You probably think of the Red Cross as THE people to call and have arrive at a disaster to help.
Photos of earthquakes appear in your head, and you can see the workers helping people, giving them food, taking care of their injuries and basically being 'first responders".
My whole generation grew up with those images, with the idea that when things are BAD, you want to have the Red Cross arrive fast to help once the ambulances have taken away the seriously injured.
They are the people to call, but all too often, we assume that they are the ONLY people to call, and that the Red Cross can handle, well, everything.
Several years ago a local apartment house went up in flames at 5:30 am. The news was ghastly, every one of the 68 units was gone, and the entire population was standing on the street in their nightclothes. Babies in arms, many of the kids without anything on their feet. Not a toothbrush or a hairbrush or a watch or a set of car keys amongst them.
The call went out on our neighborhood list that the folks needed help, and I just happened to have a car full of donated clothing that was destined for the womens shelter. I decided the people around the corner from me could use it more, knowing that many of them might be thankful for some day wear- even if it was not a perfect fit- to put on while they made calls from the church that had opened to process them. I knew the children would benefit from the warmer sweaters buried in the bags I had, and that the adults could use some of the long sleeved shirts. I had a few pairs of shoes and hoped someone that was barefoot could fit into them, saving their feet until they had time to get things that fit better.
When I drove around the corner and parked at the church, there were hundreds of folks everywhere. 3 fire units cleaning up after putting out the flames, and 3 separate television units reported on the residents. About 200 adults and children, mostly female, were staying inside the church building, waiting in line for food from the kitchen, waiting in line to use the 2 office phones, sitting in halls with whatever they had grabbed in their arms. The upstairs reeked of diapers that were past their prime, as the moms waited for someone to bring fresh diapers for the 20 or so babies and young toddlers that needed them.
Outdoors, the men and the older teens milled about on the grass, talking to reporters, looking for rides to come pick them up, and being interviewed by the fire and police inspectors for information about the fire.
When I pulled up, I parked across the street and went indoors to ask the Red Cross workers where they would like the donated clothing.
I was told, in no uncertain terms, that the Red Cross did NOT accept used items, and would not be responsible for ANY clothing, baby gear, even diapers and that I could NOT bring them on to the church grounds - which were now under the care of the Red Cross.
The parents were watching me, and several followed me outside when they overheard what I had in the car.
I walked out defiantly, crossed the street, and opened the back of the Jeep, tearing at the bags of clothing.
For the next 20 min, parents and kids pawed through that pile of stuff, holding things up to their kids, checking labels for sizes, digging for things that would work for their children.
i stood next to my car, smiled at the folks, gave hugs, and ignored the media as they came over to interview me.
I used my cell phone to call my own neighbors about donations, and made 2 more trips back to that church that morning, bringing 2 strollers, bags of new diapers, formula, and several dozen flip-flops someone happened to have.
Eventually, the crowds thinned down, the day grew warm, and the crisis portion of the situation was over.
The Red Cross folks passed out debit cards for people to go buy new things like toiletries, clothing, etc. Upwards of $500.00 per person in some cases. They also helped with city workers in finding housing and emergency shelter for many of the displaced families who did not have friends or relatives to put them up. Everyone, however, had to find transportation on their own. Several parents with kids made the trek on foot to the city help centers after they opened. By 6pm the boarded up husk of apartments and some overflowing garbage cans were all that were left of our local tragedy.
I was thrilled the Red Cross was there to feed those nice folks. I was happy they could offer funding to help them out. But I was also left irritated that they had refused to even allow me on to the grounds, refused to consider the reality of the state those people were in, and had no back up plan for when clothing and baby supplies are desperately urgently needed NOW, not hours from now.
Turns out, the Red Cross is not about collecting items, distributing items, or needing to clean up the unwanted items afterwards, and they won't be saddled with the donated unwanted items that people all too often flood disaster sites with. They are not equipped with the vehicles to drive in rolling clothing trucks to emergency sites, nor do their volunteers have the power to accept ITEMS donated at the scene. Their training and abilities do not include the collection, distribution, and disposal of used items. Good Will does that- but they don't travel to emergency sites. Red Cross folks CAN accept cash donations on site, instantly. Materials, clothing, etc. they will not handle. Their policy is also to refuse to allow anyone ELSE to bring those items into the areas they control. They do not want to be left responsible for the trash afterwards.
Their web site http://www.redcross.org/
discussing donations is very explicit:
Donate to the Red Cross
A hot meal delivered to victims after a disaster, blood when it is needed most, shelter when there is nowhere else to turn, an emergency message delivered to a member of the Armed Forces from their family -- these are just some of the ways that gifts are put to work through the American Red Cross. Thanks to the generosity of our donors, the American Red Cross is empowering people to perform extraordinary acts in the face of emergencies.
