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The Red Cross Won’t Save Houston. Texas Residents Are Launching Community Relief Efforts Instead

StoryAugust 30, 2017
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Hurricane Harvey has sparked comparisons to Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans 12 years ago yesterday. The devastating storm killed more than 1,800 people and forced more than 1 million people to evacuate. Both the government and major aid agencies like the Red Cross were widely criticized for failing to respond adequately to the disaster. Instead, local residents took matters into their own hands, launching relief, recovery and mutual aid efforts such as the Common Ground Collective. For more on the Red Cross’s failures and local grassroots relief efforts, we speak with Scott Crow, author and anarchist who helped found the Common Ground Collective in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and Jonathan Katz, director of the Media and Journalism Initiative at Duke University and former Haiti correspondent for the Associated Press. He’s the author of “The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster” and a new article headlined “The Red Cross Won’t Save Houston.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

RENÉE FELTZ: Hurricane Harvey has been sparking comparisons to Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans 12 years ago yesterday. The devastating storm killed more than 1,800 people and forced more than 1 million people to evacuate. Both the government and major aid agencies like the Red Cross were widely criticized for failing to adequately respond to the disaster. Instead, local residents took matters into their own hands, launching relief, recovery and mutual aid efforts, such as the Common Ground Collective.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, as many across the country and world are searching for ways to help Houston residents, we end today’s show by looking at the history of failures of the Red Cross, from New Orleans to Haiti. And we look at successful examples of community-led recovery efforts.

Joining us now from Austin, Texas, Scott Crow, author and anarchist who helped found the Common Ground Collective in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He’s the author of Black Flags and Windmills. His forthcoming book, Setting Sights: Histories and Reflections on Community Armed Self-Defense.

And in Durham, North Carolina, Jonathan Katz is with us, director of the Media and Journalism Initiative at the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke University. He’s the author of The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. His new article for Slate is headlined “The Red Cross Won’t Save Houston.”

Let’s start there. Jonathan, talk about why you believe the Red Cross won’t save Houston. What are your concerns?

JONATHAN KATZ: Hi, Amy. Well, I guess there’s—there’s two big things. One thing is specific to the Red Cross, the American Red Cross. They just have, frankly, a terrible track record when it comes to disaster relief. And part of the problem is that we don’t really know what they’re doing. It’s an incredibly opaque organization. I was trying to get information from them about exactly what they’re up to in the disaster zone in Texas right now, how much money they think they’re going to need, how much money they’ve raised so far, and they just don’t like sharing those details. And that’s very much of a piece with things that we’ve seen in the past with other disasters that make it very hard to evaluate their work.

But the biggest problem is that it’s just part of this narrative of a disaster and then this kind of quick-hit donation response where people think that by giving small and medium sums of money to an organization like the Red Cross, that they’re going to be able to solve a problem like a massive catastrophe, like the one that we’re seeing in Texas right now. And what history also shows us is that it just doesn’t work that way.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, it’s interesting. This week, Facebook made headlines when it decided to steer donations away from the Red Cross to a little-known charity called the Center for Disaster Philanthropy—again, instead of the Red Cross. And ProPublica and NPR launched an ongoing series of investigations into the American Red Cross, one of their articles headlined “How the Red Cross Raised Half a Billion Dollars for Haiti and Built Six Homes.” You were in Haiti, Jonathan Katz. Can you talk about the specifics of projects they’ve been involved with and the lack of accountability?

JONATHAN KATZ: Yeah, there’s a complete lack of accountability. That’s exactly it. I mean, the case of Haiti is—it can be very hard to talk about exactly what the Red Cross did, again, because they’ve been so opaque and not forthcoming with information about what they were actually up to. You know, the Red Cross complained a lot about that investigation, which was a really damning investigation, about the fact that they had raised $488 million and had so little to show for it. But then they couldn’t even turn around and point to the things that they had done.

When the earthquake hit in Haiti back in 2010, they only had three full-time staffers on the ground. And what they did was they swung their whole operation into the direction of what they do really, really well, which is raising enormous amounts of money very, very quickly. And they do that by being incredibly vague and not really telling people who are donating what they’re going to do. And so they’ll use extremely vague terms like “shelter.” They’ll just say, “Well, if you give us money, you know, we’ll help provide shelter for people.” And they weren’t telling the people in the United States who were donating that half-billion dollars that what “shelter” really meant was that they were going to give people tarps, and that when those tarps frayed, they would give people more tarps, and when those tarps frayed, and so on and so on and so on, and that they had no capacity, they had no experience, they had no real ability to build permanent houses. And so, when ProPublica and NPR did that investigation and found that there were only six actual houses that had been built with that half-billion dollars, the Red Cross was upset about the way that headline made them look, but they really couldn’t respond, because doing so would have required actually leveling with the people who had given them money and telling them, “Look, we actually didn’t really ever mean that we were going to build houses, because we just don’t know how to do that.”

