Natural Disasters

Waste, Bureaucracy, and PR Stunts: The Case of the Red Cross

When centralization meets disaster relief.


NPR and ProPublica have published a detailed account of the Red Cross' poor performance after Hurricane Isaac and Superstorm Sandy. The story reads like a primer in the problems of centralization, with national headquarters regularly substituting its own judgement for that of the people on the ground. At one point after Sandy hit, for example, HQ

If only they'd called the record "Breakfast with Redd Kross," this image would have been perfect.
Bigtime Records

issued an edict that the New York operation needed to start producing more meals.

That wasn't the problem, [Richard] Rieckenberg told his superiors. He was in charge of tracking food and, at the time, the Red Cross was already wasting three out of every 10 meals being prepared, he estimates. The real issue was that the Red Cross was failing to gather information about where hungry victims were located.

Officials at the Red Cross' national headquarters stood firm over Rieckenberg's objections. They directed a catering company to increase its output dramatically, from 20,000 to 220,000 meals per day. And it had to start with breakfast for 100,000 the next morning.

In the ensuing chaos, the caterer was only able to deliver 70,000 Danishes the following day, Rieckenberg says. The cost to the Red Cross: about $7 apiece, much more than normal. Top Red Cross officials had assured Rieckenberg that someone would get him the locations where staffers could deliver the meals. The list was never supplied. About half of the pastries were wasted.

Worse still, the leadership sometimes diverted resources from genuine relief to public relations. In Mississippi after Issac,

An official gave the order to send out 80 trucks and emergency response vehicles—normally full of meals or supplies like diapers, bleach and paper towels—entirely empty or carrying a few snacks.

The volunteers "were told to drive around and look like you're giving disaster relief," Rieckenberg says. The official was anticipating a visit by Red Cross brass and wanted to impress them with the level of activity, he says.

After Sandy, a much-needed emergency response vehicle was instead "dispatched to an early December photo-op with supermodel Heidi Klum to tour affected areas with Red Cross supplies." The reporters quote one official's response to the PR stunt: "Did you know it takes a Victoria's Secret model five hours to unload one box off a truck? I was so mad."

In fairness, one of them is holding a Red Cross kit.
Occupy Sandy

The article alludes a couple of times to the more decentralized and volunteer-driven groups that surfaced after the storms. A man from the Rockaways mentions that Mormon and Amish volunteers "appeared at my doorstep offering much-needed help" three days after Sandy, a response he contrasts with the two weeks it took before "the only Red Cross truck my neighbors or I saw" showed up. Later there is a reference to Occupy Sandy, an Occupy Wall Street offshoot whose horizontally organized relief work drew a lot of praise after the storm hit. (At one point, Occupy Sandy had four times as many volunteers in the field than the Red Cross did.)

It makes sense to expect such networks to be more flexible, more capable of adjusting to conditions on the ground, and—when the groups are themselves locally based—more receptive to local knowledge. This is understood even within the halls of the Department of Homeland Security, which commissioned a report last year that highlighted Occupy Sandy's successes. Occupy, the paper concluded, not just complemented the official effort but "in some cases filled critical gaps." (One interesting observation from the DHS report: "In circumstances of rising public distrust of hierarchical institutions, as is the case in many communities within the United States today, it would not be unusual for horizontal grassroots disaster relief networks with strong affiliations within certain communities to be chosen over professional response organizations that might try to assert control over a complex operating environment in a disaster.")

The Red Cross, in comparison, is a lumbering beast. It is essentially a public/private hybrid—the organization is chartered by Congress to fulfill specific mandates, including relief work coordinated by FEMA, but it is formally independent of the government and largely raises its own funds. It devotes far more of its budget to its (very valuable) blood and plasma services than to disaster response, but it uses disasters as a fundraising opportunity. It is clearly better suited for some sorts of recovery work, such as operating shelters, than others, such as the areas where the Mormons and Occupiers outperformed it. And to judge from the NPR/ProPublica report, it suffers from a severe surplus of bureaucracy.

To read the rest of the exposé, go here.

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  1. Never, ever give to big charity.

    1. Do you want people voluntarily giving away their money to people they deem worthy without having to file a gift tax return???

      Think before you speak!

      1. Come on, man!

        My point is directed at those who would carelessly throw their money away while thinking that they were doing good.

        Big charity, as a general rule, has its fingers in the public cookie jar. Big charity, as a general rule, does a horrible job fulfilling its mission.

        As for tax returns, I don’t want people filing any tax returns, gift tax or otherwise.

        1. Exactly right. People think giving money to charities is the same thing as “giving alms to the poor”. it isn’t. Giving alms to the poor was always meant to be personal and direct – giving a beggar a quarter is giving alms to the poor, giving $100 to a breast cancer research center is an economic transaction.

    2. I think you’re best criteria is to look at their overhead budgets. The lower the better. But you’re probably right that some of the worst offenders are the larger, institutionalized charities.

