Bayou City

Council Member Urges Houstonians Not to Donate to Red Cross

Evacuees at the George R. Brown Convention Center
Evacuees at the George R. Brown Convention Center Photo by Doogie Roux
click to enlarge Evacuees at the George R. Brown Convention Center - PHOTO BY DOOGIE ROUX
Evacuees at the George R. Brown Convention Center
Photo by Doogie Roux
Houston City Councilman Dave Martin had some harsh words for the American Red Cross at a council meeting Wednesday and urged Houstonians to give their money and supplies to other organizations.

Repeatedly calling the Red Cross the "Red Loss," Martin said it has been local government that has done all of the heavy lifting at the shelters and that has provided most of the resources — "yet every time I turn on the TV, I see [the Red Cross] taking in millions of dollars in donations," Martin said. He said the Red Cross was the "most inept, unorganized organization I've ever experienced."

"Don't waste your time, don't waste your money [donating to the Red Cross]," he said. "Give it to another cause."

The Texas Gulf Coast Red Cross chapter did not immediately return a request for comment about the resources it has specifically devoted to Houston-area shelters.

Other council members clarified later that the city strongly supported the thousands of individual Red Cross volunteers across the region working at the shelters and elsewhere.

In recent years, the criticism lobbed at the Red Cross has mostly been reserved instead for the upper administration and how it has used millions in donations to actually help victims of natural disasters.

The criticism mounted most pointedly in 2015, after NPR and ProPublica released a series of damning reports targeting how the Red Cross responded to the hurricane that devastated Haiti in 2010. In their joint investigation, "In Search of the Red Cross' $500 Million in Haiti Relief," the news outlets found that despite claiming it had provided homes to more than 130,000 people, the Red Cross had built just six homes. (The Red Cross told the outlets that it had completed more than 100 projects in Haiti and repaired 4,000 homes, but refused to provide a list of the projects and the costs.)

NPR and ProPublica found that much of the $488 million in donations was handed off to third-party organizations, which then did the actual boots-on-the-ground work — but not before the Red Cross reserved some of the money for its own administrative fees. A subsequent report commissioned by U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) found that one quarter of the $488 million went to the nonprofit's internal expenses.

Just a week ago, NPR pressed American Red Cross executive Brad Kieserman about what percentage of the money people donate for Hurricane Harvey relief will actually end up helping the flood victims — but he did not know.

Elsewhere along the Texas Gulf Coast, some have criticized the Red Cross's approach to operating relief centers where hundreds of people need food, water and a place to sleep. Over near Beaumont, a woman's post on Facebook went viral after she complained about how the Red Cross tried to put 400 warm hamburgers into an ice chest after a pilot had just flown them all the way from Austin to Beaumont's regional airport. Jolei Shipley, an attorney and Harvey volunteer who witnessed the dispute, told the Houston Press the pilot — with the disaster relief nonprofit Sky Hope Network — had learned while delivering relief supplies that the hundreds of evacuees hadn't had a warm meal in more than 24 hours, subsisting on PB&J sandwiches and snacks like pretzels. The Red Cross, however, wouldn't allow the burgers to be distributed because the people had just eaten sandwiches a few hours earlier, Shipley said.

The airport was never intended to be a shelter, Shipley said, but turned into one after planes that were supposed to take people to Dallas shelters were massively delayed because of the storm. People were kept on air-conditioned buses in the meantime, and Shipley said dozens of local volunteers organized by "cheer moms" from Nederland High School showed up to help. Shipley, a former Red Cross volunteer herself, said several volunteers from the Red Cross came about a day later and tried to "take over."

"If you make 800 PB&J sandwiches, they start to get kind of gross," Shipley said. "That’s like cattle feed. These people aren't cattle; they’re people. Maybe what she was trying to do was conserve; maybe she had a rulebook that said people can only eat once every four hours. But it was just very curt, very absolute, and people got upset."

If you want to donate money to help the victims of Hurricane Harvey but plan on listening to Councilman Martin, see our post on all the ways you can pitch in.
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn