Within hours of Superstorm Sandy slamming the East Coast two years ago, Americans opened their wallets to help — donating millions to the first charity that came to mind: the American Red Cross.
President Obama, like most elected officials and celebrities, vouched for the organization, encouraging people to give.
In the months after the disaster, the Red Cross touted its success in delivering food, clothes and shelter to tens of thousands of people left homeless by the storm. Gail McGovern, the Red Cross president and CEO, told NBC News two weeks after the storm: "I think that we are near flawless so far in this operation."
The truth, however, is different.
The venerable charity's track record in dealing with the megastorm is now being challenged by an unusual cadre of critics — its own employees and records.
Multiple internal documents obtained by NPR and ProPublica along with interviews with top Red Cross officials reveal an organization that struggled to meet the basic needs of victims in the first weeks after the storm. The documents and interviews also depict an organization so consumed with public relations that it hindered the charity's ability to provide disaster services.
In an interview, the Red Cross officials stood behind their work overall, especially during Sandy.
"I'm very proud of the services we provided," says Trevor Riggen, a vice president at the Red Cross. "I think the volume of services and the speed at which we provided it speaks to the quality of service of the volunteers and staff on the ground. I think there are details both in the documents you have and other documents you haven't seen that help us learn from our processes."
Riggen says the Red Cross served 17 million meals, provided millions of supplies and housed tens of thousands of people in its shelters. He says the organization would never put public affairs over the needs of clients in that storm or any other.
"I don't believe that's the way our leadership has used resources on the ground or that that was a driving factor in their decisions," he says.
Among NPR and ProPublica's findings:
* The Red Cross national headquarters in Washington "diverted assets for public relations purposes." A former Red Cross official managing the Sandy effort says 40 percent of available trucks were assigned to serve as backdrops for news conferences.
* Distribution of relief was "politically driven instead of [Red Cross] planned."
* Food waste was "excessive," due to factors including inexperienced staff, poor communication and "political pressures."
* In one shelter, "sex offenders were placed in a special area off of dorm, but they weren't there, they were all over, including playing in children's area," according to a confidential "lessons learned" memo from the Red Cross.
* "We didn't have the kind of sophistication needed for this size job," concluded one senior Red Cross official, describing the agency's logistics operations in notes from an after-action report five weeks after the storm. Added another official: "Multiple systems failed."
* Relief organizers were ordered to produce 200,000 additional meals one day — to drive up numbers. They did it at extraordinary cost, even though there was no one to deliver them to and most went to waste.
* "It was just clear to me that they weren't interested in doing mass care; they were interested in the illusion of mass care," says Richard Rieckenberg, who helped lead the Red Cross' response to Sandy and Hurricane Isaac.
* It wasn't just Sandy. When Isaac hit Mississippi and Louisiana earlier in 2012, Rieckenberg says: "We didn't have food in the shelters, we didn't have cots, we didn't have blankets in the shelters, which to me was incredible because we saw this hurricane coming a long way away."
* Also during Isaac, one Red Cross official had 80 trucks drive around empty or largely empty "just to be seen," as one of the drivers recalls.
* "Our experience with the Red Cross is they're a little late to the game," says Police Lt. Matthew Tiedemann, the emergency management coordinator for Bergen County, N.J., who says the Red Cross failed to provide volunteers and resources to open shelters after Sandy. "The reality set in that I was in the sheltering business. It was pretty time-consuming, considering I was putting together cots when I should have been managing an emergency," he says.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It was two years ago today, that Superstorm Sandy ravaged the East Coast. And at the center of the recovery effort was the American Red Cross.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In the month that followed, the Red Cross touted its success in delivering food, clothes and shelter to tens of thousands of people left homeless by that storm. But the charity's track record in dealing with this storm is now being challenged by its own employees and its records.
MONTAGNE: Internal Red Cross documents obtained by NPR and ProPublica are raising questions about how well the organization responded to the disaster and whether it put the appearance of serving victims ahead of actually helping them. NPR's Laura Sullivan reports.
LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Superstorm Sandy leveled homes and killed 147 people. Americans watched from their televisions as hundreds of thousands were left without food, clothes or power. And then those same Americans started to donate - more than $300 million to the American Red Cross.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The Red Cross knows what it's doing when it comes to emergency response.
SULLIVAN: President Obama, like many elected officials and celebrities, vouched for the organization saying it was the best place to give.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
OBAMA: Obviously, you can go on their website. The Red Cross knows what they're doing. They're in close contact with federal, state and local officials. They will make sure that we get the resources to those families as swiftly as possible.
SULLIVAN: Two weeks into the recovery, Gail McGovern, the woman who runs the Red Cross, did an interview with NBC News.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NBC NEWS")
GAIL MCGOVERN: I think that we are near flawless so far in this operation.
SULLIVAN: The truth, however, is different. NPR and ProPublica reviewed hundreds of pages of documents, including internal reviews and emails, and interviewed top, current and former Red Cross officials. They reveal an organization struggling to meet the basic needs of victims and one so consumed with public relations, it hindered the charity's ability to provide disaster services.
Our reporting found incidents where the charity sent as many as 40 percent of its emergency vehicles to press conferences instead of into the field, where it failed to show up as promised to open shelters, allowed sex offenders to hang out in a shelter's play area. In a storm weeks earlier, it even sent empty trucks to drive around to make it appear supplies were being delivered. Richard Rieckenberg was one of the Red Cross's most senior disaster responders. He spent 20 years in the Navy before joining the charity. He saw the Sandy response firsthand.