      1. It also helps to look at their mission statement. The simpler the better. Someone who is only concerned with giving out water is going to be much more efficient that someone who is worried about providing water, food, shelter, power, medicine, education and self esteem.

  2. I thought it was fairly well-known at this point that the Red Cross just uses big disasters for fundraising opportunities without actually delivering much help anyway.

  3. The guy living on the other end of the street is better at recognizing your needs than the guy living at the other end of the interstate? That doesn’t seem right.

    1. Stop it with your logic. It’s offending my feelz.

    2. That might be true for I-97… if the guy at the other end of the street just moved in.

  4. The American Red Cross is a criminal enterprise, as far as I can tell.

  5. “the organization is chartered by Congress…”

    All you need to know right there.

    I was in an area hit badly by a tornado several years ago. Local volunteers were all over everything within hours. I spent a large part of the evening helping with S&R and later running a chainsaw to clear roads. No one waited on the city or state. The Red Cross showed up and quickly took over a local building and immediately started fundraising and getting in front of the cameras. I think they served a few meals, but that was one of the least involved things that was needed. They are worthless, attention seeking whores.

    1. I was a Red Cross volunteer after Katrina.

      Completely useless, officious, bureaucratic clusterfuck doesn’t even begin to describe it. Were it not for the fact that a Mennonite charitable group actually came prepared we’d likely have ended up being casualties and mission ineffective ourselves. Volunteers at most other sites weren’t so lucky.

      And the guy most able to get ice out to the victims? The dude who showed up in a 3000 gal. tanker truck full of water towing an automatic ice vending machine that sold ice for a buck fitty/pound ($15 for a 10 pound bag). Much pissing and moaning made by the FEMA and AmCross fuckheads about “gouging,” not too many complaints from the people finally able to get a reliable source of ice.

      I saw tanker trucks of gas being turned away by the National Guard and police for sundry reasons, usually related to “meter certification” (like that matters when the purchaser knows the volume of their receptacle) and, yeah, “gouging.”

      As an aside, on the metering of gasoline aspect, it seems to me that the supplier is the one taking most of the risk in that regard. People who show up with an empty 5-gal. can and leave with a full one can be pretty confident they actually got five gallons. The seller can’t be entirely sure the volume of a container just by looking at it, there are 6-gal jugs on the market that look just like 5-gal jugs, only slightly bigger (a difference that isn’t easily discernible visually).

  6. The Red Cross, like Susan G. Komen, is more like a marketing firm than a charitable organization.

  7. I saw Redd Kross and Shonen Knife at the Santa Monica Civic in Summer 1993. I was fucking high as a kite. Cool show. I was standing next to this guy, and I looked over at him and thought, “That is the ugliest motherfucker I’ve ever seen.” I keep staring at the guy, and after a few minutes it dawns on me; I’m staring at Lemmy.

    Redd Kross!

    1. Ya, but did you get a free Danish?

  8. You know who else suffered from a severe surplus of bureaucracy?

  9. Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people”:

    First, there will be those who are devoted to the goals of the organization.

    Examples are dedicated classroom teachers in an educational bureaucracy, many of the engineers and launch technicians and scientists at NASA, even some agricultural scientists and advisers in the former Soviet Union collective farming administration.

    Secondly, there will be those dedicated to the organization itself.

    Examples are many of the administrators in the education system, many professors of education, many teachers union officials, much of the NASA headquarters staff, etc.

    The Iron Law states that in every case the second group will gain and keep control of the organization. It will write the rules, and control promotions within the organization.

  10. My woman works for the Red Cross. Clusterfuck is an understatement.

    1. And for her personal life………….

    2. Coming from you, I’m not sure what to think of that statement.

  11. my co-worker’s ex-wife makes $74 every hour on the internet . She has been out of work for six months but last month her payment was $19343 just working on the internet for a few hours. go to this website ….


  12. So, I’m a Red Cross disaster volunteer. And I don’t speak for the organization. But here’s my thoughts.

    Not much of this is surprising to me. There’s an immense amount of bureaucracy in the Red Cross, and it can be frustrating as hell sometimes to get things done. But at my level, which is local disaster response in the Detroit area, I really don’t see much waste or stupid media posturing. We respond as a chapter to 4-5 house fires a day, 24/7. And in Detroit’s neighborhoods, people who were already living on the thin edge of existence don’t have the resources to recover on their own when they lose everything. So we show up, check things out, then give them (donated) money on a debit card to use for a hotel room, clothes, food, etc. based on what they lost and what they need; then help them hook into longer-term recovery. A big part of what we do is simply talk people through dealing with a stressful, unfamiliar situation and sharing information and tools to help themselves. I get a lot of hugs.

    Personally, I like that there’s a nonprofit where volunteers show up to use donated resources to help people out in this situation, and it’s one of the ways I choose to walk my libertarian talk about voluntary collective response to societal needs. I know the Sandys and the Katrinas and the like get the press, and most of the volunteer horror stories I hear are about those DSHR national deployments, but at the local level we quietly manage to do a lot of good without a lot of drama.

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