Emergency managers in Louisiana turned to the Red Cross when record floods swept the state in March, but many say they received little help.
By Sarah Smith
Gina Hunter steps out of her home, which washed onto a levee, to collect water from Red Cross worker Donna McNeil in Plaquemines Parish. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Three months after record floods swept through Louisiana in March, the government officials in charge of disaster response set up a post-mortem with area Red Cross staffers.
The meeting’s purpose: Airing officials’ many complaints with the charity’s performance.
“Basically, during the Miss. River flooding and the recent severe weather events, most of the Parishes who reached out to the American Red Cross were not happy with the assistance they received or did not get some or any assistance that was requested from them,” a parish emergency manager wrote in an email eliciting the specifics of local officials’ experiences.
He compiled their responses into a page of talking points for the June 28 meeting. Among the most common gripes: That there had been so much turnover at the Red Cross that government emergency managers didn’t know who to call for assistance; that Red Cross staffers didn’t call emergency managers back; and that the Red Cross didn’t provide enough shelter support.
“American Red Cross was a HUGE disappointment,” Dawn Williams, the emergency manager for Richland Parish, said in a May 24 email responding to the call-out. “They made commitments that they didn’t keep and then chastised us for rejecting them. Nothing was resolved from our numerous sit-down meetings we had with [the American Red Cross] and their representatives.”
The Red Cross, which was chartered by Congress in 1900, is supposed to provide disaster support alongside government agencies as part of its mission. But the problems during the Red Cross’ Louisiana response are similar to the ones state officials complained of in Mississippi at the same time, and follow a pattern of failures since the charity’s re-organization since 2008, when it cut back both local chapters and staffing.
The Red Cross’ Louisiana stumble came during a record-breaking flood in early March, when four days of non-stop rain damaged 5,000 homes. The White House issued disaster declarations for 37 out of the state’s 64 parishes.
“‘Red Cross’ was a nasty word around here,” said Rob Tibbitts, a Calcasieu Parish pastor. His church is on one of the roads that was designated as an evacuation line.
Williams wrote that the Red Cross had stopped providing Richland Parish with food after six days, apparently because it erroneously concluded the parish’s shelter was closing. The Red Cross did eventually bring supplies to the northern parish — but only after the shelter had closed, Williams said.
One Red Cross staffer told Williams, according to her email, that “they do not do well with these types of disasters. They are more of a house fire type disaster relief agency.”
In response to a list of questions from ProPublica, the Red Cross sent a statement.
“You have asked us to comment on a handful of emails and quotes from four emergency managers and three residents out of the 37 parishes and the 9,000 Louisianans we served regarding a complicated response effort spanning more than half of Louisiana,” said Elizabeth Penniman, the Red Cross vice president of communications, in the emailed statement. “Very simply, these emails and quotes are not representative of the Red Cross response in Louisiana.”
The state actually gave an award to the Louisiana Red Cross disaster program officer Bruce Cuber, praising him as “the one Red Cross person in this state that everyone trusts” and thanking him profusely for his work.
Cuber, according to the emails obtained by ProPublica, served as the main point of contact for state officials when a problem arose.
Still, officials in parishes like Richland came away deeply dissatisfied. Calcasieu Parish, which sits on the southern border between Texas and Louisiana, didn’t fare much better.
“‘Red Cross’ was a nasty word around here,” said Rob Tibbitts, a Calcasieu Parish pastor. His church is on one of the roads that was designated as an evacuation line during the flooding. The nearby Sabine River crested at a record high, sending floodwaters 3.5 miles into each state. Flooding damaged 705 homes in Calcasieu Parish alone.
Tibbitts, who has been pastor of Crossroads Baptist Church for the past 23 years, helped organize religious groups that fed first responders and flood evacuees, making as many as 800 meals a day. A few weeks in, stretched to their limit, Tibbitts asked the non-profit Southern Baptist Disaster Relief to send a mobile kitchen for help with the feeding process.
