Natural Disasters

Did the Red Cross Let Its Fear of the Occupy Movement Interfere with Its Disaster Relief?

An exposé from ProPublica suggests it did.

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If you paid attention to Superstorm Sandy in 2012, you probably know that some of the centralized institutions charged with disaster relief, such as the Red Cross and FEMA, performed very poorly. You may also have heard about Occupy Sandy, an Occupy Wall Street spinoff devoted to helping people after the storm; by all accounts it performed very well. The latter group's effectiveness was recognized even by the Department of Homeland Security, an organization not ordinarily inclined to look kindly on the Occupy movement.

So it is disturbing but not really surprising to see a ProPublica story claiming this:

Well, at least they have a box with the Red Cross logo on it.
Occupy Sandy

Senior officials [at the Red Cross] told staffers not to work with Occupy Sandy.

Red Cross officials had no concerns about Occupy Sandy's effectiveness. Rather, they were worried about the group's connections to the Occupy Wall Street protest movement.

Three Red Cross responders told ProPublica there was a ban. "We were told not to interact with Occupy," says one. While the Red Cross often didn't know where to send food, Occupy Sandy "had what we didn't: minute-by-minute information," another volunteer says.

The three spoke to ProPublica on the condition of anonymity because they continue to work with the Red Cross. One says the direction came from an official based in Red Cross headquarters in Washington. Another understood the direction came from Washington. A third was not sure who gave the instructions….

Fred Leahy, a veteran Red Cross responder who was a Community Partnerships Manager in Sandy's aftermath, recalled a meeting a week after the storm in which he and two other officials, one from Washington, discussed "the political and donor ramifications of associating with Occupy Sandy due to its outgrowth from Occupy Wall Street." He says the meeting was called after an inquiry from Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern.

"Occupy Wall Street was not very favorably received by the political people in the city," Leahy says. Major Red Cross donors were from the same elite political circles "and they didn't understand Occupy Wall Street."

Leahy denies that there "explicit injunction" not to work with Occupy Sandy. Those three anonymous sources seem to disagree. ProPublica also interviewed several Occupiers who "say the Red Cross did not take their calls in the early days and weeks after the storm hit." One of them reports that a Red Cross worker said "they couldn't be seen working with us."

The sources differ as to how long the ban lasted. (That's partly because it may have stayed alive long after it was officially killed: "One person says the policy was rescinded in a matter of days, but that it took weeks to communicate to all the corners of the Red Cross relief effort.") But while it was in place, ProPublica reports, "some Red Cross responders were so troubled, they tried to work with people from Occupy covertly. They say they maintained a spreadsheet of Occupy contacts separate from the other contact lists to hide from senior Red Cross officials that they were working with the group."

To read the rest of the ProPublica piece, go here.

(Hat tip: Bryan Alexander.)