Editorials

Valley fire puts heat on Red Cross

Dave Burns digs into a Red Cross toiletries bag before bedding down on a cot at the Napa County Fairgrounds evacuation center on Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015, in Calistoga. The 50-year resident of Middletown said the fire rolled over his family’s truck and heavy equipment business.
Dave Burns digs into a Red Cross toiletries bag before bedding down on a cot at the Napa County Fairgrounds evacuation center on Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015, in Calistoga. The 50-year resident of Middletown said the fire rolled over his family’s truck and heavy equipment business. Los Angeles Times

There was a time, not so long ago, when Americans knew just what to do when disaster struck: Depend on the American Red Cross. The compassionate would donate money or time, and the victims would turn without a second thought to the venerable nonprofit for food, shelter and clothing.

This still happens, of course. As the Valley and Butte wildfires finally wind down, cementing their status as two of the most destructive blazes in California’s history, the Red Cross is running four shelters in charred Lake and Calaveras counties.

Yet, as after Hurricanes Sandy and Isaac, skepticism is gathering around the Red Cross.

Some residents question the charity’s response, particularly to the Valley fire, calling it slow, unorganized and, at worst, ineffective. On social media, it’s not hard to find photos of donated supplies the Red Cross supposedly rejected, usually accompanied by angry, distrustful rants.

In Napa County, volunteers started their own relief group after the Red Cross turned them away. Their operation, Valley Fire Volunteer Calistoga, mobilized a few hundred people. They set up shop for a week alongside the Red Cross at the Napa County Fairgrounds, and focused on collecting and distributing donations. Volunteer coordinator Viri Agapoff criticized the Red Cross for not having flashlights and first-aid kits.

“I had them on kind of a pedestal because they are a worldwide organization, but it was just really disappointing,” she said. “Everybody was clueless.”

As outrageous as these allegations might seem, they’re not that different from those made about the charity’s response to Sandy and Isaac in a lengthy investigation by ProPublica and NPR.

The backlash has been so fierce that it prompted the Red Cross to put out a statement Thursday defending its response to California wildfires. It characterized what has been said about the nonprofit as “serious misstatements,” adding that it “is important to state the facts as clearly as possible.”

Those facts include that volunteers served more than 76,000 meals and snacks, handed out more than 32,000 relief items, supported more than 10,000 overnight stays in shelters, and provided more than 4,800 health and mental health contacts.

We have no reason to doubt those numbers or the altruism of Red Cross volunteers who have worked tirelessly to help displaced victims of the Valley and Butte fires.

But we would also like more transparency from the Red Cross, as the Government Accountability Office has recommended. Current oversight of the congressionally chartered nonprofit, the GAO found, is a patchwork of accountability relationships that don’t really measure its effectiveness, only its finances and governance.

In response, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., has introduced the Red Cross Sunshine Act, which the Red Cross says isn’t needed.

We beg to differ. Such additional oversight would go a long way toward answering questions about the Red Cross that just won’t go away.

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