Sunday, September 07, 2014

Why we need the Red Cross

Last week I got an email from Jesse Eisinger, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter from ProPublica. In the email he stated: "We are working with NPR on a story about the American Red Cross’s mass care during Hurricane Sandy. I understand that you were brought in to the NYC EOC after the first few weeks to coordinate the ARC’s mass care for the city."

I responded favorably and the next day we spoke on the phone for almost an hour.

Some people are hesitant to talk to reporters but my Hurricane Sandy experience in NYC was positive and I was eager to talk about it. I also wanted to correct the statement in his email that I was "brought in to the NYC coordinate the ARC’s mass care for the city." That statement was not factually correct and exaggerated the role that I did play during my 2 week stint in Manhattan.

During my conversation with Mr. Eisinger I could tell from some of his questions that he was adhering to the dictum given to Watergate reporters Woodward and Bernstein: "Follow the money." The Red Cross received millions of dollars in donations for Hurricane Sandy relief and the question of accountability for how that money was spent is certainly a question that an investigative reporter would find interesting. Happily, I knew nothing about that subject. He said he wanted to talk about mass care in NYC during Sandy and I knew something about that subject. 

Plus, as those of you who know me will attest,  I LOVE to talk about mass care.

To be precise, we didn't talk about mass care as much as we discussed disaster feeding. At least, I talked a lot and he listened and asked occasional questions. I had already sent him links to my blog where I had already documented my experiences in Sandy. The first one was The Transition to Long Term Disaster Feeding in New York City after Sandy. Another one was Disaster Feeding in New York City during Sandy.

I spent some time explaining to him the 3 phases of disaster feeding. Not familiar with the 3 phases? Check out the first blog post I referenced, or read all about it in the source document, the Multi-agency Feeding Plan Template. The 3 phases are Immediate, Sustained and Long Term. When I arrived in the NYC Emergency Operations Center on November 11, 2012 (Veterans Day) we were well into the Sustained Phase.

The NYC EOC at the Brooklyn end of the Brooklyn Bridge
In the 8 days that I was in the NYC EOC I didn't coordinate mass care for the Red Cross. I went there to lend my disaster feeding experitise to what was a complex and difficult situation.  As I told Mr. Eisinger, I was able to make 2 positive contributions. First, we got the NYC Emergency Management to initiate daily conference calls for the Feeding Task Force. Through these conference calls we were able to coordinate the multiple, disparate groups involved in disaster feeding in the city. Second, I initiated the discussion about the transition from the Sustained phase to the Long-term feeding phase. The planning for this transition continued after I left under the steady hand of some good people and was a real success of the operation. You can read more about this in the first blog post I referenced.

I arrived at the NYC Red Cross Chapter on November 6, Election Day. I spent the prior week in Maryland responding to a request from their state. Why did I go to Maryland? They were the only state that asked for me. You can read about it in the blog post Hurricane Sandy's Inundation of Crisfield, Maryland.

When we finished the response in Crisfield I got released from my commitment to Maryland and asked the Red Cross if they would take me as a volunteer. The next day I flew home for 4 hours and then caught a flight the Red Cross booked for me to New York. While in Manhattan I worked 14 hour days doing my regular job while I was on vacation from the State of Florida.

Why? Well, for one thing, most of my friends were already there or in New Jersey. Second, I gained a lot, both personally and professionally. And although this was my 16th hurricane Sandy was the first time that I ever deployed as a Red Cross Volunteer.  I knew how important the Red Cross was to mass care in this country but it wasn't until I deployed as a Volunteer that I learned why we need the Red Cross.

When I arrived at the Chapter I was put to work planning a large distribution of emergency supplies operation that the Red Cross was going to execute during the upcoming 3 day Veterans Day weekend. The entire 4th floor of the Chapter was occupied by the Disaster Relief Operation so I was sent to a 2nd floor conference room. When I arrived I was the only person there.

The 2nd floor conference room at the NYC Red Cross Chapter when I first arrived.
Throughout that day and the next the room filled with volunteers and staff assigned to work on the distribution operation. It was a remarkable time. In my experience, this was the greatest concentration of mass care expertise assembled at one time and place that I had ever seen. Most of the people with the real expertise were Volunteers who left their jobs, homes and families to help out complete strangers. 

"This is amazing," I said to one of the many Volunteers in the room.

She nodded her head and smiled. "Yes, it is, isn't it?"

