Friday, March 24, 2006

Red Cross Under Fire

A number of our loyal readers have called our attention to a front-page article in today's New York Times regarding allegations of fraud, waste, and possible criminal activity during the Katrina/Rita relief operation. I've read the article, and absolutely nothing in it is a surprise to us. We actually met several of the people named in the article. I can not comment here on any of the specific allegations, because there is an ongoing investigation and we may yet be interviewed or asked to testify in the matter. However, I would like to speak to the general perception being generated.

The scope of this operation was unprecedented in American Red Cross (ARC) history. With close to a quarter million volunteers involved across the duration of the operation (which, our regular readers will know, is still ongoing after nearly seven months), it was absolutely inevitable that there would be some bad apples and that some things would get out of control.

Remember that, in the aftermath of a major civic disaster, among the first priorities must be to provide shelter, food, and supplies to those affected. There will, unavoidably, be circumstances where the urgency of this goal precludes the possibility of, for example, absolute verification that each recipient was, in fact, a person actually displaced or impacted by the disaster. Imagine, if you even can, what things would be like if each person in the food line was required to show a driver license or other ID, and then someone had to check the address on that ID against a list of destroyed residences, etc.. I am sure you can see what might ensue from such an endeavor (and what kind of black eye the ARC would take over that strategy).

So in a major disaster response, and especially in the early stages, the presumption is made that the people receiving the services are, in fact, the ones who need them. You can extrapolate this same principle across a broad range of relief activities. Slidell needs 1,000 cots? Send 1,000 cots -- don't spend six hours determining if they really need 1,000, or maybe only 500, or is the guy running the Slidell shelter experienced enough to know, or is he maybe planning to sell them later for $10 apiece. The people who really need those cots need them tonight, not tomorrow, or after some Red Cross full-time bean counter in DC determines the legitimacy of the request. This is the very nature of disaster response -- get the resources out now, and we'll sort out the logistics mess later. To do otherwise would be criminally negligent -- just look at the fire FEMA has come under for doing, essentially, exactly this.

During the twelve weeks we spent in Louisiana, on the ARC's largest disaster response operation ever, we heard from volunteers who were absolutely amazed at what we had achieved, and marveled at how the Red Cross was able to pull it off in the face of so many obstacles. We also heard from volunteers who were fed up and sickened by what they saw happening in the field with ARC resources. We, ourselves, had at times both sets of feelings. By and large, the veterans of many disasters were the ones amazed by the success, and the neophytes (idealists?) were the ones distressed. Newcomers, like the general public at large, have little grasp of just what is involved, and the massive challenges posed by running a major operation with three-week volunteers.

In the end, we, too, were amazed at the success. We have seen how the sausage is made, and it's not pretty -- but still good to eat. At the height of the operation, there were some 30,000 volunteers in the disaster area. That would constitute a good-sized company in the corporate world. Now imagine trying to run a company of that magnitude under the following conditions:
  • Almost every employee comes with some basic training, but only spends three weeks on the job. You have to re-fill that position every three weeks with a new person who has the same basic training, but not the experience of being in your company before.
  • Few employees have telephones, email, or any other means of communication, but almost none works in headquarters.
  • You have 80 branch offices. Each branch manager is also a three-week employee.
  • You have a logistics system, a fleet of trucks, and warehouses, but all are straining, from day one, under what, in most companies, would be the end-of-fiscal-quarter madhouse rush. Again, all the employees are on three-week stints.
  • Like any major company, you have phones, faxes, computers, servers, and a network, all of which had to be installed, wired, tested, assigned, and made operational in the span of two days.
  • You have tracking systems for cars, phones, computers, trucks, food, and materiel, but all of them were designed for a company involving, perhaps, 5,000 employees, and you now have six times that many.
The list goes on and on -- it's really quite daunting. It is not difficult at all to see how some materials got lost, how some volunteers slipped past the background check process, and how some unscrupulous people (some volunteers, but many more people posing as clients) were able to take advantage of the chaos inherent in a disaster to manipulate the system to their own personal advantage.

I am not saying that all things are rosy, or that the ARC does not have room for improvement (in some aspects, significant improvement). Surely there will be many lessons learned from this response that will feed back into how the organization responds to future disasters. But, to Senator Grassley and others with jaundiced views of the American Red Cross and its response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita I say this: Put down your pens, keyboards, and news-media microphones, and volunteer for a three-week deployment in a disaster area. (There is a task or job in a disaster for adults of every ability, education, and age.) After you have spent three weeks on the front lines, you will have earned the right to criticize what we do out here. Until then, your words are just so much political BS. Show me you can do it better, or shut up and get out of my way.

There, I got it off my chest, and I feel better already.


  1. Sean,

    Thank you for speaking up. Jeff and I were there in November. He was in Security and I was in Human Resources and Orientation.

    Having worked for the city and state, we were not surprised by the indecision. As you said, no one who hasn't been there can understand the problem. I agree that getting service to those in need was the most important task.

    If you consider the number of people who offered to help, there was a very small percentage that came down for the wrong reason.

    We're glad we went and would go back today, if needed.

    Hope to see you and Louise soon.

    Jeff and Candalyn Fryrear

  2. I applaud you for speaking up!! I too was one of those that responded immediately. As an ERV driver we were staged outside of Louisiana in Sun, Texas prior to the wrath of Katrina. My driving partner and I as well as the other 24 ERV's went into the immediate aftermath blindly. I spent a combined total of 10 weeks on this disaster. Was there a lot of stuff going on that shouldn't have? of course, there always is. What motivates me however is that those legitimately needing the assistance outweigh those that scammed. Would I do it all over again?? In a heartbeat! American Red Cross volunteers - hey, there's a bunch of us - and we "got your back!!!!"


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