The Disaster in Disaster Relief

National media have a bottom drawer into which they stuff important stories that someone else did.

Nov 14, 2014 at 9:17 am

National media have a bottom drawer into which they stuff important stories that someone else did.
That’s apparently what happened to the recent expose of American Red Cross incompetence and worse by NPR and
Locally, a check of the Cincinnati Enquirer archive found nothing in its USA Today sections.
The Red Cross is one of my least favorite organizations and it was with deep satisfaction that I heard and then read the NPR/ProPublica indictment of Red Cross responses to Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Isaac in 2012.
I’ve caught the Red Cross lying about flood damage in Cincinnati’s East End and denying aid to Adams County flood victims. I’ve written how the Red Cross adopted the Heimlich Maneuver without proof that it worked better than traditional back slaps for choking. More recently, I wrote how the Red Cross inexplicably abandoned the Heimlich name for abdominal thrusts and returned to back slaps as the recommended first response. I won’t even go into scandals about executive pay of national Red Cross officers or diversion of millions donated after 9/11 and disastrous storms.
NPR/ProPublica included Red Cross denials and explanations but here’s what you missed if you relied on national and our local news media, drawn from ProPublica’s website:

• “The Red Cross botched key elements of its mission after Sandy and Isaac, leaving behind a trail of unmet needs and acrimony . . . The charity’s shortcomings were detailed in confidential reports and internal emails, as well as accounts from current and former disaster relief specialists . . . Red Cross officials at national headquarters in Washington, D.C.compounded the charity’s inability to provide relief by ‘diverting assets for public relations purposes,’ as one internal report puts it. Distribution of relief supplies, the report said, was ‘politically driven’.”

• “During Isaac, Red Cross supervisors ordered dozens of trucks usually deployed to deliver aid to be driven around nearly empty instead, ‘just to be seen,’ one of the drivers, Jim Dunham, recalls. ‘We were sent way down on the Gulf with nothing to give,’ Dunham says.”

• “During Sandy, emergency vehicles were taken away from relief work and assigned to serve as backdrops for press conferences.”

• “After both storms, the charity’s problems left some victims in dire circumstances or vulnerable to harm, the organization’s internal assessments acknowledge. Handicapped victims ‘slept in their wheelchairs for days’ because the charity had not secured proper cots. In one shelter, sex offenders were ‘all over including playing in children’s area.’ ”

• “According to interviews and documents, the Red Cross lacked basic supplies like food, blankets and batteries to distribute to victims in the days just after the storms.”

• “Sometimes, even when supplies were plentiful, they went to waste. In one case, the Red Cross had to throw out tens of thousands of meals because it couldn’t find the people who needed them.”

• “The Red Cross marshaled an army of volunteers, but many were misdirected by the charity’s managers . . After Sandy, volunteers wandered the streets of New York in search of stricken neighborhoods, lost because they had not been given GPS equipment to guide them.”

• “Richard Rieckenberg, who oversaw aspects of the Red Cross’ efforts to provide food, shelter and supplies after the 2012 storms, said the organization’s work was repeatedly undercut by its leadership. (He said) top Red Cross officials were concerned only ‘about the appearance of aid, not actually delivering it . . . They were not interested in solving the problem — they were interested in looking good. That was incredibly demoralizing.' ”

• After Hurricane Isaac, “The Red Cross mobilized hundreds of volunteers, equipment, emergency vehicles and supplies. But it couldn’t marshal them promptly enough to help many Isaac victims. When Rieckenberg arrived in Mississippi to help coordinate victim care, he (said an official sent) out 80 trucks and emergency response vehicles — normally full of meals or supplies like diapers, bleach and paper towels — entirely empty or carrying a few snacks. The volunteers ‘were told to drive around and look like you’re giving disaster relief,’ Rieckenberg says. The official was anticipating a visit by Red Cross brass and wanted to impress them with the level of activity, he says.”

• “Problems with the Red Cross’ response to Isaac began even before the storm hit. About 460 mass care volunteer workers — 90 percent of the workers the organization dispatched to provide food and shelter for the storm overall — were stationed in Tampa ahead of landfall, Rieckenberg’s emails from the time say. The hundreds of volunteers in Tampa weren’t only there for the hurricane: The Republican National Convention was going on there and the Red Cross wanted a large presence, Rieckenberg says. The Red Cross typically deploys about 20 volunteers to such meetings.”

