The Red Cross: Missing in action

Sandy Boyer, a New Yorker and veteran activist, reports on the long and dismal history of the largest disaster relief organization in the U.S.

Gail McGovernGail McGovern

THE RED Cross was nowhere to be found after Hurricane Sandy hit on October 29 and New Yorkers most needed the best-known private humanitarian and disaster relief organization.

But this was business as usual for the American Red Cross, which had already failed the victims of September 11, Katrina and the AIDS epidemic, to name just a few.

When Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro told the media that the Red Cross was an "absolute disgrace" and urged people not to contribute to it, he could have been speaking for everyone from the public housing residents in Manhattan's Alphabet City and Brooklyn's Red Hook to the washed-out homeowners in Breezy Point in Queens and Gerritsen Beach in Brooklyn.

Especially in the critical first days after Hurricane Sandy struck, the Red Cross was practically invisible in the hardest-hit areas. It was only five days later, on November 2, that the Red Cross began to claim it had emergency response vehicles on the way. The day before, it announced that it was opening three temporary mobile kitchens, but by the next day, the kitchens still hadn't materialized.

In Breezy Point, resident Thomas Donovan told NBC News that the "Red Cross sucks--I'm never giving them another dime." One Queens resident reported on Facebook that in the Rockaways, "The Red Cross did set up a feeding station, but few came from the hard-hit portion of Rockaway. So the Red Cross shut it down."

None of this stopped Gail McGovern, the chief executive officer and president of the Red Cross, from telling NBC News, "I think that we are near flawless so far in this operation." Nor did it stop the Red Cross from raising well over $117 million for Hurricane Sandy relief.

Occupy Sandy, an initiative taken by Occupy Wall Street activists and others in the aftermath of the hurricane, has been everything the Red Cross hasn't. It began the day after the storm struck, with a few volunteers with laptops. Four days later, Occupy Sandy had 13 centers operating in destroyed communities from Rockaway Beach to Coney Island. Their motto is "solidarity not charity."

Occupy Sandy has set up distribution sites at two Brooklyn churches. Every day, hundreds of people cook hot meals and sort through donated blankets, clothes and food. There is an Occupy motor pool of borrowed cars and pickup trucks. An Occupy weatherperson sits at his computer and issues regular forecasts. There are Occupy construction teams and medical committees.

Despite the Red Cross' failures and the obviously superior performance of the Occupy Sandy initiative, there's still a chorus of "give to the American Red Cross" messages from the media, politicians and corporations.

It's impossible to turn on the television or radio without hearing it over and over again. On the eve of the election, for example, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney appeared to be competing to see how many times they could tell us we had to support the victims of Hurricane Sandy by contributing to the American Red Cross. It can seem as if every major corporation in the country wants us to know how much they've done for the Red Cross.

But in light of the Red Cross' record, the real surprise would have been if they had provided effective relief to the victims of Hurricane Sandy. The truth is that the Red Cross has failed over and over again.

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LET'S START with the 9/11 attacks in 2001. The Red Cross' first reaction was to try to enrich its treasury.

The group quickly raised $530 million, but then diverted $200 million to long-term goals and administrative costs, including: $109 million for improving telecommunications, accounting and database management systems; $50 million for the blood reserves program; $26 million for "community outreach"; and $29 million for "indirect" or administrative costs.

When all this hit the headlines, the Red Cross fired its president and brought in George Mitchell, who gave orders to get rid of the funds raised for 9/11 by any means necessary. That meant spending $30 million on New York City limousine drivers who had lost Wall Street and World Trade Center business; paying utility bills for people in SoHo and Tribeca, no matter what their rent and income level; and sending many millions to Red Cross chapters. Since the Red Cross does not fund non-Red Cross agencies, few New York organizations benefited from the 9/11 funds.

The Red Cross record on Katrina was, if possible, even worse. Jerome Nickerson, a former Red Cross volunteer and attorney, revealed that millions of dollars in relief supplies were stolen with the full knowledge of Red Cross managers. Nickerson said there was a black market in Red Cross disaster relief goods operating out of New Orleans, including warehouses with off-the-books inventory.

The more serious scandal was that the Red Cross systematically discriminated against the African American community in New Orleans. The organization located its emergency shelters in more affluent, predominantly white areas that less damage compared to New Orleans' African American parishes. It was difficult and often impossible for Black people to reach these shelters.

African Americans were also shut out of the supplies and food the Red Cross distributed. They were largely given out through the shelters, so again, the supplies went disproportionately to residents of whiter, wealthier neighborhoods.

In a master's thesis, Shawn Richardson described the Red Cross financial assistance: "There were also issues with distributing financial assistance to victims. Those who were in need of the money were the ones overlooked, and the ones who were least affected were the ones in the wealthy communities where these shelters were located."

Now one knows how many of the nearly 2,000 people, a majority of them from New Orleans, who died in the Katrina disaster would have survived if not for the racist policies of the Red Cross.

Red Cross policies may also have cost lives during the AIDS epidemic. The Red Cross, the largest supplier of blood in the country, opposed testing donated blood for HIV. The organization decided it would be cheaper to pay off any victims who sued than to clean up the national blood supply.

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ALTHOUGH IT is technically non-profit, the Red Cross behaves like a multimillion-dollar corporation. Its top priority is public relations and fundraising, not providing relief to people who need it.

A congressional report titled "Trouble Exposed: Katrina, Rita, and the Red Cross" described how: "Red Cross public relations staff have apparently deployed--sometimes within twenty-four hours of a disaster--with the sole purpose of collecting videos and photos in order to prepare campaigns for cash."

Like any multimillion-dollar corporation, the American Red Cross is a bureaucratic behemoth, operating from the top down. When a disaster strikes, everyone waits for the orders from the top. There is no room for Occupy Sandy's brand of innovation and initiative. The Occupy Sandy slogan "solidarity not charity" would be dangerous and seditious for the American Red Cross.

Gail McGovern, chief executive officer and president of the Red Cross, will make $565,000 this year. The San Diego and Cleveland presidents also "earn" over $500,000.

McGovern spent 24 years as a top AT&T executive. She was also a senior manager at Fidelity Investments. Red Cross leaders like McGovern would hardly recognize the poor and working-class people who suffer in a disaster. Theirs is a world of wealthy donors, fellow corporate executives and major politicians.

So the next time a disaster hits, don't wait for aid from the American Red Cross. Learn from Occupy Sandy. Get together with your neighbors to organize the relief the people in your community need. You'll get a lot more help than you ever will from the Red Cross.