The Slatest

Red Cross’ Hurricane Sandy Response Was a Failure Interrupted by PR Stunts, Report Says

President Obama speaks about Hurricane Sandy at a Washington Red Cross facility in 2012.

Photo by Larry Downing/Reuters

The report by investigative site ProPublica and NPR on the Red Cross’ response to Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Isaac starts with a real old-fashioned journalism haymaker:

In 2012, two massive storms pounded the United States, leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless, hungry or without power for days and weeks.

Americans did what they so often do after disasters. They sent hundreds of millions of dollars to the Red Cross, confident their money would ease the suffering left behind by Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Isaac. They believed the charity was up to the job.


They were wrong.

Yowza! The report argues that the Red Cross was not just unprepared for the disasters, but that the group actively hurt its own cause by worrying about image more than logistics.

During Isaac, Red Cross supervisors ordered dozens of trucks usually deployed to deliver aid to be driven around nearly empty instead, “just to be seen,” one of the drivers, Jim Dunham, recalls.


That’s bad.

During Sandy, emergency vehicles were taken away from relief work and assigned to serve as backdrops for press conferences, angering disaster responders on the ground.

And that’s real bad. (The Red Cross denies that any decisions were made for PR purposes and says it is “proud” of its work during Sandy and Isaac.)


The piece’s broader claims about the organization’s lack of readiness and image obsession are backed by correspondence and internal documents. ProPublica and NPR cite top Red Cross disaster response official Trevor Riggen’s reply to an email from an experienced on-the-ground worker who’d outlined a number of problems in the aftermath of Isaac. “From a broad perspective I completely agree with you,” Riggen says. “This is extremely systemic.” In the minutes of an internal meeting, a different official in charge of Sandy response in New York is quoted as saying the organization was “not good at scaling up” to meet the size of the disaster.

As far as evidence for an aggressive exposé thesis goes, that is strong stuff, and the piece also details a great number of specific failures—from a storm victim who didn’t see a Red Cross truck until long after Amish volunteers arrived to an incident in which pork sandwiches were taken to a Jewish retirement home. At one point a “senior official” complains that a much-needed emergency response vehicle was diverted for a Heidi Klum photo opportunity: “Did you know it takes a Victoria’s Secret model five hours to unload one box off a truck?”

It’s a troubling piece. If a well-funded, universally supported organization like the Red Cross can’t do a morally urgent, ideologically noncontroversial job like disaster relief without getting wrapped up in political BS, what hope is there for, like, literally anything else? Read the whole thing here.