select group of “Mass Care Chiefs.” In Red Cross lingo, “mass care” is the provision of food, shelter and supplies immediately after a disaster.
When a serious storm was forecast anywhere in the country, Rieckenberg would get a call at his home outside Santa Fe and jump on a plane. Chiefs often work 18-hour days, setting up makeshift command centers in places like motel hallways, sometimes working without electricity. Jobs usually last a few weeks, beyond which chiefs risk burning out from exhaustion. As a reservist, Rieckenberg was paid small sums for responding to disasters.
The problems with the Red Cross’ response to Isaac began even before the storm hit. About 460 mass care volunteer workers — 90 percent of the workers the organization dispatched to provide food and shelter for the storm overall — were stationed in Tampa ahead of landfall, Rieckenberg’s emails from the time say.
The hundreds of volunteers in Tampa weren’t only there for the hurricane: The Republican National Convention was going on there and the Red Cross wanted a large presence, Rieckenberg says. The Red Cross typically deploys about 20 volunteers to such meetings.
Emails from the time show Rieckenberg complained that Red Cross officials prevented disaster response leaders from moving volunteers out of Tampa even after forecasts showed that the hurricane wouldn’t hit the city. It was the first time in Rieckenberg’s experience that people in charge of disaster relief didn’t have the final say over where Red Cross volunteers were sent.
The Red Cross disputes the notion that the Republican National Convention influenced their deployment, saying it was responding to early forecasts that Tampa might be in Isaac’s path.
“There was nothing political in our decisions regarding Tampa,” the charity says. “We would have made the same decisions if it had been a convention of chiropractors.”
But according to the National Hurricane Center, at least five days before Isaac made landfall it was clear the storm would not hit Tampa.
The charity also insists that “the volunteers and resources we deployed to Florida did not come at the expense of other states.” It did not provide figures for how many mass care volunteers were on the ground in other states before Isaac.
Whatever the reason the Red Cross sent so many volunteers to Tampa, a number of Red Cross officials say there were delays in getting them out. “After how long they were in Tampa, they obviously could not redeploy. They consumed all their available time and went home,” says Bob Scheifele, who served as mass care chief in Louisiana. A former major in the Army, Scheifele was so upset after Isaac that he drafted a resignation letter, though he ultimately decided not to send it.
The overall Red Cross operation after Isaac was beset by problems. Rieckenberg emailed his superior at national headquarters on Sept. 12, 2012, to sound the alarm. “In Mississippi we were unable to open a single shelter with proper staff, materials and food resources prior to landfall,” Rieckenberg wrote. “We had trouble getting food to our kitchens.” The Red Cross’ relief efforts were “marked primarily by internal political wrangling, power struggles and ineffectiveness.”
“You [as usual] have clearly articulated the core of many of the issues we are facing. From a broad perspective I completely agree with you,” Trevor Riggen, the top Red Cross disaster response official, replied that same day. “This is extremely systemic.”
He also praised Rieckenberg for his service: “You have been an extraordinary asset to the country,” Riggen wrote.
In mid-October 2012, Rieckenberg and Scheifele traveled to Washington to present their experiences to Riggen and two other high-level Red Cross executives.
“We are more enamored with the perception of success rather than success,” Rieckenberg told them, according to his notes. He and Scheifele presented a host of other concerns to the officials.
The executives asked Rieckenberg and Scheifele to be patient, promising reforms.