Americans donated more than $300 million to the American Red Cross after Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Some are challenging the charity's effectiveness and its priorities. This isn't the first time.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This week we have been reporting on the American Red Cross and its performance around Superstorm Sandy. After that storm devastated parts of the East Coast two years ago, Americans donated more than $300 million to the charity, but now some are challenging the charity's effectiveness and its priorities.
NPR and ProPublica obtained internal documents suggesting that the American Red Cross put public relations ahead of helping the needy. In the second of two stories, NPR's Laura Sullivan reports that the problems didn't begin with Sandy.
LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: There's a picture online of Gail McGovern, the head of the American Red Cross, two weeks into Superstorm Sandy's recovery. She's standing at a podium at a press conference on Staten Island. And behind her, as a sort of backdrop, two of the charity's emergency vehicles sit idle. It's a frustrating image for two pastors who organized much of that area's relief efforts. Reverends Daniel Delgado and John Rocco Carlo were barely three miles away here in the parking lot of Carlo's Christian Pentecostal Church.
REVEREND DANIEL DELGADO: This is where we were able to set up. We set up tents here.
SULLIVAN: In the days after the storm, thousands of people gathered on this black asphalt for help. But the pastors say the Red Cross wasn't among those who showed up.
DELGADO: They gave us nothing - not a shovel, not a rake - nothing.
REVEREND JOHN ROCCO CARLO: Every commercial on the news - give, you know, and they would show pictures, and I'd recognize the pictures. I was like, you guys weren't there.
SULLIVAN: Delgado and Carlo organized their own box truck deliveries and started serving 8,000 meals a day. It's the kind of thing they thought the Red Cross would be doing. When workers did trickle in in the days and weeks that followed, Delgado and Carlo say they were impressed with the volunteers but not the organization.
DELGADO: We had to give them blankets.
CARLO: That's right. Yes, we did.
SULLIVAN: NPR and ProPublica obtained internal documents and emails and interviewed top current and former officials. They depict an organization struggling to feed, clothe and shelter, and one that put public relations and the appearance of helping people over actually helping them.
But while the documents and officials say these problems came to a head during Sandy, their origins go back years. The Red Cross face allegations of financial mismanagement after 9/11 and a slow and incompetent response after Hurricane Katrina. In recent years, the charity has been beset with budget problems and the loss of talented staff. And several top officials described a problematic response to Hurricane Isaac, which hit Mississippi and Louisiana in 2012.
TREVOR RIGGEN: I will say that Isaac was a logistics challenge on moving people around, and so we were additionally, you know, somewhat limited in the resources we had on hand.
SULLIVAN: Trevor Riggen is the Red Cross's vice president of Disaster Services. And he says the organization has recently improved its supply chain and reorganized its workforce. But he denies the charity would ever put public affairs over the needs of clients in any storm.
RIGGEN: I would just disagree that that was driving our service delivery at all. I don't believe that that's the way that our leadership has used resources on the ground or that that was a driving factor in their decisions.
SULLIVAN: Several current and formal top Red Cross officials see it differently.
Are you Richard?
RICHARD RIECKENBERG: I am.
SULLIVAN: I'm Laura. It's so nice to meet you.
Richard Rieckenberg lives in a beige, adobe-style house half-hour outside of Santa Fe. He joined the Red Cross after 20 years in the Navy as a chief engineer on nuclear submarines. And he managed relief efforts for dozens of the nation's disasters since 2005.
RIECKENBERG: I think the Red Cross serves an important function. I wouldn't give you this interview if I didn't think that the Red Cross needs to hear it.
SULLIVAN: Rieckenberg says the Red Cross was one of the best jobs he's had. But in recent years, small incidents started to pile up about the time the Red Cross started facing large budget deficits. By 2012, when Hurricane Isaac hit, Rieckenberg says the organization was unprepared, undersupplied and understaffed.
RIECKENBERG: We didn't have food in the shelters. We didn't have cots. We didn't have blankets in the shelter, which to me was incredible because we saw this hurricane coming a long way away.
SULLIVAN: According to internal documents and emails, he wasn't the only top official to feel that way. Bob Scheifle ran the Red Cross's recovery efforts in Louisiana.
BOB SCHEIFLE: Which one is more important: giving the person the hot meal or telling somebody that you did it? I think it's the former.
SULLIVAN: Scheifle still works for the Red Cross, and he believes in it. But he says after Isaac, he was angry. He thought the organization was becoming too focused on image.
SCHEIFLE: We do things right because it's important and right to do it, not because it looks good. We don't do it because the television cameras are looking at us from the corner.
SULLIVAN: Another current Red Cross official who spoke on condition of anonymity described an incident during Isaac in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where the charity sent out as many as 80 trucks to drive around neighborhoods with little or nothing in them.