• “Emails from the time show Rieckenberg complained that Red Cross officials prevented disaster response leaders from moving volunteers out of Tampa even after forecasts showed that the hurricane wouldn’t hit the city. It was the first time in Rieckenberg’s experience that people in charge of disaster relief didn’t have the final say over where Red Cross volunteers were sent. ‘After how long they were in Tampa, they obviously could not redeploy. They consumed all their available time and went home,’ says Bob Scheifele, who served as mass care chief in Louisiana.”

• “The overall Red Cross operation after Isaac was beset by problems. Rieckenberg emailed his superior at national headquarters on Sept. 12, 2012, to sound the alarm. ‘In Mississippi we were unable to open a single shelter with proper staff, materials and food resources prior to landfall,’ Rieckenberg wrote. ‘We had trouble getting food to our kitchens.’ The Red Cross’ relief efforts were ‘marked primarily by internal political wrangling, power struggles and ineffectiveness.’ ”

• Rieckenberg got this reply the same day from Trevor Riggen, the top Red Cross disaster response official: “You - as usual - have clearly articulated the core of many of the issues we are facing. From a broad perspective I completely agree with you. This is extremely systemic.”

• “The charity ultimately raised $312 million to help Sandy victims . . . But while its fundraising was torrential, its disaster response was a trickle.”

• “Behind closed doors, Red Cross executives acknowledged the effort was falling short. The charity was ‘not good at scaling up’ to the size of the disaster, said the official in charge of the Red Cross disaster response in New York, according to the minutes of the December 2012 meeting to assess the charity’s performance. Among the multiple systems that ‘failed’ was the charity’s tracking of its emergency response vehicles.”

• “Again, top officials impeded the organization’s relief efforts in their zeal to burnish its public profile. An internal ‘Lessons Learned’ PowerPoint presentation lists ‘hindrances to service delivery.’ Its first bullet point: NHQ – national headquarters. Under that, it lists one of the problems as ‘diverting assets for public relation purposes’.”

• “The Red Cross had a limited number of emergency response vehicles, or ERVs, active in the New York City area. But multiple officials complained that the vehicles, a crucial part of the relief efforts, were being tied up at press conferences . . . At the peak of the post-storm crisis, 15 were assigned to public relations duties, Rieckenberg says. Meanwhile, Sandy victims in neighborhoods along the beaches like the Rockaways couldn’t get food and drinkable water.”

• “Rieckenberg complained repeatedly and was joined by another Red Cross disaster response chief, Steve Ade, who complained to a vice president. ‘I can’t afford to have my ERVs sitting around all morning,’ Ade said.”

• That brought a stunning response, ProPublica/NPR reported: “ ‘Stop right there,’ a Red Cross executive from headquarters responded. ‘These are not your ERVs. They belong to Gail and she’s going to do whatever she wants with them.’ ” referring to McGovern, the Red Cross chief executive.

• “The Red Cross was having problems in many other parts of the relief effort, according to the ‘Lessons Learned’ presentation. Among the more worrisome instances had to do with sex offenders. Red Cross officials are supposed to track sex offenders who come to shelters and confer with law enforcement. But staff ‘didn’t know/follow procedures,’ the presentation notes. There was an additional problem with ‘unrelated adults showering with children.’ ”

• “Turnover and reorganizations appear to have had a corrosive effect on the Red Cross’ effectiveness. The ‘biggest challenge,’ one top Red Cross official said in the December 2012 meeting, is the ‘skillset that is possessed by our workforce.’ Another was even more stark: The ‘caliber of the people is a major issue (this is not a training issue),’ according to the meeting minutes.”

• “The Red Cross acknowledges that nearly two-thirds of the volunteers responding to Sandy had never before provided relief after a large disaster. Some of the Red Cross’ Sandy volunteers were hindered not only by their lack of experience or skills but by their advanced age. As the Red Cross’ internal documents note, the challenges of urban disaster response include physically grueling tasks such as walking up stairs in high rises to get to people in need.”

