The Red Cross: Missing in Action After Hurricane Harvey

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, many charitable organizations and individuals came running to help with food and medical supplies, logistics support, and skilled personnel. One group that many say was noticeably missing in action for the aftermath was the American Red Cross.

There is no question that Harvey was a storm few could have predicted, either in magnitude, place, or timing. In the end the storm wiped out over 15,000 homes and did serious damage to over 200,000.

With that kind of destruction, it is understandable many organizations normally ready to support in the face of serious storms were left challenged by what eventually showed up. As Houston’s director of housing and community development, Tom McCasland, said in a recent interview, “No one was prepared for this in terms of magnitude of numbers that showed up” at the George R. Brown Convention Center which ended up being used as one of the major shelters there. He singled out the American Red Cross, which has played a major force in the immediate recovery of regions across the U.S., saying that “Given the circumstances, I can say that [they] worked their hearts out.”

McCasland may sound sure of the American Red Cross’s diligent response to the storm, but others had a very different take on it. Houston City Councilman Dave Martin was one of those. During a public meeting not long ago, he attacked the Red Cross as the “most inept, unorganized organization I’ve ever experienced”. He went to say that, “I have not seen a single person in Kingwood or Clear Lake, [two of the region’s most damaged areas], that’s a representative of the Red Cross.”

According to independent reports, the Red Cross said it had deployed “2,300 disaster workers” after the storm. While that might seem like a lot, it compares to over 5,000 sent to the east coast after Superstorm Sandy whooshed across New York and into New Jersey. The discrepancy was supposedly because that storm affected 11 states, and Harvey “only one”.

The Red Cross also blew it in handling one of the important lifelines for disaster victims, a Red Cross hotline. That call-in location, staffed by employees of TeleTech, a contractor, had many problems helping point victims to where they could seek shelter. In many cases victims would arrive at where they were sent by the hotline, only to find out when they made it there – often almost out of gas, exhausted, or both – that the shelter they had been sent to was full and could not take anyone else.

The lack of support is very tough to accept, especially in view of the calls for charitable donations which came out when Harvey was approaching and soon after. It is even more hard to believe when one realizes that, although the Red Cross does operate as a private nonprofit, it was originally created by the U.S. Congress over 100 years ago and has as part of its mandated responsibilities to work with the government in providing food and shelter in these kinds of emergencies.

This is also a private nonprofit with some hefty salaries for the senior executives. According to the publicly-available IRS Form 990 the American Red Cross must file every year, the top three executives at the Red Cross pulled in as of 2015, the last year data was publicly available, including both direct salaries and other forms of compensation, $556,772 for CEO Gail McGovern, $554.236 for Shaun Gilmore, President of the Biomedical Sciences part of the group, and $453,959 for CFO Brian Rhoa. The organization has more than once been criticized with what seem like inflated numbers for this size of a charity.

The American Red Cross CEO also ran into public problems with her response when she ended up running into Houston City Councilman Martin face-to-face, in a parking lot just a few days after the disaster. There Martin apparently raised major concerns with McGovern about the woefully inadequate response of the Red Cross. Her answer, according to Martin, was to talk in terms of funds raised and a balance sheet approach rather than in human terms. According to Martin, McGovern responded to his questions with the comment that, unlike in the case of Hurricane Katrina, a storm of record proportions as well, the American Red Cross wouldn’t raise anywhere near the estimated $2 billion the charity received after that earlier storm, saying “We won’t even raise hundreds of millions here.” Martin was dumbfounded by the cold callousness of the answer. He said he thought at the time – though he didn’t say it aloud – “Really, Gail? That’s your response to me?”

Shortly after Harvey hit, another news report spoke about an emergency management official in Texas’ Harris County about getting some help with Red Cross regarding a shelter. The Harris County emergency management office’s spokesperson, Kristina Clark, said at the time that, “I hate to say this, but the Red Cross is completely out of resources and have almost no road accessibility. The best thing I can recommend is to… message to your people to bring THEIR OWN food, sleeping bags, clothes, medication, etc.”.

Harvey is not the only place where the American Red Cross responses have fallen far short of what was needed, as well as far short of what they said they had done. After audits of the reconstruction work done by the charity after Haiti’s disastrous 2010 earthquake were done, it was clear the results were far less than what the American Red Cross publicity machine had said. In the case of Superstorm Sandy in 2012, it was even revealed senior leaders at the charity had diverted disaster relief resources for public-relations purposes. One report even said that supervisors had some of the aid trucks designated for that relief effort were to be “driven around nearly empty, ‘just to be seen’”.

As to the allegations of incompetence in managing the response to Harvey, the American Red Cross did recently issue a public statement to answer a few questions. They claim a new total of 7,300 workers came out to support the relief efforts for Harvey. They also say they were “operating 30 shelters with a population of 1,496 and supporting systems operated by partners”. They further claimed when all was done, “at least 21,496 individuals were provided with cots, blankets, food and a dry, safe and secure refuge” from the hurricane.

The public statement also backed up what CEO McGovern told Houston City Councilman Martin earlier. The American Red Cross has now raised about $350 million connected with Hurricane Harvey relief.

There are some big questions about exactly what happened with that money and how it was applied. If, as in the case of Superstorm Sandy, it turns out the American Red Cross may have misappropriated some of the funds for work not directly related to Hurricane Harvey disaster relief, there may be serious consequences. In another location where the American Red Cross was active in its disaster support work the U.S. Virgin Islands, the allegations of widespread fraud associated with fundraising and storm cleanup activities have become bad enough that the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Virgin Islands Attorney General have established a Task Force to Combat Disaster Fraud in the area. Will the Red Cross be held accountable for its past misappropriation actions, or perhaps similar ones connected with Harvey? Because of how hard it would be to prove it is highly unlikely.

No matter what the answers are regarding any money mismanagement issues, or whether the support the American Red Cross is claiming it provided turns it to be true, it does appear the charitable organization is proving far from the once praiseworthy front-line support organization it used to be.  How big that shortfall will turn out to be will take time to fully tally in the case of the humanitarian disaster Hurricane Harvey is becoming.