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Red Cross defends response to Hurricane Sandy two years on

October 29, 2014 at 6:15 PM EDT
After Hurricane Sandy devastated the northeast in 2012, the Red Cross supplied food, clothes and shelter to tens of thousands left homeless by the storm. But two years later, internal documents show logistical problems and communication snafus led to wasteful spending and unmet needs. Gwen Ifill turns to Suzy DeFrancis of the American Red Cross for the organization’s response.

GWEN IFILL: Today marks two years since Superstorm Sandy slammed into the East Coast, leaving enormous damage in its path.

As is the often the case, the Red Cross was at the center of major relief activity, but its efforts and its coordination at the time are now the subject of new scrutiny.

Howling winds and sheets of rain pounded New Jersey and New York when the storm made landfall late on October 29, 2012. Millions of people lost power, as water poured into streets, flooding subways and tunnels. When it was over, ocean-front communities lay devastated, with thousands of homes damaged or destroyed, and 182 people dead. The Red Cross helped lead the relief effort with endorsements coming from the highest levels.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The Red Cross knows what they’re doing. They’re in close contact with federal, state, and local officials. They will make sure that we get the resources to those families as swiftly as possible.

GWEN IFILL: But, today, a report released by NPR and ProPublica painted a starkly critical picture of the agency’s actions.

JUSTIN ELLIOTT, ProPublica: In many cases after Sandy, the Red Cross just didn’t show up to the most devastated areas until weeks after the storm.

GWEN IFILL: ProPublica reporter Justin Elliott says internal documents and interviews with current and former Red Cross staffers found some decisions were dictated by appearances.

JUSTIN ELLIOTT: Several Red Cross officials who worked on the Sandy effort complained at the time that emergency response vehicles which are used to deliver relief items like blankets and also food were diverted by headquarters to be backdrops at press conferences, as well as at photo-ops with celebrities.

GWEN IFILL: The report says logistical problems and communication snafus led to wasteful spending and unmet needs.

JUSTIN ELLIOTT: There was a lot of wasted food in the aftermath of Sandy in the Red Cross relief effort, partly because the Red Cross was failing to get intelligence about where victims where, so they were making meals that they couldn’t find people to distribute them to.

GWEN IFILL: The Red Cross today defended its performance and called the report distorted and inaccurate.

For more of the response, we turn to Suzy DeFrancis, the chief public affairs officer for the American Red Cross.

Thank you for joining us.

SUZY DEFRANCIS, American Red Cross: Thank you, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: One of the things that this ProPublica-NPR report cites is a lessons learned memo, a recording of some minutes of a lessons learned meeting in which it said — in which Red Cross officials themselves said that multiple systems failed.

SUZY DEFRANCIS: Well, Gwen, after every major disaster, we take a look at everything, and we want to know what went wrong and what went right.

What’s wrong with this report is, it doesn’t show any of the good work that the Red Cross did. As you showed, this was a massive disaster with huge challenges in getting food to people and relief to people. And yet the Red Cross, we were able to distribute about 17.5 million meals and snacks.

We had seven million relief items that we distributed, and not just the typical cleanup kits. We were distributing gloves and hats, because, as you remember, there was a snowstorm on top of it. We had 17,000 people deployed, and most of them were volunteers.

GWEN IFILL: I guess isn’t the question they’re raising what didn’t get done, not what did get done?

SUZY DEFRANCIS: Well, Gwen, as I said, we look at all these things after a disaster.

And we know that a disaster, by definition, something is going wrong. And you’re pulling together a whole bunch of volunteers who may not have always worked together. But you’re trying to get food and relief to people. And, of course, there are going to be problems. But the reason that you look at it is so you can find them and fix them and make sure they don’t occur again.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you very specifically about some of the findings in this report.

One of them is that, for instance, when we thought that Hurricane Isaac was headed to Tampa, that the Red Cross deployed a lot of folks to Tampa. The hurricane never hit, and the people never moved.

SUZY DEFRANCIS: Well, I wish weather forecasting could be — hindsight is 2020.

We were following the cone, the hurricane cone that the National Hurricane Center puts out. And we have to move people five days in advance. We can’t wait until everybody know where’s it’s going to land. Tampa is a very vulnerable area, has a lot of seniors. It was prone to flooding. And, yes, we put our people there because that was the right thing to do. We had an agreement with local officials in Tampa that we would staff about 100,000 people in shelters.

GWEN IFILL: But not move them once the…

SUZY DEFRANCIS: Well, you can’t move people right away if the storm is going up the coast, because we don’t want to put our volunteers in harm’s way.

GWEN IFILL: What about the charges or the findings that so much happened because of public relations purposes, trucks were deployed to back up press conferences, for instance?

SUZY DEFRANCIS: Well, this one, I have to really smile at, because I’m the chief public affairs officer at the American Red Cross. And I don’t tell anybody where those emergency response vehicles go.

That’s the job of the disaster responders. That’s the lens through which it is done. And the example that ProPublica cited, that was a staging area where we were sending relief trucks, primarily at the request of the borough president from Staten Island, because they had huge needs in Staten Island.

Those trucks were full of food. They were — they were delivering food. So when the cameras went away from a press conference, the Red Cross was still there delivering food.

GWEN IFILL: How about the food that wasn’t delivered, the meals that were wasted, that went to the wrong place, the people who remained hungry even after the effort?

SUZY DEFRANCIS: Well, as I said, we served 17.5 million meals and snacks. At one point, Gwen, if you took all the people in a sold-out Yankee and Giants stadium, we were reaching all of them every day for weeks.

Now, there’s also going to be in that much food some waste, but certainly nothing along the lines that was reported by ProPublica.

GWEN IFILL: So what did you mean then, just coming back full circle, to multiple systems failing? What was that admission?

SUZY DEFRANCIS: Well, I don’t — can’t comment on multiple systems failing.

What we saw was a very effective response that served millions of people when their help was urgently needed. And we learned some lessons from it that we continue to apply and we continue to improve. We haven’t been a response organization for 130 years without making some changes to get better.

And we will be there at the next response, and we will be even better.

GWEN IFILL: Suzy DeFrancis of the American Red Cross, thank you.

SUZY DEFRANCIS: Thank you, Gwen.