The Red Cross’ anemic response to Hurricane Harvey left officials in several Texas counties seething, emails obtained by ProPublica show. In some cases, the Red Cross simply failed to show up as it promised it would.
“Red Cross was not there as they were suppose[d] to be with the shelter and again no communication to what this is actually about and that you have been in DeWitt County doing anything.”
With fewer than 24 hours’ notice, Micah Dyer, a school superintendent in DeWitt County, was forced to run a shelter on his own in an unused district building that would eventually house 400 people. For the first three days the shelter was open, only two Red Cross volunteers were there — and neither had any experience running a shelter, Dyer said in an interview.
“Every hot meal came from us,” Dyer said. “[School district employees] had to go to our pantries and walk-in coolers and get whatever we could get so people would have food.” Dyer said the Red Cross didn’t appear with supplies until the fourth day of the storm and didn’t bring enough cots or food for those housed in the shelter. A significant portion of the Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MREs) the charity did bring had gone bad, he said.
The charity contested his account, saying in a statement that it maintained two shelters in DeWitt County – including the one Dyer ran – “and recorded a total of 1,599 overnight stays.”
We have only a partial picture of the Red Cross’ response to the massive storm. ProPublica received emails through public records requests from several counties, large and small. But they don’t cover the full swath of the state affected by the storm.
Still, the frustration many authorities felt with the Red Cross was striking. Officials in Jefferson County, which contains Beaumont, were so fed up with the Red Cross that they kicked out a charity employee assigned to work with government officials from the headquarters for the storm response.
“Everything we asked him to do, I didn’t feel was getting done in a timely manner,” said Mike White, Jefferson County’s deputy emergency management coordinator.
In Colorado County, west of Houston, a local official told colleagues on Aug. 30 the charity had simply failed to show up at a shelter as promised.
“Persons needing intermediate-term shelters have been transferred to the Red Cross Shelter in Sealy. Red Cross approved the shelter, but the promised shelter management teams and the supply trailer never arrived, nor do they know where they went,” Charles Rogers, the county’s emergency management coordinator, wrote.
On Aug. 27, two days after Harvey made landfall, the fire marshal of Humble, a small city in the Houston metro area, sent an urgent plea as his city faced severe flooding: Could the Red Cross help to staff a shelter in his area?
“I hate to say this but the Red Cross is completely out of resources and have almost no road accessibility,” responded Kristina Clark, an emergency management official in Harris County, which contains Houston. “The best thing I can recommend is to open something and message to your people to bring THEIR OWN food, sleeping bags, clothes, medication, etc.”
The Red Cross said in a statement that, overall, it has provided more than 414,000 overnight shelter stays and with its partners served “almost 3.2 million meals and snacks.”
Providing relief in the wake of the storm was an enormously difficult task. Tom McCasland, Houston’s director of housing and community development, said in an interview that it wasn’t just the Red Cross — but also city and county governments — that didn’t have the resources to respond to the storm. The storm destroyed over 15,000 homes and damaged more than 200,000.
“No one was prepared for this in terms of magnitude of numbers that showed up” at the George R. Brown Convention Center, one of the major shelters in Houston, McCasland said. “Given the circumstances, I can say that [the Red Cross] worked their hearts out.”
But many others singled out the Red Cross for criticism. At a public meeting earlier this month, Houston City Councilman Dave Martin let loose on the charity for being the “most inept, unorganized organization I’ve ever experienced.”
Martin urged Houstonians not to donate. “I have not seen a single person in Kingwood or Clear Lake that’s a representative of the Red Cross,” he said, referring to two hard-hit areas. “You know who opened our shelters? We did. You know who sent water and supplies? We did.”
In an interview with ProPublica, Martin said he ran into Gail McGovern, the charity’s CEO, in a parking lot several days after Harvey hit. When he raised his concerns to her, Martin said she responded: “Do you know how much we raised with Katrina? $2 billion. We won’t even raise hundreds of millions here.’ I just thought, ‘Really, Gail? That’s your response to me?’”
Asked about McGovern’s conversation with the city councilman, the Red Cross said, “We understand his frustration.” The charity said it has raised around $350 million for Harvey.
As ProPublica has previously detailed, the charity’s attempts to respond to large disasters in recent years have been harshly criticized by victims, government officials and, in many cases, the Red Cross’ own staff. Reconstruction efforts after the 2010 Haiti earthquake fell far short of the charity’s public claims. After Superstorm Sandy hit New York in 2012, Red Cross leadership diverted disaster relief resources for public-relations purposes. And after floods in Louisiana, a state official wrote that the Red Cross “failed for 12 days.”