The Coca-Cola of Disaster Relief: What's the Red Cross Really Doing for Hurricane Sandy?

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y.— On October 30, the day after Superstorm Sandy soaked thousands of homes with a two-story surge of seawater, housewares, and sludge, America's would-be first lady tried to unite a nation her husband spent the previous year helping to divide. Sporting a fire-engine red windbreaker, flanked by election banners and carefully arranged FedEx boxes marked "storm relief," Ann Romney asked a room of swing-state campaign workers to put aside partisan allegiances and perform one "very easy" task: "What I've been tweeting out is to contact [the] American Red Cross," she instructed—either donating via text message, or dropping off blankets and water that would be sent to the national organization. And she had company on that politically neutral ground. The same day, President Obama dropped by the American Red Cross' white-columned national headquarters in Washington to volunteer, in part by manning its official Twitter account. In the days after, the president continued to stress that "supporting the Red Cross is the best and fastest way" to provide aid.

People have listened. Since the storm, the American Red Cross has raised more than $85 million and counting, according to spokeswoman Anne Marie Borrego. Some of that was earmarked for this disaster. Some has been put in a fund for responding to hurricanes in general. But one important fact hovers over every dollar donated so far: We don't really know how, or if, that money is being spent.

Finding clarity on the post-Sandy financial picture isn't an option right now, and having covered many disasters past, especially the 2010 Haiti earthquake, I doubt much more will come. Instead of hard data, the Red Cross typically provides a potpourri of anecdotes and rounded figures—"Yesterday, we served nearly 130,000 meals across the region," "60 trailers of relief supplies … are arriving this weekend"—that, without context, prove meaningless to anyone trying to crunch the numbers. How much does each meal cost to prepare and deliver? How many trailers are there in all? How many are ultimately needed? Rarely, if ever, do they say.

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For all the criticism the American Red Cross has faced over the years, its extraordinarily high profile and the inherent difficulty in evaluating work in disaster zones mean that it has a mountain range of goodwill to spare. In short, the American Red Cross remains the Coca-Cola of disaster relief, a brand so well known and liked that it stands in for all others of its category.

Republicans love that it is a tax-exempt charity. Democrats can bask in the glow of its federal charter and occasional federal funding. And Americans of all stripes know that not matter where an earthquake, volcano, or literal shit-storm strikes—regardless of whether the American Red Cross even has an office within a thousand miles—the organization will take their $20 and promise to do, well, something. When Nate Silver needed to signal that his pre-election wager with Joe Scarborough was a financially selfless act, he suggested the loser give $1,000 to the Red Cross. (Scarborough tried to high hand him by suggesting they forgo the bet and both donate immediately). When the NFL, Jon Bon Jovi, or every show on ABC tries to to throw money at a disaster zone, the conduit for those pledges is practically a given. Over time, giving to the Red Cross has become so synonymous with disaster that the organization nearly blends into the scenery, as if it were an immaterial conduit between us and the victims.

The Coca-Cola of Disaster Relief: What's the Red Cross Really Doing for Hurricane Sandy?
Staten Islanders provide free hot meals and supplies to neighbors who've lost power or their homes on Monday.

But the American Red Cross is very much just one particular organization, with $3.45 billion in its last reported revenue and a well-compensated CEO. Its spokespeople are always up front about its regular nine percent cut of donations for administration. Such fees are reasonable enough-without transportation, staff, or office supplies, little would get done (as astute aid critics note, quality overhead is underrated). But the point is important to make: The Red Cross is not just some invisible pipeline for money. Nor is it, as others suppose, a kind of global clearinghouse that might directly pass on your donation to other nongovernmental organizations or community groups that can be more effective. Like most NGOs, the Red Cross takes the money it can't immediately spend, sticks it in its bank account, and watches interest accrue. Some of that will get spent on future disasters. Some won't.

Some organizations cap donations when they exceed what might reasonably be used in the near term. For instance, in 2010, the medical aid group Doctors Without Borders stopped raising money specifically for Haiti earthquake relief when their coffers topped 30 million euro. In Haiti, the American Red Cross alone (not to be confused with its sister chapters in the international federation) kept the purse open indefinitely, until its Haiti account topped $486 million. As of the second anniversary of the quake in January 2012, only two-thirds of that total had even been contracted to be spent.

