When more than 1,500 people in Raleigh County’s Coal River area were without water for several days, emergency officials turned to the Red Cross for help providing water and transportation.

Only to be denied.

A message left on the cell phone of John Zilinski, the county’s Office of Emergency Management director, from Scott Smith, the Red Cross’ senior disaster program manager in West Virginia, said the situation wasn’t within the scope of the Red Cross’ mission.

When a tornado struck the towns of Westview and Odd in Raleigh County, local emergency officials asked the Red Cross to help feed those impacted. The organization showed up with food provided by The Salvation Army, which quickly ran out. That was when the Red Cross left, leaving local agencies scrambling to find food for scores of people, two people who were on the scene at the time recalled. 

But the Red Cross maintains it delivered food and beverages donated by various chain restaurants and stores to the impacted area.

In the small-knit world of nonprofits and emergency management there are whispers of how the Red Cross continually promises to be there, but when it comes time to help, excuses are made, according to a number of people interviewed. The Register-Herald interviewed several people about what they perceive as a lack of help from one of the county’s largest nonprofits and the most recognized disaster relief organization.

Local not-for-profit leaders asked not to be identified, as one agency head said, “We still have to operate in Raleigh County.” Only Mark Wilson, deputy director of Raleigh County Emergency Services Authority and Office of Emergency Management, would publicly comment about the Red Cross. 

Wilson recalls telling Red Cross officials, “It’s easier to keep track of what you don’t do than what you (actually) do.”

The Red Cross said it had an organizational restructuring last year to better communicate, collaborate and cooperate with partners. An e-mail response to questions about the relationship with local nonprofits and emergency responders read like a public relations textbook on damage control — non-answers and questionable statistics. Thomas Meeks, with the Red Cross in Charleston, accused Wilson of being out to “get” the organization. 

In the written response to questions, the organization’s Marketing and Communications Director Krista Farley Raines referred to the organization’s recent reorganization as a way to “provide more robust and consistent service...” 

Those interviewed have issues with the description of the Red Cross’ services being robust and consistent. They said their relationship with the Red Cross has deteriorated over the last several years, but lately it has been strained. They tell of numerous denials for assistance and difficulties dealing with Red Cross staff.

One nonprofit leader in Raleigh County said when Red Cross representatives visit and talk about improved cooperation, her organization just goes through the process of listening. “We just sit here, shaking our heads and playing nice. We know if we ask for help, it will be denied,” she said.

The stories of the Red Cross’ attitude were numerous. One leader told of the organization trying to take over her facility for an emergency shelter. “They (Red Cross officials) came right in here and said they were going to set up a shelter here,” the leader recalled. The local nonprofit leader and Red Cross officials were not in contact before the organization showed up “demanding” use of the facility, according to the local nonprofit leader.

There were several stories of the Red Cross showing up at emergency sites and telling local nonprofits to leave. Those interviewed said they feel this is an insult to their efforts to assist people in need. Additionally, they said, the Red Cross doesn’t provide the quality of service that many of the local agencies do. 

Two local leaders are still upset at how the Red Cross treated local not-for-profits during a natural disaster last year. Local agencies provided food, shelter and other immediate needs. When the Red Cross showed up, local agencies were informed their services were no longer needed and they should leave. “We were like, NO, we are here for the entire time, as long as the people need our help, we will be here,” said one of the leaders. 

Farley Raines defended the organization’s efforts in Raleigh County. According to Red Cross statistics, it assisted 33 families, including 111 individuals, through the casework process after disasters struck, such as home fires and floods between July 1, 2012, and June 30, 2013. During that same time period in 2013 and 2014, it assisted 55 families, including 185 individuals, in the county. Her response did not offer a breakdown of what type of assistance was offered. Statewide, the Red Cross responded to 1,214 incidents, according to its statistics. 

Fire departments in the county are also seeing less help from the Red Cross, according to officials. At least one VFD now depends on local agencies for assistance when families are in need.

In a telephone interview early this month, Farley Raines said the organization always assists fire victims “whether it be lightning strike or electrical.”

When e-mailed about what some local fire departments were saying, she wrote, “After changes to our organizational structure, the Red Cross sent letters to local fire departments and offices of emergency management providing our contact information and detailed descriptions of help we can provide after house fires.”

Disconnect

“My name is spelled M-A-R-K W-I-L-S-O-N,” said the man with that name, after a half-hour interview about the disconnect between the county’s emergency management office and the Red Cross. “Most will not go on the record, but I am tired of them saying they are going to help and then not.”

Disconnect is not too strong a word for Wilson in describing the relationship between Raleigh County’s Office of Emergency Management and the Red Cross. For the Red Cross, it just might be.

“I can’t answer that,” said Farley Raines, when asked if there is a disconnect between local and Red Cross emergency personnel during a March 2 telephone interview. When asked again in an e-mail a day later, she responded by writing that the organization is “constantly working to improve and maintain our relationship with local emergency responders.” 

Wilson would like to believe her. The organization has done one thing right recently, he said, in hiring David Neal as the organization’s new disaster program manager. Neal, the former director of the Fayette County Office of Emergency Management, has the confidence of Wilson and other southern West Virginia OEM officials. “David is a stand-up guy. We’re going to work with David. If anyone can help, it’s David,” Wilson said.

Neal has some fences to mend, said Wilson. He and other OEM officials have little, if any, faith in the Red Cross and are frustrated with the continued denials of assistance. During a March 2 press conference to discuss area flooding and the water outage in the Coal River area, Wilson and Zilinski said they asked the Red Cross for help, but the request was denied. In the voice-mail left on Zilinski’s telephone, Smith, the organization’s senior disaster program manager for the state, said the Red Cross is unable to help because of technicalities. The two local emergency officials described it as business “as usual” for the Red Cross. 