Richard Rieckenberg says he remembers it well, too. It was days into the storm, and the bulk of the supplies still hadn't arrived. The trucks were sitting in a parking lot.
RIECKENBERG: We were directed to send them out and drive through the communities. And we didn't have anything in them.
SULLIVAN: The idea, Rieckenberg says, was to make it appear as though the Red Cross was delivering supplies.
RIECKENBERG: That's demoralizing. It's wrong. It's probably not the worst thing you can do, but it's wrong.
SULLIVAN: Red Cross officials say they are unaware of any such incident and don't believe it happened. They say sometimes empty trucks are sent out to do reconnaissance to find where relief supplies are needed. But Jim Dunham is a Red Cross volunteer who says he drove an empty truck. He didn't want to talk on tape, but he says he was told to just get out there and be seen, be seen, be seen. He describes the relief effort as, quote, "worse than the storm."
Bob Scheifle says he heard a lot of complaints from volunteers during Isaac and other disasters. He said he believes they were warranted. Many of the workers are retirees, and they'd come and tell him the same thing.
SCHEIFLE: I'm retired. I don't need to do this stuff. Why am I banging my head against the wall when this guy tells me to go this way and halfway there, I get scolded, and I'm told to go this way? Your most important product is the lowest ranking person out there who's going to serve the food on the clamshell. That's the person that we have to nurture. And I don't think that they disagree. It's just that they haven't gotten there yet.
SULLIVAN: In Isaac, many volunteers were also frustrated because Red Cross officials at headquarters sent almost 500 of them to Tampa, the site of the Republican National Convention, even though the National Hurricane Center said five days out the hurricane was headed much farther west.
After the storm, Bob Scheifle and Rich Rieckenberg took their concerns first in an email and then in person to Red Cross headquarters. Rieckenberg wrote to Trevor Riggen, the vice president. He said the last three disasters he had worked were marked by, quote, "political wrangling, power struggles and ineffectiveness." In the interview, Riggen said he did not agree with that assessment.
RIGGEN: I did take those seriously, but I just don't see a striving service delivery for public affairs purposes.
SULLIVAN: Two years ago, however, in an email when he wrote Rieckenberg back, he said, from a broad perspective, I completely agree with you. Much of this is extremely systemic. Rieckenberg says by the time Superstorm Sandy hit later that year, he and many other disaster responders were demoralized. One of his last memories of the storm was standing in a kitchen in New York where volunteers had just been ordered to produce meals that ended up going to waste. He listened as someone from headquarters called one of the volunteers and berated her over the phone.
RIECKENBERG: I felt so ashamed and - so, I just felt ashamed. And I used to teach a course on leadership for the Red Cross, and one of the principles was from Colin Powell. He said if you are unable or unwilling to solve the problems of your people then you are not a leader. And I said, that's me. I'm unable to solve these problems. And so I can't stay here.
SULLIVAN: After leading the disaster efforts for more than two dozen of the country's worst storms in the past decade, Richard Rieckenberg resigned from the Red Cross.
Do you think that people should donate to the Red Cross?
RIECKENBERG: I don't donate to the Red Cross. So people should do what they think is best for them.
SULLIVAN: For more than a hundred years, the Red Cross has welcomed millions of people into its shelters, helped them out in trouble and handed them a blanket and a cup of coffee when they needed it most. But for many on the ground, and even many who work there, the question is whether the nation's most venerable disaster relief organization is still up to the job. Laura Sullivan, NPR News.
GREENE: And you can see documents and photos from this investigation at our website and at propublica.org This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
I've been a volunteer with the American Red Cross for the last 7 years. I may not be aware of every aspect of the organization in it's entirety, but I've been involved with enough volunteers and staffers at the local chapter level to know that this piece doesn't do the organization as a whole much justice.
Dig in to just about any non-profit, and you're sure to find improprieties, but to dig into an organization whose main purpose is to unite willing volunteers with those in need of help is just plain wrong. Without the Public Image work that is villainized by this piece, the Red Cross couldn't function. The American public isn't going to just give money to any organization without seeing some signs of their money at work. Should those efforts overstep the relief efforts on the ground? Absolutely not, but to act like an organization whose main source of funding comes from the public shouldn't have a major public image campaign to go with every disaster is unrealistic.
Times are tight for everyone these days. No one's responses to recent disasters have been where they should have been, but 92.2% of every donation made to the Red Cross goes directly to responding to people in need. Only 4% is spent on administrative, and about 3.7% is spent on fundraising campaigns.
I appreciate the work that NPR does as a whole, and I'm not saying that you shouldn't report on certain improprieties of any major organization, but this piece went too far.