Few brands are stronger than that of the American Red Cross. For decades, the Red Cross has been an overarching symbol of disaster relief, readily receiving endorsements from government officials and celebrities and $billions from Americans. However, internal and external assessments of the American Red Cross’ response to Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Isaac are disturbing.
In late August and early September 2012, Hurricane Isaac hit Arkansas, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, killing 5, causing more than $2.3 billion in damage and making hundreds of thousands of people hungry, thirsty, homeless or lacking electrical power for a period of days-to-weeks. Americans donated hundreds of millions of dollars to relief organizations, with the lion’s share going to the American Red Cross.
In late October 2012, Superstorm Sandy hit the U. S. East Coast, affecting 24 states, killing 73, causing an estimated $65 billion in damage and making millions of people hungry, thirsty, homeless or lacking electrical power for weeks. Americans again donated hundreds of millions of dollars to relief organizations, with more than $300 million going to the American Red Cross.
An internal Red Cross investigation, an external analysis by an investigative journalism group called ProPublica and information from disaster relief specialists all reveal that the Red Cross was at least as interested in marketing itself as it was in disaster relief. The organization’s responses to the basic needs of storm victims were haphazard and disorganized. Meanwhile, millions of dollars were diverted for Red Cross public relations, Red Cross trucks were pulled from relief work to be used as backdrops for Red Cross Photo Ops and supply vans were sent around disaster areas with little-to-no supplies in order to simply look like they were helping the situation. When disaster relief specialists complained, they were simply ignored or overruled by an administration more interested in looking good than in providing relief. Even the organization’s own assessment stated that there were multiple system failures.
As a result of the deliberate mismanagement, storm victims were left unaided and vulnerable, millions of dollars were wasted and a number of veteran disaster relief specialists quit. The Red Cross responded to ProPublica’s report by outright refuting or tempering ProPublica’s criticisms. Asserting that the Red Cross’ mission is to alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies, the organization maintains that its mission was its sole motivation in rendering relief for Superstorm Sandy: “With the help of our donors and 17,000 workers – 90% of whom are volunteers – we delivered 17 million meals and snacks, 7 million relief items, and hosted 74,000 overnight stays in shelters to people who urgently needed our services.” The Red Cross’ point-by-point response to ProPublica’s report can be accessed here: Red Cross Chat Response Contrary to the Red Cross’ claim that it is working to improve its services, the organization’s critics claim that very little has been done to better prepare for the next disaster.
One thing is certain: losing the public trust would be devastating to a relief organization’s fundraising efforts, so the Red Cross needs effective marketing now more than ever.
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