Our supporters have become part of a network of millions of Americans who donate their time, money and blood to the humanitarian work of the Red Cross. We thank them for their gifts and we are privileged to put their compassion into action.
-- Your gift could be matched dollar for dollar! Many companies offer matching gift programs that will double, even triple a donation's value. Check with your company or visit this online directory of matching gift companies to find out if your company will match your contribution to the American Red Cross. If you have questions about your company's matching gift program, please contact your personnel office.
Once you have determined that your company matches donations made to the Red Cross, obtain the appropriate form from your personnel/human resources office and send it with a copy of your gift receipt to the address below:
American Red Cross
PO Box 37295
Washington, DC 20013
Attn: Kim Davis
The American Red Cross Tax Identification Number (also known as Employee Identification Number or EIN) is 53-0196605.
Please be sure to complete the entire donor portion of the form and to include a copy of your gift receipt (if available). If you would like to designate the gift to a specific disaster, please indicate that on the form. If you have questions about your company's matching gift program, please contact your personnel/human resources office.
The American Red Cross helps people in need -- free of charge -- every single day! Your contribution means a great deal to the organization, but even more to the families who rely on the Red Cross to help them through some of the most difficult times of their lives.
With your ongoing support we will keep America strong, through these vital programs--Disaster Relief Services, Family Emergency Services, Domestic Preparedness for Bioterrorism, Critical Lifesaving Services, and 24-hour military assistance.
But the Red Cross is not a government agency, we must rely on the generosity of the American public. With your ongoing support, we will continue to be there providing people in crisis . relief for today and hope for tomorrow.
The American Red Cross is not a government agency and all Red Cross disaster assistance is free thanks to the generosity of people like you. The value of your donation is increased by the fact that the ratio of volunteer Red Cross workers to paid staff is almost 36 to one. Contributions to the American Red Cross, a tax-exempt organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, are deductible for computing income and estate taxes.
That is a HUGE and much needed contribution to disasters and people. THAT is important work, and I don't knock them for it.
I'm just pointing out that they have a huge hole in their logic about dealing with emergencies at the scene.
Last night, the City of San Bruno experienced a major gas pipe explosion that wiped out 38 homes, injured hundreds, and killed at least 4 persons outright. People ran from their burning homes in whatever they were wearing into the cold night air. Losing their purses, their money, their belongings, their cars- their entire lives on fire, with nothing to prove their identity, no way to contact their friends and family, and no way to travel from the site.
Reporters talk about how wonderful it is that the Red Cross is there to take care of folks. Reporters also report that the people who responded last night with clothes and shoes should stop, because the Red Cross cannot handle the huge influx of donations, unless they are CASH.
This is not unusual. The Red Cross is NOT an organization that can help you immediately
when there is a fire or other tragedy. They do not arrive with clothes when you are naked, shoes if you are barefoot, diapers if you have a baby, or ANYTHING you need immediately if it is snowing or cold or dark or wet.
Most Red Cross volunteers for any given area have access to money to buy and provide food- so long as there is a place they can use like a church kitchen or pre-set tent area. They do not have traveling kitchens or set up tents. They are trained organized volunteers that will only be able to work with PRE-EXISTING cooking locations.
What they do have is the access to emergency funding for homeless people. They can pass out DEBIT CARDS that have cash on them for folks to go get clothes themselves. Or shoes. Or baby items.
My questions are simple- How does anyone expect a family that is unable to travel and has no clothing but the nightgown they are in or the pajamas they wear to get on a city bus and go downtown and buy clothes for themselves? WHAT kind of brain trust thinks through homeless people with no purses, no bags, no strollers, being able to take their babies and toddlers and travel to several locations and buy all the things they will need for a short period of time- and then transport them to whatever shelter they are assigned? Who thought through this stupid idea?
The city responders are there first as police and fire. Then comes the inspectors and the debris clean up. County welfare folks do not come out to emergency sites. No one but the Red Cross is usually even allowed in some areas.
So I just want to ask, who is going to put clothes on the naked people, shoes on the barefoot people, coats on the cold people, and provide enough transportation so that folks can get from their emergency to their social worker, their shelter, their clothing stores, or their families elsewhere in town? Who brings in and hauls out the donated clothing to take care of people during those crucial 6 hours between fleeing the disaster and having a plan, some stuff, a place, a change of clothes and a Red Cross debit card to buy things with?
Right now, no one.
My advice is pointedly simple. NEVER get caught without clothing during an emergency. ALWAYS wear shoes when you flee the house. NEVER leave your purse, cell phone, or car keys behind.
And.... if you are near a real disaster, collaborate with neighbors to send in some shoes and clothes and bags for parents to carry the stuff they have in their arms as they leave the scene and head into a very unknown future. Don't rely on the Red Cross to help you (or even allow you inside the emergency lines), don't rely on the shelters to provide. It's a long way to walk between the fire or flood and the housing and donated clothes when you have nothing but your kids and your lives.