In Hard-Hit Areas, Red Cross Runs Into Image Issue

Monday, December 03, 2012

Red Cross volunteers in Breezy Point, a month after Hurricane Sandy hit the area. Red Cross volunteers in Breezy Point, a month after Hurricane Sandy hit the area. (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

The Red Cross has been providing relief since the Civil War, but recently it’s run into an image problem.

The group was criticized for not being on the ground in New York City immediately following Hurricane Sandy when residents from Staten Island to Breezy Point were asking themselves: where is the familiar red-and-white logo of the Red Cross?

“We’re not first responders, so we don’t send our people into an area that could be heavily impacted," said Sam Kille, Red Cross communications director for the New York region. “We don’t send people into areas we know are going to flood during something like this.”

The Red Cross has received pledges of $170 million since the storm hit and says its given out 7.5 million meals and snacks and more than 5 million relief supplies — which includes blankets, comfort and clean up kits and other items. It says 91 cents of every dollar donated goes to disaster victims.

But in places like Breezy Point, where more than 100 homes burned to the ground, many were left cold and hungry for the first few days and now they are cleaning out and repairing their damaged homes.

“You hear about the Red Cross building hospitals in other countries. Why aren’t they here helping us build our houses? They’re just giving us week-old hot dogs,” said Douglas Owens, 28.

But building houses is not part of the Red Cross’ mission.

Here and abroad the Red Cross and Red Crescent assist local charities religious-based relief groups and other organizations. The Red Cross has networks in 187 countries.

Kille said during disasters like the Haiti earthquake the Red Cross played a more visible role because there was little support from the government there.

In New York, the organization works with FEMA, city agencies and other groups that are providing assistance, which means the Red Cross is often less visible on the ground. It even says it has partnered with Occupy Sandy, which arrived immediately after the storm providing relief supplies.

“It’s not been a perfect response, but we’re very proud of the response we’ve had. This is the biggest response we’ve had in five years as an organization,” Kille said, noting that it took the organization three days to get into some storm-ravaged areas

Kille said the Red Cross also offers mental health counseling and is sending volunteers door-to-door to visit evacuees.  It has two tractor-trailers at Aqueduct Racetrack and Fort Tilden where large meals are cooked and distributed through various networks throughout the city.

Annemarie Willis, a resident of Breezy Point, was a Red Cross volunteer, but is now taking relief into her own hands. Surveying a stockpile of diapers, baby wipes, cleaning supplies and shovels that she has collected, Willis said residents have come to her because the Red Cross’ offerings aren’t enough.

“It’s Annemarie’s Warehouse,” she said.

Annmarie Willis, a Breezy Point resident who has collected relief supplies and is distributing them herself (Stephen Nessen/WNYC).

Nearby, the Red Cross runs what it calls an Outreach Center. There are nine in the affected areas. Volunteers meet there and fan out in groups, canvassing the hard-hit neighborhoods — assessing the needs.

At the Breezy Point outpost, backhoes, bulldozers and work trucks rumble by on a recent morning. Red Cross volunteers in an ambulance-shaped van hand out Meals-Ready-to-Eat, diapers and winter hats.

A team of four volunteers from across the country pile into an SUV and drive three minutes to a home that previous volunteers identified as needing assistance.

Wes Mukoyama, 70,  from Santa Clara, Calif., and his team enter a beige home to check on an elderly woman who lives alone. About 15 minutes later, he emerges.

“I asked if she’s sleeping and eating regularly,” he said. “I cautioned her about this feeling if she gets agitated—it’s a normal reaction to an abnormal situation, so that may continue for awhile.”

But Mukoyama, like many of the 15,000 volunteers, is not from New York, and is only staying for about two weeks. He admits he probably won’t be following up with this woman.

“We can’t continue to come back; we might not know where we’re going to be in the next day," he said. "So we caution them and say, 'We never make any promises that we’ll be back.'”


