Brushing off criticism, Red Cross shifts to new phase in Sandy recovery

After pulling in a hefty $188 million in donations to aid victims of Superstorm Sandy, the Red Cross still has some $78 million in the bank even as communities continue to cope with the storm's devastation. The unspent money, raised specifically in response to Sandy, has reignited questions about the Red Cross's initial response to the storm and how it will distribute the remaining funds.

The $78 million may seem like a drop in the bucket compared with what the U.S. government will eventually spend to mitigate the effects of the storm, which displaced tens of thousands of people when it tore through the East Coast in late October. President Barack Obama has asked Congress to approve a $60.4 billion emergency spending bill, which falls far short of the $82 billion in Sandy damage that's been estimated by the governors of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

But criticism of the Red Cross in Sandy's wake continues nonetheless. The 132-year-old agency is still the biggest nongovernment player after any major disaster, and the one to which most people donate if they want to help. Obama himself urged people to contribute to the Red Cross the day after Sandy made landfall Oct. 29, calling it the "best" option for those who want to help storm victims.

But the agency was delayed in reaching many of the hardest-hit areas immediately after the storm, leaving many communities frustrated. Days after Sandy hit, Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro told New Yorkers in a press conference not to donate to the Red Cross if they wanted to help survivors.

"They were in desperate need," Molinaro said. "Their housing was destroyed. They were crying. Where was the Red Cross? Isn't that their function?"

The Red Cross is now doing a "community by community" assessment of the long-term needs of Sandy survivors, according to Anne Marie Borrego, spokeswoman for the agency. As fewer people need the basics of food and shelter, the agency will begin shifting to a new phase in the relief effort, Borrego said, such as operating clinics to help survivors navigate the recovery process, from filing insurance claims to finding child care.

"Typically during these kinds of disasters our No. 1 priority is that immediate response," Borrego said. "We're there doing the sheltering and the feeding, etc. In this case, when we've raised money that will take us beyond that response, we're working with communities to determine unmet needs."

But it's still unclear what else the agency will do with its unspent donations.

In the past, the Red Cross has focused on making sure disaster survivors have access to mental health services, and Borrego said such assistance may also become a focus for the group in the next few months. The Red Cross has also given grants to smaller nonprofits and social service agencies after past disasters, though Borrego said no decision has been made yet on whether to do that this time around. She said the full plan will be released soon.

Borrego said the Red Cross got to New York City, New Jersey and other hard-hit areas as quickly as possible.

"At the end of the day, Sandy was a massive storm," she said. "We couldn't pre-position our people and supplies in the storm's path. That's something that's not going to change."

The agency was also not allowed to set up shelters—one of its primary functions after disasters—in New York City, due to city rules against temporary shelter.

Molinaro has softened his stance against the Red Cross since his initial criticism, saying the agency finally did get to Staten Island in full force. Just a week after the storm, Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern told NBC that the Red Cross' efforts were "near flawless."

But Theresa Mohan, an attorney who has been helping to set up volunteer legal clinics for Sandy survivors with a coalition of nonprofits, said she was disappointed in the Red Cross' efforts in the Rockaway area of New York City, where her mother lives.

Mohan, who serves on the board of a smaller relief organization, said the Red Cross seemed to have a "come to us" approach for handing out its food and supplies, which was problematic because many residents didn't have cars and thus couldn't drive to the Red Cross stations. There was also little communication to residents about where the stations are located.

"Given the amount of money they have and given who they are, it just surprises me," she said.

Mohan suggested the Red Cross spend its remaining money by giving grants to local grass-roots organizations still involved in the cleanup after a vetting process.

One of those was Occupy Sandy, a grass-roots offshoot of the liberal Occupy Wall Street group widely credited with organizing doctors and supplies for the hardest-hit residents.

Steve Stathis, the president of a small nonprofit in Rockaway called Graybeards, said he saw a lot of Red Cross volunteers on the ground after the disaster, but that there had been roadblocks with their getting out supplies.

"Part of the problem was that they were in a location. But since nobody had cars and vehicles it was difficult for them to get to them and to distribute stuff," Stathis said. (The agency does have some mobile food trucks.)

The Red Cross has served 8.4 million meals and snacks to the thousands of people displaced by Sandy, according to Borrego, making the storm the largest U.S. relief effort for the agency in five years.

The agency has attracted controversy for its disaster response in the past. After raising about $1 billion in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Red Cross said it would spend a few hundred million dollars of that on other projects, sparking outrage. The Red Cross was also criticized for its early response to Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005. The agency raised nearly $2.2 billion for that disaster.

In fiscal year 2011, the group spent more than $3.4 billion, with 92 percent of its funds going straight to its programs, not administrative costs. The group Charity Navigator rates the Red Cross three out of four stars, giving the group high marks for transparency but a lower score for its financials. In 2008, the Red Cross depleted its emergency fund and asked Congress for a bailout.

Kathleen McCarthy, a professor specializing in philanthropy at the City University of New York, said the Red Cross should consider investing in local infrastructure so that communities in New York and elsewhere are better prepared when another flood hits. "Whatever organizations were first responders could be given money to bolster their own resources for any future emergencies," McCarthy said.

Whatever the agency decides about its remaining funds, Sandy victims will be picking up the pieces for quite a while longer. "We're at least two years away from getting back to any kind of normalcy," Stathis said of the Rockaway area of Queens.