Four weeks after Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of New York, the biggest unanswered question is: where has the American Red Cross been? On Nov. 2, The New York Times reported on the “growing anger at the Red Cross response to the storm.” As one of thousands of volunteers working in the Rockaways in the weeks that have followed, I can say that the evidence of my own eyes, confirmed by many of my fellow volunteers and by the leaders of the local relief effort, is that whatever the Red Cross may say, its response has continued to be lamentable.
Day after day, week after week, the American Red Cross was, quite literally, nowhere to be found. Yet it has raised more than $150 million for Sandy relief alone. That $150 million, or even a part of it, could have transformed the relief effort in the Rockaways. People in the worst-hit areas are asking: where, when, and how has the money been spent?
For 14 days after the hurricane, I worked all over the Rockaways. I was in Belle Harbor, at St. Francis de Sales handing out supplies. I evacuated people from their homes during the nor’easter, and literally pulled families, some with babies, out of the snow that night as they tried to walk to shelter. I worked at 14th and Seagirt in the NYCHA houses, the Community Center at Beach 57th Street, the Projects at Beach 89th Street, and the Mott Street Library. I delivered kosher meals to homebound Orthodox seniors in homes without electricity or heat on 19th and Seagirt, as they sat hungry and alone trapped 21 stories high. I worked at Veggie Corner, a popular beach hangout for surfers before the storm that became a full makeshift commissary for supplies and food, and helped out at PS197 on Hicksville and 8th. I brought flashlights, food, diapers, coats to those in need, I begged, borrowed, and hustled to get the critical supplies that people needed, waited hours for gasoline like everyone else, and this effort—by thousands like myself—was how the communities were saved and fed.
I only saw Red Cross vehicles twice in two weeks.
The first time there were two white vans. Dazzlingly white. (Most of the relief vehicles, including my own, were filthy and battered. This has been dirty work.) They weren’t at work. They weren’t handing out supplies. They were waiting for Governor Cuomo. For a photo-op.
The only other time, coincidentally, or not coincidentally, was the day before President Obama was in the New York area. This vehicle was a white Prius, clean and sparkling as a new engagement ring. It wasn’t distributing supplies either.
That night, I was told, the Red Cross was handing out hot dogs somewhere. I never saw them. I do know that Red Cross workers asked volunteers for water to hand out, because they didn’t have any themselves—$150 million should buy a few bottles of water.
We have been told that it was difficult for Red Cross vehicles to get gas, and when they got some they got stuck in traffic, etc. All relief workers had the same problems. And yet we got there. Thousands of New Yorkers helping New Yorkers, and some who came from all over the country. We, the people, saved our people. We managed to get gas, and supplies, and distributed them. We sat in the same traffic, sometimes taking as long as three hours to get home. Some of us slept in school gymnasiums, or in abandoned houses in sleeping bags. We worked with local councilmen, school principals, teachers, pastors, community leaders, first-responder rebuilders, residents and volunteers, and everyone said the same thing as Councilman James Sanders’s chief of staff, Donovan Richards, in the middle of an office that was drowning in donated supplies, but bereft of electricity and heat: “The Red Cross? They have been absolutely nowhere. We are the Red Cross.”
This is worse than inadequate. This is not merely “dropping the ball.” To raise all that money and then be invisible on the ground at the time of the greatest need looks very much like fraud.
That is why I, along with others in the vanguard of the relief effort, am asking that the Attorney General open a formal inquiry into the American Red Cross. Similar concerns surfaced after 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and disasters in Haiti. The Red Cross owes everyone who trusts it with their money complete transparency. Every dollar should be accounted for.
I want to ask the American Red Cross: where exactly were you in the Rockaways and when? Were you on some magical street handing out cupcakes that only certain people with special I.D.s and unicorns were allowed to pass through? I didn’t have access to that area, and neither did the thousands of hungry residents that I met. I demand some answers. The American people deserve some answers. Or their money back.