With many ways to help the tens of thousands of people estimated to be temporarily displaced by surging floodwaters brought by Harvey, some are asking people to donate — but to be choosy about where they spend the money.
As former president Barack Obama — as well as celebrities and local leaders — encourage donations to the American Red Cross, others on social media are telling donors to give elsewhere, criticizing the leading disaster-relief organization for its response to recent natural disasters, particularly the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
That sentiment has been shared in the past — following investigations by NPR and ProPublica, which revealed how the Red Cross bungled its response in Haiti.
“It’s heartbreaking because I know how seriously the Red Cross takes its responsibility,” Red Cross spokeswoman Bristel Minsker told The Washington Post about the continued backlash.
Minsker said Monday that when people donate to the Red Cross, the humanitarian organization “absolutely honors the intent of their donations” and makes sure the donations are spent wisely to provide people in need with safe shelter, hot meals and health care.
But not everyone agrees with that.
People were urging donors Monday to seek out churches and local organizations, saying, “Please don’t donate money to the Red Cross! Houston will never see it.”
“For the umpteenth time,” one person wrote, “don’t give red cross your money. Find grassroots efforts so people can actually get helped.”
“They don’t help and pocket majority of your money,” another said. “Very little if any goes to those that need it.”
“Any recs for where to donate to Harvey relief?” another person asked. “Red Cross is out but I don’t know which local charities are on the ground & doing good work.”
Over the weekend, Dan Gillmor, author and professor at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, also advised people on Twitter not to give money to the organization.
The Red Cross said Sunday that it had set up 34 shelters in Texas, where the hurricane hit the Texas coast Friday, sending wind, rain and roaring floodwaters across parts of the state.
Minsker, the Red Cross spokeswoman in Austin, said some 6,000 people stayed in shelters on Sunday night and that the organization is prepared to house up to 30,000 estimated to be displaced by the storm because “many people aren’t going to have a home to go back to when the floodwaters subside.”
Asked how much money the Red Cross had raised so far for Harvey relief efforts, she said those figures are not yet available.
“The size of this disaster is so huge, we’ve been focused on providing immediate needs to people, especially shelters,” she said.
Brad Kieserman, who is coordinating disaster relief efforts in Texas for the Red Cross, said the destruction is “overwhelming.”
“The situation feels, I think, as well managed as any situation like this could be,” he told NPR on Monday. “I mean, the very definition of catastrophe is when the very capability and capacity you need to respond has been destroyed or deeply affected by the thing you’re responding to, and that’s what’s happened here. Everyone who is involved in this response is coordinating and cooperating, but it is overwhelming.”
Kieserman said Harvey has turned Southeast Texas into “an inland lake the size of Lake Michigan,” and the greatest challenge right now is that workers can’t get around because of the floodwaters.
“This is, in my career, the most catastrophic event I have seen,” he said. “The hurricane came in. It brought all of these winds and storm surge and rain and now we’re going to deal with 50 inches of flooding, basically turning the entire southeast portion of the state into an inland lake. We’re going to deal with rivers out of their banks for weeks, massive destruction, structural damage to homes, and I think we’re going to have an incredible long-term housing challenge.”
As The Washington Post’s Peter Holley reported last year, a 2015 NPR and ProPublica investigation revealed that the Red Cross had only built six permanent homes in Haiti even though it had collected almost a half-billion dollars in donations. The year before, the news organizations published a report about Red Cross’s response to hurricanes Isaac and Sandy.
After both storms, the charity’s problems left some victims in dire circumstances or vulnerable to harm, the organization’s internal assessments acknowledge. Handicapped victims “slept in their wheelchairs for days” because the charity had not secured proper cots. In one shelter, sex offenders were “all over including playing in children’s area” because Red Cross staff “didn’t know/follow procedures.”
According to interviews and documents, the Red Cross lacked basic supplies like food, blankets and batteries to distribute to victims in the days just after the storms. Sometimes, even when supplies were plentiful, they went to waste. In one case, the Red Cross had to throw out tens of thousands of meals because it couldn’t find the people who needed them.
The Red Cross marshaled an army of volunteers, but many were misdirected by the charity’s managers. Some were ordered to stay in Tampa long after it became clear that Isaac would bypass the city. After Sandy, volunteers wandered the streets of New York in search of stricken neighborhoods, lost because they had not been given GPS equipment to guide them.
The skepticism was shared again in 2016 as Hurricane Matthew hurtled toward Haiti.
American Red Cross President and chief executive Gail McGovern responded in a blog post on HuffPost at the time, acknowledging the “persistent myths circulating online” about the Red Cross response in Haiti.
“The most persistent myth is that the American Red Cross ‘raised half a billion dollars for Haiti and built six homes.’ This was the misleading headline of a story written by ProPublica and NPR in 2015,” she wrote.
“It creates the false impression that the only thing the American Red Cross did with $488M in donor money was to build six homes — when, in fact, we have funded 100 different humanitarian aid projects in Haiti,” she continued, adding: “It would be a shame if myths circulated online by people who want to help Haiti, actually end up hurting relief efforts.”
On Monday, Minsker, with the Red Cross, further criticized the claims, arguing that all the donations had either been spent or were committed to be spent there.