The 2nd floor conference room 2 days later
We needed that expertise because we were faced with a large task and a challenging mass care environment. It's hard to do anything in New York City on a blue sky day. The City is a system of systems and the storm had disrupted the balance. We had to move lots of commodities, vehicles and  volunteers using an organization equivalent to a pick up basketball team. It helped that the players were really good.

Mr. Eisinger wanted to speak to me about disaster feeding because, as he noted, the Red Cross received a lot of criticism about their feeding operation in the first week. I couldn't comment about the feeding operation during the first week because I wasn't there. But I knew enough about disaster feeding to criticize the critics. 

The first few days after the impact of the storm are the Immediate Phase of disaster feeding. In this Phase local resources are used for feeding until such time as resources external to the jurisdiction are brought in to produce and distribute meals at the level required for the disaster. In 2005 after Hurricane Wilma it took us 3 days to establish the feeding infrastructure and begin the Sustained Phase of disaster feeding. Wilma was the 8th hurricane that we had worked in 16 months and we had the skills that came from lots of practice. 

In NYC after Sandy, in my professional opinion, 4 or 5 days to establish the feeding infrastructure would be a reasonable estimate considering the conditions. People must consider that mass care vehicles aren't the first priority for access to the City after the winds die down. Law enforcement, Search & Rescue, and other life safety resources get first priority. As they should.

To stand in front of the media on Day 2 or 3 after the storm and criticize the Red Cross because they aren't feeding yet is to demonstrate an ignorance of the realities of disaster feeding. There are a lot of advantages to living in a great City like NYC. There are lots of disadvantages. Hurricanes, and big disasters in general, are one.

Criticizing the Institution and the idea of the Red Cross is not constructive. We need the Red Cross. Criticize the individual who made the mistake and not the organization. The Red Cross represents an ideal and we need that ideal. It's the ideal that I saw in the 2nd floor conference room of the Greater NYC Chapter of the American Red Cross during the Hurricane Sandy response.

In my almost 15 year career as the State Mass Care Coordinator for Florida I have heard of a lot of jurisdictions, local and state, who say that they've given up on the Red Cross. They give a lot of reasons. The Red Cross didn't do this. The Red Cross wouldn't do that. I don't see any good reason that a jurisdiction should cast the organization aside because of this. We need the Red Cross.

I'm not going to to criticize Mr. Eisinger for an article that I imagine that he may write. If he's looking for accountability from the Red Cross he should be looking for fraud and abuse. I didn't see any fraud or abuse when I was in NYC during the Sandy response. And I don't think he's going to find any. He may uncover some people doing the very best they could in a difficult situation, and making some mistakes along the way. 

I was there. I made some mistakes. Blame me. Don't blame the Red Cross. We need the Red Cross.


  1. Thank you so much for this.

    I was one of the Red Cross volunteers in the EOC and ECC in the 24 hours before Sandy hit, and for several days afterward.

    This is what I had to say at the time: (there are about half a dozen other Sandy-related posts following that one)

    And here is what almost no one acknowledges: 90% of the fires and vacates the NY Red Cross responds to, never make the news.

    There are days like this, too.

  2. Anonymous6:09 PM

    We do need the Red Cross. We need the Red Cross to function as it should and not as it has been for the last 5 or 6 years. Those of us who have worked in it during this period of time, have watched a steady degradation of mission, ability to meet mission, and morale.

    All organization need to change from time to time. When RC began to implement changes, that was not an issue. When it became apparent that they were not not well thought out changes, we began to worry. When leadership failed to communicate and failed to adjust to failures, we knew we were in trouble. We have been bleeding experience people and money ever since.

    If this were a private company, leadership, having frankly screwed up as much as this leadership has, there would have been changes at the top long ago.
    For some reason they are happy to let this leadership go down with the ship...or perhaps, more accurately, drive it up on the rocks.

  3. Anonymous11:12 AM

    I agree with the previous post that separates the very real need for the Red Cross from the way that the organization has been functioning in the past several years. Even as increasing staff cuts have made the need to rely on volunteers even more urgent, there has been a lack of direction from the top to help volunteers do their work. I know this article was written prior to the series on NPR, so Mr. Whitehead obviously didn't address the thrust of the argument that public relations has begun to trump real client concern. On the ground, volunteers in chapters around the country have seen and felt this misapplied emphasis more and more. While it may be uncomfortable to have a "hit piece" like this series in such high profile media, I hope it will begin the necessary corrections to get the ARC back on track before the next major disaster.