Yesterday we reported seeing scores of Red Cross volunteers in the Rockaways that didn't appear to have much to do. One of those volunteers subsequently reached out to us to echo what has been regularly reported from many of the areas affected by Hurricane Sandy: The Red Cross' volunteer efforts are either minimally effective, poorly coordinated, or both.
"I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the contribution of our 40 volunteers, two buses, and truck full of supplies to the Rockaways relief effort amounted to nearly nothing," writes the volunteer, who asked that his name not be published. "I can't overstate just how much aimless standing and walking around we did at every stage of the operation. By far the largest part of the day was devoted to walking from one arbitrary place to another."
The volunteer, who is a journalist and had previously volunteered independently in Sunset Park, says that he signed up to help the Red Cross through New York Cares. After waiting three hours at the pickup site at the Aquaduct Racetrack, the group of around 40 volunteers, each wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the Red Cross' logo, arrived at a housing complex in the Rockaways consisting of three twelve-story buildings.
When we walked into the first building, the lights and heat were on. Nonetheless, our area leader started talking about how we would need to climb the stairs to deliver supplies. Midway through this explanation someone told her that the elevators were working. Unfazed, she told us that we could use the elevators instead of the stairs to distribute our blankets, flashlights, and batteries. She gave no sign of understanding that the facts we had just learned might prompt reevaluation of the entire plan.
What followed was surreal. We were going from floor to floor, by elevator, distributing emergency supplies in a warm and bright apartment building whose residents were going about their normal lives all around us, doing laundry, walking dogs, socializing, returning from work. Power had been on for two days. The state of emergency was past. Some people took the free blankets and flashlights, because, why not? But most told us that they didn't need them. Undeterred, we went back for another six bags each and pressed on.
At no point did anyone in a leadership position acknowledge that the plan we were carrying out was meant for a completely different situation than the one that actually existed in front of our eyes.
If anything, we were in the way. We filled the elevators and took them one or two floors at a time. We blocked the hallways. Most people appreciated our good intentions, even as they turned down our supplies, but some were angry. Someone shouted, "You're two weeks late!" More than one person told us we should go somewhere that still didn't have power or heat. One woman, who had lost everything in her nearby house and was staying with a friend in the building, told our team leader to "tell your boss to go fuck himself and suck my dick."
We asked Sam Kille, the regional communications director for the Red Cross, if they had heard of complaints from volunteers and residents about the agency's supposed inefficiency. "It's important for people to know how large the scale is for an operation like this," Kille said, citing the 5,700 volunteers working for the organization in New Jersey and New York. "We use our assessment teams to determine where the needs are the greatest, and sometimes we serve people who may not have the most pressing needs—we'd rather overserve people than underserve them.
Also, the needs change constantly from one place to another," Kille continued. "We constantly need to adjust, and there may have been times when volunteers wait awhile to help, and we understand it's frustrating." When asked how the Red Cross coordinates with smaller, independent relief outlets that may be much quicker or their heels (and thus more effective), Kille mentioned the organization's work with the NAACP, the Salvation Army, and the Southern Baptist Convention.
When we pointed out that those organizations were massive in scope compared to the outlets we were referring to, Kille praised the work of the independent groups and said, "No one group can do this alone…This is the biggest disaster we've dealt with in five years."
Several days ago, the president of the Red Cross, Gail McGovern, said the organization was "nearly flawless" in its response to Hurricane Sandy. The volunteer noted this when commenting on the "vast gulf" between that statement and what is actually happening in affected areas: "The Red Cross is apparently gauging its success by volunteers deployed, supplies distributed, and dollars spent, no matter how belatedly or pointlessly. The people they are trying to help must have other criteria."