RICHARD RIECKENBERG: It was just clear to me that they weren't interested in doing mass care. They were interested in the illusion of mass care.
SULLIVAN: In an interview, Red Cross officials disputed those incidents and stood behind their work.
TREVOR RIGGEN: I'm - I'm very proud of the services we provided.
SULLIVAN: Trevor Riggen is vice president of disaster services for the Red Cross.
RIGGEN: I think, you know, the volume of services and the speed at which we provided it, speaks to the quality of service of our volunteers and staff that were on the ground. I think there are details both in the documents you have and in other documents you haven't seen that help us learn how to improve our processes.
SULLIVAN: In one of those documents, disaster relief managers say that during Sandy, the organization had diverted resources for, quote, "public relations purposes," and that the distribution of supplies was, quote, "politically driven" by the demands of elected officials. It also describes a shelter where handicapped victims slept in wheelchairs for days and then there's a shelter with the sex offenders, which were, quote, "all over, including playing in the children's area," after staff failed to follow procedures for separating them. Riggen says the Red Cross takes these allegations seriously and always strives to do better. He points to the 17 million meals they provided, millions of supplies they handed out and tens of thousands of people they sheltered. Still many people on the ground described in interviews a late and often bungled response.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: What do you want? A case - you want a case of water?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah.
SULLIVAN: On a warm fall day in Paramus, New Jersey, police Lieutenant Matthew Tiedemann is in the back of a county parking lot steering a forklift into a metal container. Tiedemann's the emergency management coordinator for Bergen County. He likes to work with a half-smoked cigar hanging from his mouth. He climbs down and walks inside.
MATTHEW TIEDEMANN: This is one of our, what we call, our first-line shelter trailers. This is 200 cots, 200 blankets, tarps, some chairs and tables. This will allow us to set up an entire shelter.
SULLIVAN: There's really only one reason Tiedemann and his team are loading these containers.
TIEDEMANN: Our experience with the Red Cross is they're a little late to the game.
SULLIVAN: Two years ago, Tiedemann and other Bergen County officials met with Red Cross representatives before Sandy hit. The charity agreed to hit open a shelter for the county's residents. Tiedemann says they sounded confident.
TIEDEMANN: We'll be there. We'll have everything you need. You know, you-can-count-on-us kind of thing. And we really harped on that because we had a huge problem during Hurricane Irene, and they promised us that everything was fixed.
SULLIVAN: But less than a week later, Tiedemann says the Red Cross failed again. Only a couple low-level volunteers showed up, and Tiedemann found himself and his staff scrambling to open a shelter and feed thousands. He says the Red Cross never sent anyone to staff the county's emergency response center, like they had promised.
TIEDEMANN: I was just frustrated, as were most people. The reality finally sent in that I was in the sheltering business.
SULLIVAN: What was that like?
TIEDEMANN: It was pretty time-consuming considering that I was putting together cots while I should've been managing an emergency.
SULLIVAN: But it wasn't just Bergen County. According to internal notes from a high-level meeting, the organization failed to fully engage its relief operations across the region until three to five days after the storm passed. When it came to dispatching trucks and supplies, one vice president said bluntly, multiple systems failed.
RIGGEN: You know, each of those comments were made in the context of a broader discussion.
SULLIVAN: The Red Cross's Trevor Riggen.
RIGGEN: As far as system failures, I think, you know, some of that may be systems that were built for smaller events that then were stretched on this disaster.
SULLIVAN: And yet, on the ground, other problems were mounting. In one incident, according to officials who were there, relief organizers were ordered to produce 200,000 additional meals for the next day to drive up numbers. They produced all they could at extraordinary cost, even though there was no one to deliver them to and most went to waste. In another incident, two top disaster officials say they were ordered to send large portions of their emergency response vehicles to press conferences.
RIECKENBERG: Forty percent of them were being used for backdrop.
SULLIVAN: Richard Rieckenberg was one of the officials in charge of the Red Cross's response to the hurricane. Rieckenberg and a current Red Cross official, who spoke to NPR in the condition of anonymity, say they were furious.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We're here to do mass care. That's what we do. And I'm not here to try and sway an election. I'm not here to try and get more money for the Red Cross. I'm not here to - to make sure we've got enough donors. I'm here to do mass care. So you're either going to let me go do mass care, or you're going to let me go home.
SULLIVAN: Another current Red Cross official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, recounted an event where model and Red Cross supporter Heidi Klum tied up a needed truck for almost an entire day. And photographs online show multiple emergency response vehicles, or ERVs, sitting dormant behind press podiums for hours at a time. But the Red Cross's Trevor Riggen denies the vehicles were used that way.
RIGGEN: The number of 40 percent of the ERVs were - were redirected for press events is just simply untrue.
SULLIVAN: So do you know what number is accurate?
RIGGEN: I - I don't know an example where we took vehicles and moved it specifically for a press event away from service delivery.
SULLIVAN: For Richard Rieckenberg, he joined the Red Cross because he wanted to help people when they needed it most. He grew up poor, and he says he wanted to feed people who were hungry, house people who needed a place to stay. But he says it didn't work out that way in Sandy.
RIECKENBERG: We panicked, thinking this is beyond our ability to handle properly. You're going to try and hide the fact that you are afraid that you can't do it. And that really characterized us in Sandy, the Red Cross.
SULLIVAN: Rieckenberg and thousands of volunteers from across the country spent weeks on the ground during the recovery. They gave it their all. But in this storm, Rieckenberg says, it wasn't enough. Laura Sullivan, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.