• “Sandy victims were going hungry. In early November, headquarters issued an edict that the New York operation needed to start producing more meals . . . Rieckenberg told his superiors the Red Cross was already wasting three out of every 10 meals being prepared. The real issue was that the Red Cross was failing to gather information about where hungry victims were located.”

• Instead, national officials “directed a catering company to increase its output dramatically, from 20,000 to 220,000 meals per day. And it had to start with breakfast for 100,000 the next morning . . .Top Red Cross officials had assured Rieckenberg that someone would get him the locations where staffers could deliver the meals. The list was never supplied . . . The caterer couldn’t produce the lunches and dinners. Red Cross volunteers had to distribute (tens of thousands of) cold leftover Danishes instead.”

• Red Cross boasted about how much aid it provided. “However, one internal report casts doubt on the reliability of these figures: The ‘sheer size’ of the disaster ‘crippled our ability to count’ the number of relief items distributed.”

• Rieckenberg “described what happened when he advised his bosses that a suggested feeding plan wouldn’t help storm victims. ‘I was quite bluntly told that they didn’t care – it was the plan that was going to make the ARC [American Red Cross] look the best to the local politicians.’ ”

• NPR/ProPublica recently caught up with Rieckenberg at home and asked whether people should donate to the American Red Cross: “I don’t donate to the Red Cross. People should do what they think is best for them.”

Curmudgeon Notes

Sometimes, no quote is better than a silly quote, even when a story is necessary.
“I really don't know what happened,” a neighbor told the Enquirer after a child was shot in Mt. Auburn. So why quote him? And after quoting him further, the reporter adds his own opinion: ”No one can quite understand how something like this (shooting) could happen.” Dead wrong. The shooter knows how it happened. An alert editor would have killed that editorializing along with the interview.

• If the Enquirer accurately quoted a Cincinnati cop investigating the Mt. Auburn child’s shooting (above), there was an inexplicable suspension of forensic and editorial skepticism. “It appears that this was an accident,” the officer said. An accident with multiple shots into a child? Unless the shooter used a rare and probably-illegal fully automatic weapon, he/she had to pull the trigger for every shot. Calling that an “accident” recalls a Texas killing in which the victim was shot repeatedly in the back with a bolt-action rifle and the ruling was suicide.

• Having lost its respected medical reporter, it was no surprise that the Enquirer failed to appreciate world-class developments in intestinal and stomach care by researchers at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. However, Barrett Brunsman reported the research in the Business Courier and Ann Thompson covered it on WVXU-FM. I ran across the news in a two-page spread in the Economist magazine. Leading its science section is a big deal. The Economist said researchers coaxed stem cells “into differentiating and growing into objects known as organoids. An organoid is not a proper organ but it resembles one in scientifically useful ways.”
Almost as important: their research does not involve embryonic stem cells or require killing a human embryo. Children’s scientists created their first organoid in 2011, “largely unnoticed by the world,” the Economist said. That involved the intestine.
More recently, researchers grew a stomach organoid and triggered the Economist article. Children’s doesn’t lack sympathetic coverage in local news media but medical stories without a cute patient appear to be too complex or too boring for most local TV reporters, anchors and news directors. I’d bet aging viewers would love 60 or 90 seconds that reflected possibly improved care, considering the large number of ads promising temporary relief for stomach and intestinal ailments.

• When the federal appeals court in Cincinnati ruled 2-1 that Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee could ban same-sex marriage, the Enquirer’s initially ranked it below “One dead in bowling alley accident.” Fortunately, the story by Amber Hunt was smarter. It clearly said the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit was out of step with every other federal appellate court and this could push the U.S. Supreme Court into addressing the constitutionality of same-sex marriage. By morning, the court story had moved to the top of the Enquirer’s online menu., an ambitious local news site, didn’t have the court story hours after the decision was released. Twelve hours later, I still couldn’t find it on

Business Courier’s Chris Wetterich reported the latest departures from the Enquirer newsroom. Again, they’re older staffers from the print era. If they’re replaced, look for younger, cheaper employees more attuned to the digital world where Gannett is taking scores of dailies. I have no problem with the Gannett/Enquirer vision as a content provider on multiple media: print, Internet, social media, whatever. That makes sense as news media try to reach younger and potentially affluent Millennials who don’t read newspapers.
What I fear, however, is loss of institutional memory and local savvy in service to cost-cutting. Lost are experienced journalists who provide that depth and traditionally act as mentors to newcomers. Howard Wilkinson, long the paper’s go-to reporter for Ohio politics, left earlier. He’s at WVXU, covering politics. Reporter John Erardi won’t be there to explain the Pete Rose scandal when Pete dies or enters the Hall of Fame. And I wonder who’ll cover minority communities - including Hispanics - with passion when Mark Curnutte leaves.

