(This is me, Mary, as my personal vent, and not an official statement of The Red Cross or any other organization. Nothing in here is to be taken as an official position of anyone or any group except me.)
What The Red Cross is and is not:
A lot of people seem to forget that The Red Cross is not a government agency–it is a voluntary organization. We are not first responders. We do not rescue people. We are not a taxi service out of damaged areas. We do not run restaurants or hotels. We do provide disaster preparation training, first aid training, and (in some places) swimming lessons and blood services. We respond to local disasters including house fires, floods, crane collapses, plane crashes, etc.
We are a volunteer-run organization, with paid leadership for coordination.Our leadership is paid considerably less than equally-talented executives in the private sector. Experienced executives do not take jobs where they are on call 24/7/365 to fly all over the country and live in bare-bones shelters, for low wages. We are not a religious group that requires our leaders to take vows of poverty.
Whom you are complaining about when you trash The Red Cross:
90% of The Red Cross people who arrived on Saturday and Sunday nights and slept on cots around the office for days on end, were volunteers and staff from New York City and the immediately surrounding areas. Most were _also_ victims of this event. Many of these New Yorkers were separated from their families, who were without power. Parents left their children with grandparents and relatives; I heard more than one Red Cross parent brokenly coo good-night to their toddlers over the phone from the sleeping area.
Before you say these parents shouldn’t have put others before their families, I ask you: Would you take their place, to make sure this response you complain about, was carried out? Without them, the response would have been slower.
Once the airports and roads opened, Red Cross people from as far away as Puerto Rico and California flooded in. These are often retired folks who are committed to disaster response, and who could choose to do many more relaxing things than lug supplies and live in shelters.
Volunteers can walk away any time, and I am surprised that more dedicated people don’t do that after suffering barrages of vitriol. People who think it’s fulfilling to shout at call takers, should sit in our communications center and watch people get screamed at for twelve hours at a time, often for ridiculous non-issues. One woman was angry that The Red Cross wouldn’t replace the food she’d bought in preparation, when she discovered she didn’t like it.
Callers are not of a mind to understand that they are talking to human beings.
On the speed of the response:
The adoption of “Internet time” seems to have distorted people’s understanding of the time it takes to accomplish physical tasks.
It is just not realistic to move limited numbers of people and things around during dangerous conditions so that they can magically appear a few hours later, right where everyone needs them to be.
In the first 72 hours, many volunteers and staff who wanted to pitch in, simply could not get out of their own neighborhoods. The people who could do any responding were only the ones in the building in NYC, or in safe locations in the outer counties. Tractor trailers full of supplies had been stored outside the path of the storm, and needed to be moved into position. That takes gas (which was getting short), qualified drivers, and accessible roads.
It takes time to get out of town volunteers physically into the building. It takes time to orient them to the area covered by the Greater New York chapter, and to the tasks they were expected to perform. I explained the difference between Fort Totten and Fort Tilden several times, to several people.
No one seems to be acknowledging The Red Cross presence in Nassau and Suffolk towns. Unlike New York City, the small towns out in those counties have no local offices of emergency management and suffered equal or more damage. The American Red Cross in Greater New York is responsible for not just New York City but Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Orange, Rockland, Sullivan, Putnam and Dutchess counties. The leaders had to do triage–and the places that really did have the most need, with the fewest pre-existing resources, got it first.
The “routine” local disasters didn’t stop during this crisis.There were still house fires and other emergencies to respond to. The Greater New York chapter responds to about a dozen of those _every day_, all year. At the height of the storm, there were 32 of these piled up, awaiting response when it became safe to travel. (They were all addressed in 8 hours.)
Every disaster brings out scores of wonderful people who want to help. There is sometimes quite a wide gap between what people say they want to do, and what they can do safely and productively. Training new people always takes some experienced people out of circulation.
As far as some new volunteers complaining they had nothing to do, I agree that it’s very frustrating to stand around when you want to help after sitting through a training class and background check. But if The Red Cross had followed its regular policy of not accepting spontaneous volunteers, the public would have complained that The Red Cross was not allowing anyone to help. Red Cross regular volunteers have background checks and also extensive training in the values and operations of the organization.
I will not be at all surprised to hear complaints about “The Red Cross [did or said such and such an awful thing]”–there will be no distinction made between a one-time volunteer behaving badly, and the 101-year-old organization.
At the end, most of this will be forgotten–except that the stories about “how The Red Cross failed me” will be embellished, and make it into some kind of mythology.
People who were fired up about volunteering, will (for the most part) go back to their regular lives, happy to have helped and willing to tell their stories. Most will never actually join The Red Cross or any other disaster relief organization to respond to the hundreds of local disasters New York has during the year.
The rest of us will go home, do our laundry, hug our families and pets, and get on with life–for a day, or a week–until our neighbors, close and far off, need us again.
We will go out and respond.