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As Hurricane Florence barrels across the Carolinas, the American Red Cross is bracing for a major test and trying to avoid failures that have followed other storms.
The relief organization sets up shelters, provides meals and health services when natural disasters strike.
But the Red Cross has faced criticism in recent years for its response during hurricanes.
After Hurricane Harvey struck Texas last year, for example, some residents and public officials complained that the Red Cross failed to deliver basic supplies when they were needed and refused to provide cash assistance it promised to storm victims.
Houston City Councilman Dave Martin in September 2017 urged people to stop donating to the Red Cross and called it the “most inept, unorganized organization I’ve ever experienced,” according to a report from the Dallas Morning News.
“The Red Cross was not prepared,” Martin told the Observer on Thursday. “If I was the mayor of Charlotte, I would be asking them ‘What is your staging plan? Will you have cots, clothing, food?’ We still haven’t seen dollars we were promised.”
Jerri Jameson, communications manager for the American Red Cross Greater Carolinas Region, said officials are confident in their plan to handle Florence.
Across the Carolinas, Jameson said, Red Cross workers and volunteers have set up shelters for evacuees from coastal areas and others who need help.
In Charlotte, fives shelters are running on the campuses of South Mecklenburg, East Mecklenburg, North Mecklenburg, West Mecklenburg and Ardrey Kell high schools. Food is provided and everyone arriving receives a kit with basic toiletries.
“We learn from every experience,” Jameson said. “After Harvey, we had a debrief. ‘What did we get right? What can we do better?’”
But plans have already hit one snag.
A shelter at Olympic High School was shut down Wednesday because the air conditioning didn’t work and there were other mechanical issues, local Red Cross disaster program manager Kristjan Rahe said.
No measuring stick
The Red Cross was chartered by Congress more than 100 years ago and charged with a vital role in disaster relief. While it is funded almost entirely with money from private donations, it is mandated to work with federal and local government emergency agencies to coordinate emergency response.
Each year, the organization helps in more than 70,000 disasters, the vast majority of them fires.
For Hurricane Florence, the Red Cross is relying on more than 1,500 volunteers across the Carolinas, Jameson said.
Trucks are ready to deliver food and after the storm will offer rakes and other supplies needed for cleanup, Jameson said.
But during Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Issac in 2012, the Red Cross failed to deliver basic supplies such as food and batteries, according to a report from ProPublica. In one instance, workers were forced to throw away thousands of meals because the organization could not find the people who needed them, ProPublica found.
A report issued in 2016 by Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley says the Red Cross spent $124 million — or more than 25 percent of $487 million donors gave after the catastrophic 2010 earthquake in Haiti — on administrative or internal costs.
The federal Government Accountability Office has called on Congress to bolster oversight of the Red Cross and measure its performance during disasters.
However, bills proposing major reforms have not been passed into law, said Barbara Bovbjerg, managing director of education, workforce and income security for the GAO.
“There needs to be a strong accountability mechanism,” Bovbjerg said. “It remains to be seen how (the Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency) handle these challenges. We should be able to count on the federal government.”
The Red Cross has said much of the criticism has been unwarranted.
Given the severity of hurricanes like Harvey and now Florence, some mistakes are always likely, officials have said.
“People are always going to poke holes,” said Beth Gazley, a professor of public affairs and philanthropic studies at Indiana University. “Harvey is a unique event. Florence is a unique.”
The Red Cross coordinates with other government agencies, who for some reason have not endured the same critiques, Gazley said.
In Charlotte, 44 people had checked in to Red Cross evacuee shelters as of Thursday afternoon.
Each shelter can accommodate up 150 people.
Several volunteers were working at each shelter, and donations of bottled water, snacks and other supplies were accumulating steadily, they said.
Jameson, the Red Cross regional communication manager, said officials had improved their technology since Hurricane Harvey last year. Mapping software allows them better ability to track their resources and deliver it where it is needed most, Jameson said.
At two Charlotte shelter locations, East Mecklenburg and South Mecklenburg high schools, volunteers said they had more bananas than they knew what to do with.
“Donors biggest question is ‘Is my dollar going to be used well?’” said Sara Nason, a spokeswoman for Charity Navigator, a donor watchdog group. “That’s a question the Red Cross has had to answer more and more…. Are you accomplishing your mission?”