Business Courier’s Chris Wetterich probably is right in anticipating an imminent end to daily Enquirer home deliveries; three days a week is most likely until print dies along with older subscribers. So what happens to the Enquirer printing contract with the Columbus Dispatch? That paper bought new presses to handle its editions as well as the Enquirer. Also, if older Americans have a disproportionate amount of the nation’s wealth, why alienate them from familiar print advertising?
Finally, can costs — people, paper, delivery vehicles — be driven down fast enough for less lucrative online advertising to produce the profits that Gannett demands from publishers and editors?

• It’s Ohio week in Britain’s Economist magazine. There was a raptuous full page on Gov. Kasich’s pragmatic virtues that closes, “The crowded Republican field for the White House in 2016 surely has room for him.” The Economist’s review of campaign ads started and concluded with John Boehner’s GOP primary opponent. J. D. Winteregg’s video ad said “electile dysfunction . . . could be a question of blood flow. Sometimes, when a politician has been in DC too long, it goes to his head and he just can’t seem to get the job done . . . If you have a Boehner lasting longer than 23 years, seek immediate medical attention.”
Winteregg’s video ad got nearly 418,000 views on YouTube, the Economist said, “but Mr. Boehner still clobbered him in the primary. And the ad cost Mr. Winteregg his teaching job at a Christian university. Some people have no sense of humor.”

• Don’t expect local TV stations to join the chorus bemoaning previously unthinkable and corrupting infusions of money into local and state elections. Those biennial millions buy the ads we love to hate. Meanwhile, station owners and managers resist any temptation to spend the money on local reporting that might boost shrinking audiences, ratings and revenue.

• A friend sent me this latest off-the-field personal foul from “Bengals rookie Jeremy Hill scratched onto the scene in Week 9. Will him and mate Giovani Bernard terrorize the Browns?”

• News media are spitting into the wind over an FBI decision to let an agent impersonate an AP reporter. Bureau director James Comey told critics to shove it. "We do use deception at times to catch crooks, but we are acting responsibly and legally.” The deception was part of the bureau’s search for the person who made bomb threats and cyber attacks against a Seattle-area school. The faux AP reporter sent an email to the suspect and it included a tracking device that led agents to him after he opened the agent’s message. Comey said the agent who posed as an online AP reporter "asked if the suspect would be willing to review a draft article about the threats and attacks, to be sure that the anonymous suspect was portrayed fairly . . . No actual story was published, and no one except the suspect interacted with the undercover 'A.P.' employee or saw the fake draft story. Only the suspect was fooled, and it led to his arrest and the end of a frightening period for a high school."
AP’s statements underlined news media impotence in the face of Obama/Holder contempt. AP asked Attorney General Eric Holder to promise that the Justice Department wouldn’t misrepresent itself as the news agency again. They might also have asked Holder if he crossed his fingers behind his back. AP also asked Holder for policies that would prohibit agents from pretending to represent other news organizations. AP said "The FBI may have intended this false story as a trap for only one person. However, the individual could easily have reposted this story to social networks, distributing to thousands of people, under our name, what was essentially a piece of government disinformation."
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press told Comey and Holder that it was an "inexcusable" failure to comply with their own offices' guidelines on impersonation of the news media. "The utilization of news media as a cover for delivery of electronic surveillance software is unacceptable. This practice endangers the media's credibility and creates the appearance that it is not independent of the government," the Reporters Committee said. "It undermines media organizations' ability to independently report on law enforcement. It lends itself to the appearance that media organizations are compelled to speak on behalf of the government.”

• The FAA created a no-fly zone around Ferguson, MO, after a white cop shot and killed a young black man. St. Louis County Police told reporters that they requested the no-fly zone for “safety.’ AP obtained police-FAA recordings under the Freedom of Information Act that showed police didn’t want news helicopters watching their sometimes violent reactions to demonstrations.