“They got their guidelines, which gives them an out on almost everything,” said Wilson.

The organization believes the water crisis in the Coal River area wasn’t a man-made or natural disaster. When asked what other types of disaster there are, Meeks, from the Charleston office, did not answer. He said the Red Cross responds when people are affected.

“We take care of people,” he said. An example he gave is if water floods a house, the Red Cross will respond. But if the water is in the street about ready to flood the house, the organization will not respond.

“It’s apples and oranges,” he said, when asked if the water situation in Raleigh County isn’t about people. 

Policies and protocol are set by the organization’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, said Farley Raines. The local and state branches must follow those policies and protocols. Local and state officials make on-the-ground assessments but must follow Washington’s lead when ready to act.

During the telephone interview, she said the Red Cross “has not been asked” about helping during Raleigh County’s water crisis. When told about Smith’s telephone call denying the county assistance, she did not comment.

She later said the organization is in “constant contact” with local officials and the Red Cross “has not been asked” to help with the water situation in Raleigh County.

That was March 2. In response to the March 3 follow-up e-mail she wrote, “After our discussion, the Red Cross Disaster Services has been in communication with the Raleigh County Office of Emergency Management Director John Zilinski.” 

The Register-Herald asked to speak with a Red Cross official in Charleston only to have the request denied.

Wilson said that response is par for the course. “They always got an excuse for why they don’t respond,” he said. “It’s the same old song-and-dance with them — ‘We are going to fix this,’ but it never happens.”

He gave two examples of how little help the Red Cross was during two major natural disasters — October 2012 Superstorm Sandy and the June 2012 derecho. He said the county asked for help, which the Red Cross answered. However, Wilson said, the response wasn’t nearly what was expected from an organization whose motto is: The need is real, the time is now.

“When the boots hit the ground, we’re responsible for 70,000 people and I need people I can count on,” he said. 

Responding to a question specifically asking how the Red Cross helped the citizens of Raleigh County during the derecho, Farley Raines wrote Red Cross records show that more than 200 Red Cross workers served more than 158,000 meals and snacks, opened or supported 30 shelters for more than 1,500 overnight shelter stays, distributed nearly 1,600 essential relief items such as hygiene and cleanup kits, provided more than 1,900 health and mental health consultations and operated and supported cooling centers across the state. She did not state if those are statewide numbers or centralized to Raleigh County.

For Superstorm Sandy data, she only gave statewide data. She wrote the “Red Cross in West Virginia responded” by activating more than 31 response vehicles, emergency communications response vehicles, 11 equipment trailers and mobilized more than 300 staff and volunteers. “Across the state, the Red Cross provided,” she wrote, more than 580 overnight stays in shelters, served more than 116,000 meals and snacks, distributed more than 50,000 relief items and provided nearly 1,500 health and mental health contacts.

The organization’s response is so spotty that the Red Cross is no longer in Raleigh County’s Emergency Operation Plan, Wilson said.

Farley Raines avoided a direct answer when questioned about this. “Each individual county determines what agencies they will include in their county emergency operation plan,” she wrote.

Many interviewed believe the organization’s high turnover rate and its recent operation restructuring have hurt the organization even more. Farley Raines said this was done throughout the country to “meet the growing need for our services while making the best use of donor dollars.”

In West Virginia, seven chapters were consolidated into four. This, she said, saves donor dollars “so we have more resources to spend on people and communities we serve.” She explained the consolidation allows the Red Cross in West Virginia to shift costs associated with delivering service to actually delivering service. There has also been a shift in job descriptions and personnel changes. As a result, she said, there has been an increase in disaster staff. 

Raleigh County is part of the Southeast Chapter, which serves 11 counties and has three full-time staff members. “Our goal is to increase our service — not through the addition of more paid staff — but by adding more volunteer leaders and involving them in more ways,” she wrote in the e-mail response. The West Virginia Chapter of the Red Cross employs 23 staff members and has a $2.4 million budget.

Several calls and an e-mail message to Margaret Ann O’Neal, executive director of the United Way of Southern West Virginia, concerning donations to the Red Cross, went unanswered. According to its 2013 990 tax form, when there were two Red Cross chapters in the region, the United Way donated $28,000 to the nonprofit. 

National Issue

“They are more interested in pulling up their big trucks, being on the TV news asking for a donation and then leaving,” said Wilson, verbalizing bluntly what others interviewed said more diplomatically. 

Wilson’s accusation may have some validity. An investigation by National Public Radio and ProPublica found by reviewing internal Red Cross documents and e-mails that the organization was “diverting assets for public relations purposes” during Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Isaac. 

“In West Virginia, disaster relief resources have not been diverted for public relations” purposes, Farley Raines said.

A look at what is happening in the Washington headquarters may explain what is occurring locally. 

In a recent year, the Red Cross had a $70 million budget deficit. “Fundraising fell short of our target in a year without any huge national disasters,” the Red Cross’ national CEO Gail McGovern wrote in a September 2014 e-mail to the organization’s executives, according to the NPR and ProPublica report. 

After operating many years with a budget deficit, McGovern “executed layoffs and reorganization that closed local chapters and centralized power at national headquarters in Washington,” the reporting found.

Wilson doesn’t care what the excuses are — and there are always excuses, he said. 

The latest salvo between the organization and local emergency service officials came during the Thursday snowstorm this month. Wilson said the Red Cross posted false information on social media and emergency management message boards about shelters in Raleigh County, causing “a lot of confusion to responders, agencies and citizens...” 

“Seems they have no qualms about risking the lives or health of people already in a bad situation, just to gain a little publicity and exposure,” he said. “Typical American Red Cross, if you ask me.”

— E-mail: dtyson@register-herald.com

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