In 2004, I was just starting my first full-time job in a Washington newsroom when disaster struck. It was on the other side of the world: an extraordinarily powerful earthquake in Sumatra, Indonesia, that triggered a tsunami across the Indian Ocean. But thanks to CNN it felt like the anguish and terror were happening in the next cubicle. I still remember the fear on the fishermen’s faces and watching mothers cry as they searched for their children in the waves. Powerless, eager to help, I did the only thing I could think of: I went online and sent $20 to the American Red Cross.
Thirteen years later, we’re watching another disaster, this time much closer to home. Tropical Storm Harvey, supercharged by a freakishly warm Gulf of Mexico, has slammed into the Texas coast and is now running a dayslong conveyor belt carrying trillions of gallons of water from the ocean to the sky to the bayous and streets of Houston. Highways have become rivers in America’s fourth-largest city. Apartment complexes are filling up like bathtubs. Dams are nearing failure. Thousands have had to be rescued from the still-rising floodwaters in the overbuilt, improperly drained city. The scariest part is that, with the water still rising, no one can really know how bad the damage has been so far or what is to come. Once again, most of us outside the zone feel powerless but want to help. Once again, leaders and noble souls are telling us the best way to do so is to turn to the best known, most bipartisanly loved brand in humanitarian relief.
But I won’t be donating to the Red Cross this time. And after years of reporting on and inside some of the biggest disasters of the decade and change, I know what a costly mistake the focus on donating anywhere can be.
Part of the problem is the American Red Cross’ track record when it comes to disasters. It isn’t great. I learned this best in Haiti, where I survived the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake and ran the Associated Press bureau from 2007 until 2011. When the earthquake struck, killing an estimated 100,000 to 316,000 people, American Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern’s staff swung into action doing what it does best: raising money. Their appeal to “save lives,” aided by endorsements from President Obama and celebrities, and fueled by a pioneering text message campaign, raised a staggering $488 million.
It quickly became clear that the organization’s biggest problem would be figuring out what to do with all that cash. The U.S. chapter had just three full-time staff in Haiti at the time of the disaster. Though it soon sent more, and subcontracted staff from the local Haitian Red Cross, the truth was that there wasn’t all that much they could do: ARC isn’t a medical aid group à la Doctors Without Borders. It doesn’t do development work or specialize in rebuilding destroyed neighborhoods. What it does best is provide immediate assistance—often in the form of blankets, hygiene kits, or temporary shelter—and as incredibly destructive as the earthquake was, there wasn’t half a billion dollars of tarps and hygiene kits to hand out. Staffers came up with all kinds of creative ways to unload the money, including handing it off to other aid groups that could use it better (after ARC had taken its customary 9 percent administrative cut). As it became increasingly clear that the entire earthquake response, from the lowliest neighborhood to the top floor of the United Nations Secretariat—had been a failure, ARC found itself scrambling to explain why the half a billion dollars it took hadn’t made a substantive difference in survivors’ lives. “There’s only so much money that can be forced through the emergency phase,” an ARC spokeswoman told me when I asked how it was possible that just a third of the money it had raised had even been committed, much less spent, two years later.
What no one at the organization bothered to do was explain to the public—in Haiti or back in the States—that it had never needed anywhere near that much money in the first place. (In contrast, some NGOs state their fundraising goals in advance and cap or redirect donations once they have exceeded those amounts.)
ARC was roundly blasted in the U.S. for its shambolic response to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, with international observers warning that elements were so bad that they verged on criminal wrongdoing. Seven years later, despite an internal retooling effort, it failed again in 2012’s Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Isaac. (The response was “worse than the storm,” one Red Cross driver told ProPublica during its jaw-dropping investigation.) Typically, the organization has had more success responding to small-scale disasters; it’s common to hear stories people tell of the blankets and compassion they got from Red Cross volunteers after house fires. But even there, they’ve been getting into trouble: ARC’s 2015 response to a string of northern California wildfires was so bad—showing up unequipped and unprepared, shutting down other volunteer operations, and then failing to provide promised food or shelter on its own—that locals shunned the organization to focus on their own relief efforts.
Worse than what we know is what we don’t. The ARC, which boasts annual revenues of more than $2.6 billion, is notoriously opaque when it comes to what it does with the money it raises for disasters. It has never produced a meaningful breakdown of its spending after the Haiti earthquake. If you look at RedCross.org right now, you’ll see a prominent link inviting you to “make a difference” by donating to its Harvey effort. But nowhere does it say what it will do with the money. A tiny video shows empty cots in a shelter.
