A totally unofficial and personal vent

My bed(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.)

“Spontaneous” volunteers

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.

And then…

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.

31 thoughts on “A totally unofficial and personal vent

  1. It is very unfortunate that it’s necessary to explain the purpose of a good-natured organization filled with beautiful, selfless human beings. I am appalled every time I hear people allowing their miserable states/lives spread amongst those of us just trying to help out. This crisis has become scary (shootings & stabbings in NJ) and we NEED The Red Cross VOlunteers and organization to get us through traumatic events! My Cousin has always been an angel spreading herself thin caring for others. She has a BIG HEART and deserves more gratitude than she’s getting from some refugees. We all need to remember…we’re cut from the same cloth! THANK YOU, Mary, and all those who work for The Red Cross! THANK YOU!

  2. I have been a Red Cross volunteer since 1962 in many areas/capacities. This is an article I wish the world could read. I’m doing my part by both posting it and emailing it.
    Awesome, Mary. Thank you!!

  3. I do not live in the Northeast, so everything I get is via the internet. I am reading so many complaints about disaster response not being fast enough…from people whose houses are still standing and who generally seem to be doing just fine. Of course, I am assuming if people have the time and energy to post on Facebook about poor disaster response, their houses are still standing and they have electricity. People are stressed, so some poor behavior, maybe, can be excused…up to a point. Screaming at Red Cross volunteers is crossing the line.
    Also, there is a reason for the 3days3ways campaign that we have going here in the Northwest; you are supposed to assume that in any disaster, it will take three days for help to arrive, so you should have enough supplies to keep yourself going for three days, at a minimum.

  4. Well said, Mary.

    Living in Montana the only thing I could do to help was call the Red Cross yesterday and (quietly) donate some money to help with the relief. It was a pleasure to be able to do for such an organization.

    Keep up the amazing work!

  5. Thanks for this well thought out post. You obviously care as deeply about the organization and it’s mission as I do. I have shared your post with others who volunteer with the Red Cross. You did a great job of putting things in perspective.

  6. I have to agree that the Internet has warped our sense of reasonable response time. I feel for the folks in Staten Island who have been devastated, but I think it is unfair to say that they were forgotten. the plight of Staten Island has been all over the news and twitter from day one. It took a while before the national guard arrived anywhere. The food and water distributions were announced in all boroughs on the same day. Entire towns in NJ were also wiped out. Areas of the Bronx were flooded. Breezy point was decimated. People in Hoboken were stranded in a flooded city for days after folks in lower floor apartments fled upstairs to escape rising water. Half of Manhattan had no power, no cell sevice and no running water for days. Elderly residents on high floors who can’t walk down 14 or 15 flights in a pitch black stairwell, have been surviving without a toilet that flushes. Yes, there is no gas in Staten Island but neither does the rest of the city or the entire state of new jersey.I feel for the folks in Staten Island, but they need to have some compassion for folks in other areas. I think they have no concept of how bad it’s been other places too.

  7. I am a Red Crosser taking a break now after helping out in the ARC response to Sandy where I live in SE Pennsylvania. Your post encapsulates everything
    I feel about the organization, its people and how little the public knows about how the Red Cross does what it does. There is no other organization – period – that can accomplish what the Red Cross can in perilous times. The people who scream at us on the phone should try it sometime, should try not only responding to a big disaster but also going out in the middle of the night in 20 degree weather to a dangerous urban neighborhood to help men women and children displaced by a home fire.

  8. I live in the Los Angeles area, and years ago I decided to do the Red Cross Disaster training. I took all the classes. I had the background check done. I did everything required. When asked what “level” of time I could give, I said I couldn’t travel and work the national or international responses, but I could help with local responses, call centers, prepping supplies to ship out locally, etc.

    The response from the person at Red Cross? A disgusted “well, why did you even bother with all this if you won’t actually help?!” And I have never been contacted be the Red Cross since.

    So while the Red Cross DOES provide services, and the volunteers DO sincerely want to help, they are not this perfect, glowing, angelic company that people like to portray. They have their faults & they have some horrible people working for and representing them just like EVERY COMPANY IN THE WORLD.

    • Hi Lynda, I am with the Red Cross in Los Angeles. In addition to having deployed 50 of our local volunteers to Hurricane Sandy in the last week, we have also responded to 5 house fires in the last two days and provided direct assistance to more more than 30 people displaced by local disasters in the last week! We need your help here at home too! You are absolutely right that we are not perfect, and I regret that whoever you met with had that attitude. Come join us. My email is alex.rose@redcross.org and I’d really love to chat further!

    • I am sorry that you had that experience. There are a lot of jerks in the world and some of them are at the Red Cross. I’ve certainly volunteered with more than a few of them. It certainly is not a perfect, glowing, angelic company. That’s part of the problem with expectations.

  9. It would sure help if the media portrayed an accurate proportion of positive outcomes to negative. There’d be hundreds or thousands of happy stories for every bad one. Unfortunately, they don’t do this, so people form a distorted view of volunteer organizations. This perpetuates unrealistic expectations. Thanks to all the volunteers. I see you.


  10. I wonder if the persons complaining about the Red Cross have EVER donated THEIR time and/or money to ANY volunteer based organization.

    One of the” tag” lines when I was a Camp Fire Girl and a Camp Fire USA adult volunteer (and still is) “Give Service” and it is this that EVERYBODY needs to count as one of their good character traits.

