After Mississippi flooding, Red Cross stumbles again

The director of Mississippi’s Emergency Management Agency called the Red Cross’ disaster response “marginal at best.”

By Sarah Smith
ProPublica

When record-high floodwaters hit counties across Mississippi in March, over 650 homes sustained major damage or were destroyed entirely. People fled for shelters, and roadways were washed out. State officials told the press the damage was the most widespread they’d seen since Hurricane Katrina.

The American Red Cross quickly dispatched volunteers. Two of them arrived in Sunflower County in the Mississippi Delta looking to hand out clean-up kits to flood victims.

The only problem: They weren’t anywhere near the parts of Sunflower affected by flooding, according to Ben Grant, the county’s director of emergency management.

Grant spotted the volunteers while driving in an unaffected area. Once he figured out what they were doing, he told them they were in the wrong place.

“Why wouldn’t you call us and say, ‘Where do you need us to go to pass this out?'” Grant told ProPublica. “There wasn’t any coordination.”

Internal emails exchanged among state officials as the devastation unfolded document a profound lack of confidence in the charity’s ability to respond to disasters as well as problems that have persisted since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast a decade ago.

Mississippi Emergency Management Director Lee Smithson told his staff on April 6 that the Red Cross’ response was “marginal at best.”

The charity “is made up of great people who want to help,” Smithson wrote in another email. “The problem is their inability to develop tactical plans for their relief operations.”

Red Cross spokeswoman Suzy DeFrancis said in a statement that the Red Cross is “proud of our performance” during the March flooding.

ProPublica obtained the emails through an open records request. We previously reported on the Red Cross’ botched responses to Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and its failure to follow through on promises after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

The Mississippi emails also show the effects of deep cuts to the charity’s network of local chapters made by CEO Gail McGovern, who has struggled to get the Red Cross on stable financial footing since she took over the charity in 2008. The Red Cross closed several Mississippi chapters since McGovern became CEO. The downsizing hasn’t been limited to local offices. Last month, a Red Cross senior vice president sent an email informing his staff that the 106 positions in the Disaster Cycle Services arm would be cut to 89.

Mississippi emergency management officials said the state has suffered from the Red Cross’ cutbacks.

“The turnover rates have been tremendous here lately,” said James Smith, the director of emergency management in Lamar County. “This is a hotbed of activity, and the responses have been slow.”

There have been bright spots in the charity’s disaster response. In interviews, several county emergency management directors praised local Red Cross representatives for providing quick, much-needed help during the flooding. But 12 other state officials told ProPublica about persistent communication breakdowns between the charity and the government that led to aid being directed to the wrong places and to supply shortages.

“We are a charity, not a government agency, and we have our own policies and procedures,” DeFrancis wrote. “But we are committed to working closely with local, state and federal officials to get the job done.”

Officials said in their emails that the lack of coordination is a longstanding problem. “The American Red Cross is running their own program and does not work with the local government,” Washington County’s emergency management director, David Burford, wrote in a March 21 email to the state emergency management agency. His county, right along the Mississippi River, was one of the hardest hit in the state. “The Red Cross has operated in this fashion for my entire career of 21 years and doesn’t seem to want to change their procedures and/or processes. I have seen and continue to see a large loss of resources due to duplications caused by the American Red Cross operating in this manner, and, as you know, resources are becoming more scarce with each passing day.”

DeFrancis said she was unaware of any supply shortages in Washington County.

“It also occurs during relief operations that responders talk and express ideas internally with some amount of hyperbole,” she wrote. “To characterize their intent or to generalize their respect for workers and people affected by disasters any differently would flatly be wrong and impose an egregious disservice to those persons.”

In his biannual meeting on April 27 with the Red Cross and the state Department of Human Services, Lamar County’s head of emergency management learned a disturbing fact: The Red Cross had picked out two new shelter sites in his county that he didn’t know about.

“We need to ask the [American Red Cross] to make sure a county director be included or at least advised of any shelter survey being done in their county,” a state emergency management official wrote after being briefed about the meeting. “The county director has to know when and where a shelter is open.”

The lack of communication between the Red Cross and the locals may have led to an uncomfortable situation for the charity’s volunteers after the flooding earlier this year.

In the middle of March, a Red Cross staff member sent an email to his colleagues about what he viewed as a security situation.

A Red Cross emergency response vehicle and supply truck “were surrounded by [a] mob on 6th Street South in Greenville, MS,” Red Cross Chief Emergency Programs Officer David Kitchen wrote in an email to his colleagues, describing a predominantly African American part of town. “They had previously delivered [bulk distribution] items to a hard hit area and were in route on their second run (undoubtedly word spread quickly that some type of resources were there and a mob was waiting). Our volunteers dumped their load in fear for their lives.”

Mississippi Emergency Management Director Smithson, who was forwarded the email, wrote to his staff, “This is precisely the same issue I had with [the Red Cross] during Katrina. I mitigated the problem by developing a security plan.”

The Red Cross did not make Kitchen available for an interview. Over a dozen residents of Greenville said they hadn’t heard of the incident.

Smithson praised the charity’s work and said he couldn’t do his job in emergency management without it. Still, he told ProPublica, “I’ve been saying since Hurricane Katrina, if they’d play by the established rules it would be great.”

He added, “The proof will be when we see our next disaster.”

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