And I’m afraid that we’re going to see the same sort of thing happen here in Texas, and possibly Louisiana, where the Red Cross is just saying, “Give us money. We’ll use it to save lives,” but not telling you what they’re actually going to do with it and then not actually creating any kind of results.

AMY GOODMAN: And the American Red Cross’s CEO, Gail McGovern, her background?

JONATHAN KATZ: She came from AT&T. That’s actually one of the big criticisms that the Red Cross has gotten in her leadership, is that, essentially, it’s become a very corporate organization that operates according, basically, to the logic of a lot of corporate America, which is just sort of—

RENÉE FELTZ: And, Jonathan, I want to jump in there—

JONATHAN KATZ: —”Look, give us money. Trust us. We’re not going to tell you what we’re doing, and we’re not going to give you any way to hold us accountable.”

RENÉE FELTZ: Thanks, Jonathan. I want to jump—

JONATHAN KATZ: The American Red Cross’s track record has been phenomenally bad under her. I think that there are probably some people in the organization that are happy with the amounts of money that she’s continued to be able to raise, even under this withering criticism. But they’ve lied to Congress when there have been investigations. They’ve resisted all forms of oversight. And when people like me in the press call them and go and investigate their projects and try to figure out what they’re actually using the money for, where the money is going, they’re incredibly vague about it, and they put up all kinds of roadblocks. And it’s—that’s sort of what—

RENÉE FELTZ: Thank you, Jonathan. I hate to cut you off there, but I want to ask you—I want to bring into the conversation Scott Crow. There is a website, actually, now called NoRedCross.org that lists a lot of different organizations, like the Black Women’s Defense League, SHAPE Community Center and other organizations in Houston that are gathering volunteers and supplies. And my own sister tried to volunteer with the Red Cross and ended up holding back a little bit, because there were several hours of training, a registration process to get involved, and she’s looking at other community opportunities to get involved. So I want to bring into the conversation someone who has a lot of experience with this, and that’s Scott Crow, the author, and helped to found Common Ground in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Scott, in these last few minutes, can you talk about how—you have gone to Houston since the flooding started—briefly, what you saw there in the streets, interesting collaborations between some of the anarchists, who were some of the, let’s say, first responders helping to do relief, and others from the Houston area with their boats, and some of the scenes you saw there, and why there’s a need for decentralized relief post-storms like this.

SCOTT CROW: Well, I think Jonathan and what y’all are doing lays it out really well, about the failures of Red Cross. I mean, it’s a large, giant bureaucratic institution that’s very heavy-handed, right? We understand that it has very uneven distribution of relief, and they have a triage where they focus on economic interests first. And I think that’s really important to know, because they leave out marginalized communities all over—rural communities, prisoners, immigrant communities, undocumented communities. All of these are left out of the equation for the Red Cross, because they want to get business as usual back in. I saw it firsthand after Katrina, where the Red Cross would come in to places that needed medical attention, and try to give them free food, because they have one size fits all.

So, really, what’s happened is that—what we have really seen in modern society is that we need decentralized disaster relief, that smaller groups of people, autonomous communities, can actually be first responders and actually build for the longer term, without larger governments or things like Red Cross. And it’s very important. So, like in Houston just the other day, we saw people of all political persuasions, that might not agree, that might be in the streets arguing with each other around a political campaign, were all there doing the same thing. You had—there was hundreds of boats, from people from rural communities and fishing communities, who were waiting to get in, and you also had anarchists on the ground who were doing distribution of food and water and very limited supplies, while the city was still absolutely flooded.

RENÉE FELTZ: Scott, you were saying some of these people were involved in antifa, the anti-fascist protest, just to clarify and make that interesting connection?

SCOTT CROW: Yeah. So, a lot of people that were demonized in the media the last couple of weeks—anti-fascists, antifa, or antifa, as it’s often called—are the same people who are now on the ground building relief all across Houston and the Gulf Coast in areas that are not even being talked about. There’s multiple distribution centers that are being set up by multiple coalitions of groups—Black Lives Matter, antifa and then radicals of various stripes—and, again, working in conjunction with people that might even be politically opposed to them outside of a disaster area. Disasters reveal the commonalities of humanity more than anything. And since climate change, man-made climate change, is real, and coastal communities are under so much pressure to do this, this is going to become more and more common, and we’re going to need more decentralized disaster relief efforts to happen. And I think we need to think about that as people in our communities to begin to build resilience now for the next disaster, whether it’s economic, political, ecological or war.

RENÉE FELTZ: Scott, we have 10 seconds left. What are your final thoughts on the anniversary of Katrina, moving forward?

SCOTT CROW: It’s sad that we haven’t learned that much, that governments and nonprofits like Red Cross are still heavy-handed and uneven in their responses. But just remember the resilience of grassroots communities to do things, and people to do it block by block and neighborhood by neighborhood in their own communities. That’s how we’re going to do it.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Crow, we want thank you for being with us. And certainly, Common Ground Collective, that you helped co-found in New Orleans, on this anniversary 12 years later of Katrina, it’s important to remember what an important force it became. I want to also thank Jonathan Katz, author and journalist.

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