    I also volunteered for the American Red Cross for over 10 years as an instructor. I would still if it were not for health issues. There is so much more to Red Cross than most people realize. GIVE to the Red Cross your time and/or your money. It could be YOU that makes a difference.

  11. American Red Cross Volunteers who come from out of the area to respond to hurricanes and wildfires often keep a bag packed at all times. When a call comes in, they are often in the air within 4-24 hours if there are open airports and flights available. Once on the ground, they are provided an orientation of the situation, given an assignment, equipped with the tools needed and in front of clients as soon as possible. Most are committed to be on site for three weeks and often rotate out and back in again. The work is hard, real hard both physically and emotionally. The conditions are often the same for them as it is for those those that they are helping. (Cold, limited power, limited water, lack of housing, etc) So, a few weeks from now most of us will be on with our lives and may not think about the disaster. The Red Cross will still be there and most may be the same people who left their family, jobs and lives last week. I did say VOLUNTEER! Please support them. They will be there if you ever need them.

  12. Amen, sister! says the atheist.

    I’ve been an American Red Cross volunteer (and occasional employee) since the World Trade Center response, including volunteering on a disaster call center after Katrina. In those 11 years we’ve been bruised, battered, and verbally beaten up, but we go on.

    I once got lambasted by a woman while waiting on line for theater tickets, taking a break from the WTC response. The friend I was with jumped in–on the other woman’s side! (No wonder we’re no longer friends; it’s a wonder we didn’t part ways that evening.)

    Now I’ve dodged a bullet, being just a few blocks inland and uphill from one of the worst-hit areas. I’m hunkered down at my Dad’s house because we’ve both had flooded basements, damaged siding, and no power since around 8:20 pm last Monday. His landline is out and my cell reception is spotty. It’s cold and dark, but a little less boring with company. I’m running out of interesting ways to make dinner from a can of soup. (Next time I make a run to my house to check on things, I might pick up my Psychological First Aid training manual so I can chart my own progress through this one.) I was out of work–my “day job” for a week because I couldn’t get to Manhattan.

    Yet experience tells me this will be a long recovery and I’ll be back in the game in a while. We may be having a rough time, but many are far worse. People died not far from where I live, and others lost their homes entirely. Their recovery will take a lot longer than mine.

    I will be forever grateful to the DSHR staff who came to New York in 2001, both for their aid to our city and for what they taught me about being a Red Crosser. One of the enduring lessons was that sometimes you have to stop reading the news, turn off the TV (if it’s working) and just go on about your business. Let the ones who want to complain do so; there are others who need our help and that of the other voluntary agencies that have been pitching in.

  13. Thank you soooo much for writing the post!!! First I was a client (after 9/11) and now I have been a volunteer for 7 years. I’ll be working in Classroom H starting this afternoon in the call center…maybe I will get to meet you!

  14. wow this is so true. funny thing is before i read this i was saying something like this to a group of volunteers that were assigned to me at far Rockaway. i do what i do because i love what i do. i bleed red cross no matter what the situation is. and your right many will not sign up to be volunteers. At the end of the day no matter who said what or who did what Red Cross was there.

  15. I live in Broad Channel right near Rockaway and my town was devastated by Sandy. I appreciate the effort and dedication of the Red Cross’ volunteers but I think what has really been put under scrutiny is the distribution of the funds raised for Hurricane Sandy Relief. I have seen figures as high as $171 million. I think people in my town are wondering where the relief is and thinking with that much money we should be seeing more than we have of the Red Cross. I understand the expectation and reality of response time but it really seems to me that the efforts in my area have been minimal even after a very extended period of time. Some pb&j’s about 2 weeks after the storm just seems sad. When you are trying to help as many people as the Red Cross does I guess $171million is only a drop in the bucket. I think people see that figure and expect Red Cross to come in like a knight in shining armor and save them and when they are not seeing much of anything their immediate response is negative. I think because of that Volunteers have unfortunately fallen victim to the victim’s outrage. There has definitely been a lot of Red Cross bashing on the internet. I feel for both parties and hope that Red Cross is trying to do its best to provide relief and that the hurricane victims can be more grateful for the volunteers and the help they are providing. Just seems like a lack of understanding…

  16. This post and the responses to it are all fascinating and inspire me. Thank you for sharing your experiences and contributing to a greater awareness of the realities of disaster response. My first instinct following a disaster, which is to donate to the Red Cross, has proven time and time again to be the right one. Thanks for being on the front lines.

  17. As a staff member of the British Red Cross (also speaking on my own behalf and not for my organisation), thank you for your post. Your words give strength to those of us who find the seemingly never-ending abuse rather tiring.

  18. This is a beautiful post. As a fellow Red Crosser and as one of the few staff that you mentioned, I can assure you that I do not do this for any monetary wealth. Every day, I get to be a part of an organization that makes a difference to those in need, helps people because it is the right thing to do and generally makes good happen in a bad situation. It’s a different kind of wealth that I have. There is nothing in this world that is perfect but I never get up in the morning and just go to work anymore. It is never just a “job” and it is an honor to work with so many wonderful people.

  19. Very well said, Mary! I have been volunteering for the Red Cross for many years & most people just don’t understand what the Red Cross can & can’t do. You nailed it. Thank you! Keep up the great work.

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