When I asked Borrego for an estimate of the Red Cross' daily spending on Sandy relief, and to project for how much would ultimately be needed, she replied that it wasn't practical to provide financial reports in the middle of a disaster. I pointed out that there was a dedicated staff at the Red Cross concentrating on raising millions of dollars, using the names and images of storm victims—and that it would likely take little more effort to show those donors or victims how much money was needed, or how existing funds were being spent. She said she'd ask around, but hours later affirmed that nailing down those numbers wasn't possible.

Ben Smilowitz of the Disaster Accountability Project has come to expect that kind of response. Since Hurricane Katrina, he's been fighting to increase oversight and transparency in humanitarian relief across an infamously opaque industry-and the Red Cross is his white whale. "If they would just open their data so everyone can see what they're doing they'd probably get a lot of credit, and probably some criticism too. But disaster after disaster we're not getting enough information," he said, audibly exasperated. "Donors can't make decisions on where to give money in an informed way without data. What happens is the wrong groups raise the most money, and that money stays in bank accounts for years."

The Red Cross is doubtlessly providing valuable services in the disaster zone. But without hard data, it's impossible to say whether its vast resources are being allocated well, especially since so much of its work is carried out by an often hastily trained volunteer force. A walk through the disaster zone on Monday showed that many residents have their doubts.

On the drying pavement of Midland Avenue—a formerly trim stretch of modest houses that's now a trashed series of unlit blocks radiating from the gut of Staten Island—neighbors whose property survived the storm served hot lasagna, pizza, and hot dogs to those who had not. Block after block, spontaneous, community-run distributions were packed with hungry families, their organizers reporting little or no interaction with authorities or official NGOs. Some officials were clearly present: Marine helicopters buzzed low overhead, city garbage trucks rumbled by, fluorescent yellow FEMA fliers stuck out of pockets, and police vans paced the debris-filled street. And the Red Cross?

The Coca-Cola of Disaster Relief: What's the Red Cross Really Doing for Hurricane Sandy?
A devastated house on Staten Island, a few blocks from the ocean.

"I saw them once or twice, going around in a truck, saying they had coffee and sandwiches, but that's it," said Andre Lahr, a cover-band guitarist now helping run a post-Sandy "community group with no name." "All that money they have-I don't even know where it is," Lahr told me. He worried the Red Cross' light presence in the neighborhood would undermine faith in institutions as the borough struggled to rebuild.

Others among the moldering piles of garage and living room refuse agreed. Volunteers sorting clothes donated by Staten Islanders at the George L. Egbert middle school parking lot said that the day before a Red Cross truck had dropped off two crates of towels and food, in boxes festooned with the organization's logo, but hadn't come by before or since. With meteorologists forecasting another storm this week, they said they could use some institutional help protecting those donations from the elements. People also wanted cots, flashlights, tents-all of which could be bought in the many functioning areas of Staten Island if someone ponied up the money. Most of all, they wanted someone to pitch in with the heavy lifting and hard labor of cleaning up the neighborhood.

Francisco Rojas, a Spanish-speaking construction worker collecting packets of freeze-dried ramen there said he was contemplating eating raw in his powerless apartment, said he felt like he and his wife were on their own, with no hint of the cruz roja since the hurricane. "I don't know if we can count on them," he shrugged.

Frustrations ran so high on Staten Island last week that borough president James Molinaro implored residents: "Do not donate to the American Red Cross. Let them get their money elsewhere." The resulting arrival of, and apology from, some Red Cross personnel softened his stance. But his spokeswoman, Pat Wilks, tells me the president would still prefer that islanders avoid the large Washington organization in favor of a local disaster relief fund set up by the borough's Stephen Siller "Tunnel to Towers" Foundation. You can read the linked report and judge that NGO's quality for yourself, but Wilks was bullish. "It's island based," she explained. "So we feel the money will really come back to the community."

Illustration by Jim Cooke.

Jonathan M. Katz was the 2010 recipient of the Medill Medal of Courage in Journalism and the 2012 winner of the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award for his forthcoming book, The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. He wrote and edited for the Associated Press for seven years in about a dozen countries and territories, three and a half years of which he spent living in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. He was the only full-time American news correspondent on the ground when the earthquake struck.