“They said, ‘We can’t send a kitchen until the Red Cross sends a voucher,’” Tibbitts said. On March 22, after the Red Cross signed a voucher for three days’ worth of food, the mobile kitchen arrived. Tibbitts said it took several days for the issues to be resolved.
Even after that, Tibbitts said, the Red Cross’ support was never certain. Every day, Tibbitts and local officials had to negotiate with the charity to stay. State emergency officials finally had to have a conference call with the Red Cross to resolve the problem, during which they got the charity to guarantee it would continue providing meals in Calcasieu Parish until April 22. The Red Cross’ disaster relief operation director sent a confirmation to the state by email.
The Red Cross, Calcasieu Parish emergency manager Dick Gremillion said, seemed to treat the flood damage — which requires long-term recovery assistance — more like a hurricane.
“If there’s a hurricane, you can tarp the roof,” the longtime emergency manager explained. “With a flood, water gets in the house, gets in everything you own.”
Gremillion called the Red Cross volunteers “good-hearted” people who “show a lack of training.” Over the time he’s worked in emergency management, he’s seen a revolving door of Red Cross staff and steadily worsening capabilities. “They tell you they specialize in running shelters, but they don’t have the people,” he said.
When floodwaters rose rapidly in southeast Louisiana’s St. Tammany Parish, residents who looked to the Red Cross for help found little relief.
Tiffany McGary-Cyprian, a nurse living in St. Tammany with her husband and two of her four children, launched a drive to give away clothing and cleaning supplies, gathering donations in an empty commercial building. She called the Red Cross when more people than she could help gathered, some sleeping in the parking lot.
“That number they give you, it’s a joke,” she said. “I was calling and calling and couldn’t get through to anybody.”
She finally got the cell phone for Mike Kimball, then the disaster response manager for the charity’s Southeast Louisiana chapter.
When McGary-Cyprian asked what supplies the Red Cross could distribute, Kimball told her, “‘We don’t have any drivers,’” McGary-Cyprian said. She and other volunteers drove back and forth to the Red Cross facility to get the supplies themselves.
When she called again to ask what to do with the people still curled up in cars in front of the center, she said Kimball told her, “Whatever you do, don’t send them to the facility.”
The Red Cross did not make Kimball available for comment.
The Red Cross, which was chartered by Congress in 1900, is supposed to provide disaster support alongside government agencies as part of its mission.
Eventually, Red Cross staffers told McGary-Cyprian they’d come to her distribution center and start registering people for assistance the next morning. They showed up to a line of over 60 people and did intake for 20 before declaring the center too hot and leaving, McGary-Cyprian said.
No one came back to register the others, she added. The Red Cross did provide several days of meals and staffers drove down to unload cleaning supplies in the center’s parking lot.
Ellis McClain, a 71-year-old St. Tammany resident, said that her daughter drove her and several other senior citizens up to the Red Cross facility to see what help they could get. The Red Cross helped her replace her medicine, she said, but did not fulfill a promise to replace the cane she lost when her home was flooded.
“We went out over there and we never did get to see the people in the building,” McClain said, sitting in her half-re-built house.
Others from the parish had similar experiences.
“It’s a shame we have such a big Red Cross and can’t even get them to answer our phone calls,” one person wrote in a St. Tammany Facebook group created for flood relief.
“The Red Cross just said they were coming, but they didn’t do anything,” said Starlin Daigrepont, a St. Tammany Parish grandmother who helped make calls on behalf of flood victims to try to get them assistance. “They didn’t do much at all.”
St. Tammany Parish’s emergency manager, Dexter Accardo, said he had no problem with the Red Cross’ response.
At the June 28 meeting, Cuber and the other members of the Red Cross team listened to parish complaints that focused mainly on communication breakdowns and what the Red Cross can and cannot provide. The emergency managers and Red Cross officials planned to follow up offline to resolve the issues.
“We have challenges, we understand that,” Cuber said in the meeting. “We want to move forward and address that as best we can and be transparent as best we can.”