| ROCKAWAY PARK, N.Y.
ROCKAWAY PARK, N.Y. Nov 14 Noreen Ellis begged
the American Red Cross for help a few days after Superstorm
Sandy slammed into the U.S. East Coast.
A 90-year-old bedbound woman living on Ellis's block needed
to be moved from the Rockaways, an eight-mile long, narrow spit
of land in New York City, to a shelter with heat and
"I said, 'This woman needs to be transported. Can you help?'
And the Red Cross said, 'We don't do that,'" Ellis said.
She shot back: "What does the Red Cross do?"
Ellis's frustration, echoed by many residents in the places
worst hit by Sandy across the New York region, exposed a gulf
between what many people expected the charity to do in times of
crisis and what it actually delivers.
In interviews with public officials and Red Cross staff, as
well as first responders from other aid organizations, it has
become clear the Red Cross was hampered by the sheer magnitude
of the disaster, by its decision to position supplies and staff
well outside the areas likely to be hardest hit by the storm,
and by misperceptions about what kinds of relief it would
provide in New York City.
The sense of letdown is all the more stark because the Red
Cross, the fifth-largest charity in the United States by private
donations, is viewed by many as the place to donate money when
there is a major disaster at home or abroad. It has raised
nearly $120 million since Sandy - spending about $40 million of
that so far.
Importantly, the Red Cross has been designated by the U.S.
Congress as the only non-governmental entity with the
responsibility "to lead and coordinate efforts to provide mass
care, housing, and human services after disasters that require
federal assistance," according to a 2006 congressional review.
But it isn't the first time the Red Cross has faced severe
criticism for a slow or weak response in the U.S. The review
followed its performance after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when
the Red Cross was blamed for poor outreach to victims, and after
the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the Red Cross decided to stash
away $200 million in donations for future emergencies and then
reversed course after a public outcry.
The Red Cross says it has been unfairly criticized in
Sandy's aftermath and will use any leftover donations to help
longer-term needs of affected communities.
"No one organization, no government agency, could
permanently be ready to respond to a disaster of this
magnitude," Josh Lockwood, the chief executive of the Red
Cross's Greater New York Region, said during an interview at a
food distribution site in Staten Island's New Dorp neighborhood.
Red Cross spokesman Roger Lowe added: "Are we everywhere we
want to be at the same time? No, but we're everywhere we can be
given the people and vehicles we have and the fact that we are
facing a large geography and an enormous population that needs
Gail McGovern, the head of the American Red Cross, even told
NBC News last week that her staff has been "near flawless" since
But the Red Cross efforts got off to a very slow start.
As Sandy approached, the American Red Cross headquarters in
Washington, D.C. arranged five staging areas in cities expected
to be just outside the storm's path, Lowe said. Su pplies and
staff we re mo ved out of the New York region to avoid damage.
One of those cities was Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where Lowe
said response vehicles and other supplies were stored. When
contacted after the storm, though, local Red Cross officials in
Harrisburg said they had prepared primarily to serve local
victims. Only after they made sure Pennsylvania residents were
all right - a process that took three days - were resources sent
on to New York City, the officials said.
Similar stories were told by local Red Cross officials in
Baltimore, another staging area. Local officials in the other
three designated places either would not comment, could not be
reached for comment or were responding to Sandy's damage to
their own communities.
The Red Cross said traffic delayed by three days its efforts
to serve Staten Island, the Rockaways, Coney Island and other
hard-hit communities in and around New York City. That was
despite all main bridges to those communities being open the day
As President Barack Obama paid a high-profile visit to the
charity's Washington, D.C. headquarters the day after the storm
to talk about relief efforts, the Red Cross had not yet sent in
food and supplies to victims in New York City. It did have
shelters open outside the Big Apple, though.
"If we could have gone one minute faster in our response
time, I'm going to make sure we make changes to make that
happen," Lockwood said. "We had the same challenges that all
people in the region had, having to do with traffic snarls,
trees down, telephone poles down."
The delay prompted an outburst from Staten Island Borough
President James Molinaro three days after the storm, when he
asked Americans not to donate to the Red Cross because the group
had yet to help his constituents. The Red Cross later said that
at the moment Molinaro was speaking, its trucks were en route to
Staten Island, where 22 people died in the storm.