When I emailed and called the organization’s full-time media relations department Sunday and Monday asking how much it had raised so far, how much it thought the group might need, and what Red Cross volunteers and staff were doing in the response to Hurricane Harvey, I eventually got back this reply: “At this point in our active disaster response, we are unable to answer your questions by your deadline. Thank you for understanding.” I followed up again. A few hours later, the organization sent a second note saying it was providing food, cots, blankets, and other support to 6,000 people in various shelters across the region—again with no information about the cost or money raised so far.
It isn’t just journalists who get the shaft. ARC’s leaders have misled Congress. In a scathing 2015 report, the federal Government Accountability Office noted that “no regular, independent evaluations are conducted of the impact or effectiveness of the Red Cross’s disaster services.”
As ProPublica’s Justin Elliott has reported, many of these issues are the result of a team of former AT&T executives taking over a complex organization—one that manages tasks as critical and disparate as blood-banking and providing resources to military families, while operating in a blurred, neither-fish-nor-fowl zone with some of the privileges of a government agency (such as free rent for its D.C. headquarters) but the moneymaking latitude and lack of oversight of a private corporation.
ARC and its defenders sometimes protest that there’s too much focus on them; that scores of other actors have also failed in their responses to the same disasters. In part, that’s just the other side of the double-edged sword that comes with having a higher profile than others and raising far more money than anyone else—for being, as McGovern likes to say, “a brand to die for.”
But in another way, they are entirely right. There is too much focus on the ARC in disasters such as Harvey, in a way that goes beyond any one organization. The way our society handles disasters—first the calamity; then the outpouring of sympathy and donations; then the long, slow rebuild—is wrong. As humans have long known, it is easier, cheaper, and better to mitigate or prevent disasters from happening than to rescue victims and rebuild after them. We’ve known for centuries about the threat of hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. Experts have warned for years that the Texas coast needed to make serious investments to prepare for nigh-inevitable storms, including preparing mitigation specifically for intense, unprecedented floods worsened in part by climate change. It seems that some, including many of Houston’s hospitals, heeded those warnings and are benefiting from the preparation. Other sectors did not. At a systemic level, instead of taking those threats seriously, Texans elected a governor who distorts facts about climate change. Americans picked a president who—days before this disaster and moments before rushing to the defense of rampaging neo-Nazis—announced in front of his gilded elevator that he was scrapping federal construction standards that had required new projects to account for climate change’s effect on storms like Harvey.
Local news organizations in Texas are maintaining lists of organizations, both local and run by the Red Cross, where those affected by the storm can get help and those inclined can send donations. Experts and experience say that, if you are going to donate to anyone from outside the disaster zone, send cash, not stuff. Boxes full of food, clothes, or other stuff will clog up supply lines and as likely as not go unused.
Yet the hard reality is that we still don’t know what the needs in Houston and other parts of Texas or Louisiana are going to be or who will be best to respond to them. Millions of people are still in the middle of the storm, with the National Hurricane Center warning that some areas could get double the already awe-inducing amounts of rain they’ve already received. Survivors, in other words, haven’t even gotten past the emergency to take stock of the damage and really begin the difficult relief phase; if this was an earthquake, the ground would still be shaking.
It is difficult for rescuers to get in. There is nowhere for most people to go. While there are heroic efforts going on right now by locals and neighbors to save as many as they can from the floods—efforts that authorities should encourage and help coordinate—the hard, frustrating reality is that there is not very much an untrained outsider can do to help once a complex disaster has begun. And with, at a bare minimum, hundreds of billions of dollars in damage expected and future storms on the way, the costs in cleaning up this mess and getting people back into their old lives again are going to be astronomical, on the level that only wealthy and powerful governments, and the combined power of their citizenry, will be able to address.
Some people get personally offended by talk like this. They are seeing pain, they are being generous, and they hope it might help—just like I did watching the pictures from Indonesia from my cubicle years ago. The people suffering in this storm deserve all of that and more. But what you learn when you really dive into these situations is that momentary intentions, no matter how kind, are not enough—not on this scale. Those past, ineffective, and opaque disaster responses, from Haiti to New Jersey to the Gulf Coast, have created a legacy of mistrust, not only of the Red Cross but of the entire humanitarian aid apparatus its iconic brand represents. We can’t afford to do that again.
If we really care about the people of Houston and the rest of the Gulf Coast, we have to commit fully to a combined, sustained, serious response to recover and rebuild—meaning lots of money, lots of attention to helping those areas adapt for the future, and lots of concern for the people who we know are most vulnerable. We all need to come together to prevent future disasters, whether the growing risk of a major Oklahoma earthquake, a Caribbean tsunami, and especially the many threats we face from climate change. The sooner we acknowledge and act on that and stop debating the best place to send $20, the better off all of us will be.