There was a time, when Americans knew just what to do when disaster struck: Depend on the American Red Cross.
Victims knew they could turn without a second thought to the venerable nonprofit for food, shelter and clothing. The compassionate would donate money or time. This still happens, but there are disturbing signals that not all is well with the venerable charity. Skepticism is gathering around the Red Cross – with echoes to problems that surfaced after hurricanes Sandy, Isaac and Katrina.
As the Butte and Valley wildfires wind down, recognized as two of the most destructive blazes in California’s history, the Red Cross is running two shelters in charred Lake County.
Some residents question the charity’s response, particularly to the Valley fire, calling it slow, unorganized and, at worst, ineffective. Social media is rife with angry rants and photos of donated supplies the Red Cross supposedly rejected.
At the Butte fire, the Red Cross emphasized its preference for accepting money, saying it could not handle “in-kind” donations of goods such as food, blankets and clothing. Separate charities formed to fill the vacuum, such as Resource Connection and the Community Covenant Church in San Andreas and Refuge Angels Camp.
In Napa County, volunteers started their own relief group after the Red Cross turned them away. Valley Fire Volunteer Calistoga mobilized a few hundred people and set up shop for a week alongside the Red Cross at the Napa County Fairgrounds, focusing on collecting and distributing in-kind donations. Volunteer coordinator Viri Agapoff criticized the Red Cross for not having flashlights or first-aid kits.
“I had them on kind of a pedestal because they are a worldwide organization, but it was just really disappointing,” she said. “Everybody was clueless.”
Similar allegations came after Red Cross’s response to Sandy and Isaac in a lengthy investigation by ProPublica and NPR.
The backlash has been so fierce that it prompted the Red Cross to issue a statement Thursday defending its response to California wildfires. It characterized what has been said about the nonprofit as “serious misstatements,” adding it “is important to state the facts as clearly as possible.”
Those facts include that volunteers served more than 76,000 meals and snacks, handed out some 32,000 relief items, supported more than 10,000 overnight stays in shelters, and provided more than 4,800 health and mental health contacts. We have no reason to doubt those numbers or the altruism of Red Cross volunteers who worked tirelessly to help displaced victims of the Valley and Butte fires.
But we would also like more transparency from the Red Cross – especially at the national level.
Red Cross is a congressionally chartered non-profit with a special status for more than a century. The Government Accountability Office looked into the charity at the request of Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, who became disgruntled after Red Cross’s work following Hurricane Katrina. The GAO reported a lack of cooperation and openness in the Red Cross’s accountability and financial relationships. Rep. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, also has questioned the charity’s rules barring release of financial information following the Haiti earthquake, according to propublica.
Additional oversight would help answer questions about the Red Cross. And maybe help explain why so many others have been needed to fill so many gaps.