Reflections on the Performance of the American Red Cross

Those who live in glass houses should not throw rocks.

by Eric Holdeman / October 4, 2016

It has not been that many years ago that I had to stand and deliver on operational issues. Meaning, when bad things happened, I was expected to be part of the solution and generally provide leadership in one form or another in responding to a disaster. Sometimes I was more lucky than good. Intuition, the right circumstances, the right subordinates all doing a good job — contributed to positive outcomes. And, while I've done any number of catastrophic exercises, including thermonuclear war — I have not been the center point for a catastrophic disaster. There, but for the grace of God go I ...

Which brings me to this Propublica article, Red Cross ‘Failed for 12 Days’ After Historic Louisiana Floods, which is the latest in a series of stories they have done over the months on how bad the American Red Cross is concerning their response to disasters.

In the instance of the most recent Louisiana flooding — it was a catastrophic flood event, the biggest disaster since Superstorm Sandy, and there was no "significant" warning. Since it was a "no name" storm with tropical-depression-like rain, people and agencies did not have the luxury of a multi-day warning, like the region is used to with hurricanes.

My impression after thinking about this for months now is that Propublica is muckraking, while there is some muck, they have not had to stand in the boots of Red Cross responders and try to get to a city or parish that is surrounded by water that is not in a flood zone. They are standing there, ex post facto lobbing rocks at the Red Cross. I'm sure there is some deserved, but as I speak to Red Cross officials I personally know and trust, some of their quotes used by Propublica are cherry-picked out of emails and statements. 

My goal is not to be an apologist for the American Red Cross, only to say that "it ain't that easy to do what they do" — especially in a catastrophe. 

My other thought on the topic is that I think our disasters are getting bigger than our ability to respond effectively as individuals, businesses and governments. The potential for damage is so great that I think many, if not most, jurisdictions or states can not effectively deal with the events. The most recent Cascadia Rising 2016 Earthquake Exercise revealed that the typical "pull system" for resource management will not work. They system is broken, needs fixing and needs beefing up.

Here in the coming days I will have an interview published with Harvey E. Johnson Jr., who currently serves as the national senior vice president for Disaster Cycle Services at the American Red Cross. It will provide information from their perspective on their capabilities and the status of their programs.

Last, for you emergency managers. Now is the time to go meet your regional Red Cross disaster services point of contact and get roles and capabilities clarified — before there is an event.

Claire Rubin shared the Propublica story on her Disaster Diva blog.