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Comments [11]

Elizabeth Leonard from Breezy Point

So the Red Cross is putting people up in shelters, that's great! I'd just like to know if they are being put into places like The Soho Grand where Red Cross is shelling out over $140,000 or was it $180,000.00 for its VOLUNTEERS? The People of BreezY Point, Rockaway, Broad Channel, Long Beach and NJ know this organization is a big scam. Thanks for giving out a couple of meals, coffees, blankets and cleaning supplies. But do you think that actually amounted to even 1 million dollars? No? Me neither. Greybeards, Team those are the people I want to see after an emergency. The Red Cross, just keep teaching people basic first aid and CPR and I'll be glad to keep paying my $75 for my certificate.
Volunteers of Red Cross, you are well meaning. Better you sign up with a local charity who does more for your community. We in Breezy Point know the truth.

Dec. 20 2012 02:02 AM
Francis McGovern from Davie, Florida

Seems like you've struck a nerve!!! and I must admit I am gun shy when it comes to giving money to the RED CROSS... I think this is a story you should continue to follow up on... 170 million... how much of that goes to the CEO, CFO, COO's bonuses as well as other Top Executives... Does the full $170 million stay in the New York/New Jersey area? or is it dispersed throughout the country? I live in Florida and went to NY Rockaway Beach to volunteer for a Week. I only seen One Red Cross Truck, just one time... I fully understand its difficult to be in so many places to help so many people. Yet whenever I watched the news or seen pic's in the media they were always there. even watched their own commercials make it seem like they are everywhere, helping everyone... They certainly do need to work on their imagine and maybe even their integrity as well. Ohh another thought, not my own but I'm sure you may be familiar with it..."FOLLOW THE MONEY"...

Dec. 05 2012 09:52 PM
CaliforniaBob from California

Lets be fair. Part of the role of the Red Cross is to coordinate with other disaster and charitable organizations. Coordination is necessary in order to avoid duplication of services in some areas to the exclusion of services in other areas. If an area is being adequately served by XYZ charity, the Red Cross is appropriately not eager to go in and duplicate services. Sometimes the XYZ services are being done in coordination with the Red Cross, and sometimes with supplies provided by the Red Cross. -- Bottom line: just because you don't see a red shirt does not mean your community is being ignored by the Red Cross.

Let's also keep in mind that the Red Cross' allowable services focus on providing shelter and food. They also provide psychological first aid and support and family reunification when possible. They don't tear out sheetrock, haul away your debris, or rebuild your house. They are also not first responders doing rescue work for those who refused to evacuate when asked to do so.

Let us also be fair regarding whatever may have happened during WWII. Our own American government first ignored the situation and washed hands of all responsibility for a very long time. The world as a whole refused to acknowledge what was happening in the Concentration Camps. If today we refuse to support any organization that failed to see fully what was going on in Nazi Germany, we could support practically no government or organization on the face of the earth.

When we ask "Why didn't the Red Cross do this..or that...or do more of it?" perhaps the better question is: "What would it have been like if the Red Cross had not been there providing tens of thousands of overnight shelter visits, millions of comfort kits and clean up kits, blankets, hand warmers, gloves, and hot meals?" Their presence may not always measure up to our expectations, but their absence would be horrible indeed!

Dec. 04 2012 07:07 PM
jf from BK


Dec. 04 2012 01:14 PM
k.s. sapsin-fine from MA

The Red Cross is a disgrace and should be disbanded. I have never forgotten its inexcusable collaboration with the Nazi's during WWII. "Invited" to inspect concentration camps to undergoird Nazi propaganda about jews and many other minorities who did not meet Nazi criteria for living, Red Cross "inspectors" looked only at the false fronts that were carefully staged for their visits, asked few to no questions and wrote glowing reports about the Nazi's humane treatment of their "prisoners".

For those who want to find it, there is a significant literature about the disgraceful parts of Red Cross history--including its failures in regard to other disasters in the decades after WWII. It was and remains a coffee and donuts organization at best whose definitions of "help" and "aid" remain a scam based on reactionary and prejudicial politics.