Part of the perception problem may be the massive media and
advertising campaigns that the Red Cross runs when there is a
Much of the money collected by the Red Cross in the past
two weeks has come from high-profile telethons on national TV
networks. The Red Cross has also run advertising on TV, the
Internet and newspapers asking for money "to help people
affected by disasters like Superstorm Sandy" and it promises
that donations will help "make the biggest and most immediate
Celebrities such as Cindy Crawford and LL Cool J have
tweeted links to the Red Cross, news anchors have staffed phone
lines, JPMorgan Chase ATMs display Red Cross
advertising, and Whole Foods asks for Red Cross
donations at checkout.
These campaigns appear to give the impression that the
charity can be all things to all victims. Many of Sandy's
victims said in interviews that this was their view before
disappointment set in.
"After Katrina I gave big money to the Red Cross, but I
will never again," said Ellis, the Rockaways resident who was
able to get her elderly neighbor to a shelter after a ride was
arranged with a Long Island ambulance service. "It's not going
to the people who need it."
In fact, the group's primary mission in a disaster is to
supply food and run shelters, not to provide transportation,
arrange cleanup operations or coordinate last-minute volunteers.
"People have been giving without finding out first what a
group's capacity is to actually deliver services," said Ben
Smilowitz, head of the Disaster Accountability Project, a
watchdog group for first-responder relief agencies.
For every dollar the Red Cross raises, roughly 92 cents is
used for its blood supply and relief projects, with roughly 4
cents to administrative costs and 4 cents to fundraising.
During the Red Cross's 2010-2011 fiscal year, its largest
expenditure - $2.21 billion - was for its blood and plasma
services, not relief work, as it helps maintain 40 percent of
the U.S. blood supply. In addition to that expenditure, reported
in the group's annual filing with U.S. officials, the
organization spent $340.1 million on international relief and
$270.6 million on domestic relief.
Indeed, the Red Cross did run hundreds of shelters on Long
Island, New Jersey and New York's Westchester County just after
Sandy, but in New York City, the city government serves that
role, further limiting the group's visibility. Altogether, the
Red Cross says it has roughly 2,200 volunteers and 160 employees
on the ground, and has provided more than 1 million meals or
"Sometimes there's a perception that we're not in a
community even though we've had mobile trucks that have gone
through there hundreds of times, so that's a challenge in terms
of perception," said Lockwood.
And some Sandy victims do give it the benefit of the doubt.
"There are things that you can't do overnight. All of this
takes time," said Cecil de Silva, a driver for Meals on Wheels
whose Rockaway Beach home was swamped by Sandy's tidal surge and
who evacuated to Staten Island, only to be affected by the storm
there as well. "People need patience."
'SEND ME PEOPLE'
The sheer size of the Red Cross may be standing in its way.
Other aid organizations have found that a more-nimble approach
helped them respond after Sandy's landfall.
The Salvation Army used a handful of its staff living in
Staten Island to begin helping victims the day after Sandy left,
two days before the Red Cross arrived.
Doctors Without Borders is using a small team of physicians
to visit homebound patients. Team Rubicon, a relief group of
mostly veterans, is coordinating volunteers and using supplies
donated by retailer Home Depot Inc to clean up parts of
the Rockaways and New Jersey.
And across Brooklyn and Queens, the Occupy Wall Street
movement, famous for its 2011 protests against income inequality
in a downtown Manhattan park and elsewhere around the country,
has used its grassroots network to erect food and clothing
distribution centers, volunteer coordination sites, and
Frustration with the Red Cross is palpable throughout the
"The Red Cross is useless," said Nastaran Mohit, who runs
the Occupy medical clinic in the Rockaways with volunteer
doctors. "They come to me every day asking, 'How can we help?'
"I say, 'Send me people.' And they tell me they'll get back
The Red Cross said it did approach Occupy organizers last
week, but so far "we do not have specific examples of where we
have worked together," said Lowe, the Red Cross spokesman.
Some other charities have even been specifically targeting
those who do not want to go through the Red Cross with
statements like this on their websites: "If you would like to
donate to the relief effort but prefer not go through the Red
Cross: the Staten Island Giving Circle can accept donations via
Said Lockwood, head of the Red Cross's Greater New York
Region: "If people want to be generous we thank them, and if
they want to be generous to another organization that's great