Please: Save your money and donate it, your help and goods to the many organizations that do solid hands on work without picking and choosing among deserving populations on the basis of mis-guided politics.


Dec. 04 2012 12:53 PM
Andrew from NYC

I understand the level of frustration that many express about the American Red Cross, but let's take a look at the organization historically and regionally. At one point in our nations history the Red Cross volunteer base could count one out of every five Americans as a member. How many of the people in these communities are volunteers in the Red Cross let alone any relief organization?

Further to this, the Red Cross has seen its budgets and staffing relentlessly cut both at the national and local level to the point where it cannot respond as effectively as it once did post disaster, access and needs notwithstanding. I think it is great that many of these organizations at the grass roots level are spontaneously volunteering their efforts. Where are they beforehand when there is no disaster, helping with preparation and mitigation? I suggest that those posting with criticism "walk a mile in their shows" before pillorying the American Red Cross.

Dec. 04 2012 09:25 AM

After every disaster in recent memory, there's the same kind of stories about the Red Cross. I think it's time for a change. They are the default charity and they don't get the job done. After 9/11 there was a scandal about donations going into their general operating fund. After Katrina there were problems too. Why are we still surprised at their failures?

Dec. 04 2012 08:49 AM
Brenda from New York City

Thank you for covering this story. I've been frustrated by the Red Cross response AND the immense popular support for the organization. One television network quickly partnered with the Red Cross and had a telethon. They did this while the story was breaking (on competing networks) about the outrage of the Staten Island mayor regarding glaring absence of the organization. I've no doubt the organization does incredible work, but they fell short this time. Unfortunately the money will keep pouring in though as people want to help but don't want to have to research before sending a check.

Dec. 04 2012 08:41 AM
Tricia Sheehan

I am a resident of Breezy Point. Other than seeing some red cross blankets in the church donation hall, I had not seen them at all until this weekend. Four weeks after the storm. I don't expect them to rebuild my house, but if they are out there cooking meals at Fort Tilden, then why are they handing out DRE's in Breezy? Collected $170 million, and accounting for $12.5 million--there is a disconnect here. People donating reasonable expect help going to the victims of THIS tragedy. There has been more true assistance from grassroots efforts and others than I could have ever imagined--Operation Blessing, the Mormons, the Amish, just to name a few. Nevermind Kevin Adams, who posted a sign he will pump and gut for FREE. He needs more volunteers--no skills needed. This is the help we need. We are not asking for handouts. Lord knows, as a community, we know about taking care of those in need.

Dec. 04 2012 08:11 AM
CaliforniaBob from California

I am a Red Cross volunteer. I spent two weeks at Breezy Point and Rockaway. The damage there was significant, for sure. However, the Red Cross was indeed present there on a daily basis during the time I was there, Nov. 2-15. -- No matter the disaster, some always think the Red Cross should do more. In this case, when someone says "Why aren’t they here helping us build our houses?" there is an obvious misunderstanding of what the Red Cross is designed to do. Rebuilding someone's house is the job of the homeowner and his/her insurance company; the Red Cross does not pick up the slack for uninsured people. They can't. However, the Red Cross has provided over 100,000 overnight stays in its shelters, and millions of meals, and millions of recovery items for personal and household cleaning and sanitation.

Let's be fair, whenever there is a disaster, the normal infrastructure of society is temporarily is gone. The Red Cross is there to make less the suffreing and danger of those affected. This they have done. But the rebuilding is up to the homeowner, the insurance company, and in some cases FEMA.

Dec. 03 2012 10:50 PM
Moya Aiken

As I resident of Breezy point and a contributer to many Red Cross emergencies I could kick myself for being so naive in thinking my contribution may have helped somebody in need. I have seen a handful of people wearing wearing Red Cross t shirts wandering around Breezy taking and posing for pictures in the most devastated areas of our community. I hope they have some nice snapshots of our devastation and despair. Shame on you Red Cross and shame on me for believing the hype.

Dec. 03 2012 09:21 PM

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