I’m Jesse Eisinger, a Senior Reporter for ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative news organization, covering Wall Street and finance.

And I’m Justin Elliott, a reporter for ProPublica, covering politics with a focus on money and influence.

We’ve just published an investigation (along with NPR’s Laura Sullivan) into the Red Cross’ failures to provide basic disaster relief after Hurricanes Isaac and Sandy. Read it here.

Quick look at what we found through internal documents and interviews with Red Cross insiders:

• Emergency relief vehicles were rerouted after Sandy for PR purposes. • Some of the disabled Sandy victims left to sleep in wheelchairs. • Sex offenders sheltered next to children.

These are just a few of the things we found investigating the American Red Cross and its response to Superstorm Sandy. What the charity’s CEO said in public -- calling the response “near flawless” -- and what we found in internal documents couldn’t be more opposite. Today, we’d like to open up the investigation to you all and answer almost anything about the American Red Cross and its “secret disaster.” ASK US ANYTHING.

We’re also still looking for help reporting the story. So, if you have experience with or information about the American Red Cross, including its financial and statistical reporting, you can help us in several ways. SHARE A TIP.


Comments: 68 • Responses: 7  • Date: 

raisedroofbeams6 karma


JEisinger6 karma

It was driven by national headquarters. Check out the "Lessons Learned" doc page 12: https://www.propublica.org/documents/item/1225674-sandy-and-isaac-lessons-learned.html

It lists "Hindrances To Service Delivery" and the first one is... NHQ! National Headquarters.

And under that it says one of the hindrances was "diverting assets for public relation purposes."

This was backed up by multiple interviews, including people on the record. In the Staten Island press conference incident, the Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern made media appearances over multiple hours.

But in some cases, there may have been some attempts to impress higher ups as well, such as the sending of 80 empty trucks around Hattiesburg, Miss.

scw3364 karma

Did you get the sense that there is some kind of fundamental flaw in the idea of a disaster-relief agency or that the Red Cross is just run poorly? As mentioned previously FEMA has been terrible in its past responses as well. Do you believe the preparation and work related to "disaster-relief" may need to be reworked to promote a more locally-based response system so as not to be hampered by the bureaucracy of a large organization?

JEisinger3 karma

That's a good, important question.

Some disaster response experts we spoke to believe that it may be better for disaster response to be more localized. That way the responders can bring their local expertise to bear on the disaster.

FEMA, by and large, is a coordinating agency. And it has been run more effectively under the Obama administration than under the Bush administration. Recall "Heck of a job, Brownie!" after all.

terryparrisjr3 karma

This question comes from Twitter user @dcschrader. He asks:

"How many Red Cross workers did you interview? Did they have positive things to say?"

JustinProPublica6 karma

Our core conclusions were drawn from the Red Cross' own internal assessments that came out of national headquarters in Washington. It was then a careful reporting process to understand the documents (there are a lot of acronyms and jargon in the disaster relief world).

To @dcshrader's question: Jesse, Laura, and I interviewed dozens of people, including many Red Cross officials and volunteers, storm victims, and government officials. It was very difficult to find sources with positive things to say about the Red Cross' responses to Sandy and Isaac. More importantly, multiple sources confirmed and fleshed out the Red Cross' own conclusions from its internal assessments.

By the way, we are still reporting on the Red Cross and anyone with comments, criticism, or tips who would prefer email can reach me directly: [email protected]

terryparrisjr2 karma

@dcschrader has a followup:

"What abt FL Emergency Manager you spoke to for an hour? Y didn't he make story?"

JEisinger0 karma

We spoke to dozens of people, the vast majority of whom didn't make it into the story. The story flowed from the Red Cross documents from Red Cross HQ in Washington.

I did speak to Mike Whitehead, who generously gave of his time. I welcome his thoughts on our story, either to me directly ([email protected]) or through his blog. Mike and I mainly discussed general approaches to disaster response. When I asked him specifically about the Red Cross's efforts during Sandy, he told me "I'm not in the business of criticizing people." He did not, however, then praise the Red Cross's response to Sandy.

slyncka3 karma

What do you think the response will be? With the CEO? With the next disaster?

I remember when starting this investigation you had resistance from the Red Cross. Something about proprietary information or trade secrets.

Was getting this information easier/harder versus a company such as a drug company or retailer?

JEisinger5 karma

Yes, the Red Cross through its law firm Gibson Dunn fought one of Justin's public records requests arguing that having to detail how it spent the Sandy donation money was a "trade secret.".


The reporting on this was an interesting change for me, as someone who typically covers finance, banks and investment banks. Good people wanted to speak to us about the Red Cross because they were concerned and wanted to make it a better organization. They held the Red Cross to high standards (properly).

With banks, people don't expect them to be philanthropic organizations. Uh, to put it mildly.

As for your initial questions, we don't know what the organizational response to our stories will be. They have put out a series of responses to our stories, but they are highly misleading. They haven't cited any specific inaccuracies.

But many people we spoke with said that given the re-organizations, lay-offs and disaffection among workers, reservists and volunteers, they are worried that the Red Cross is not well prepared for the next disaster.

trigunned2 karma

Hi to both of you and thank you for doing this. Great investigation, great work! Thanx for doing that.

I would like to know how you felt during this investigation? And what was your motivation? How did you start invesitgating?

JEisinger1 karma

Our motivation is to shine a light on powerful organizations and people, government, corporate and non-governmental. We hold the powerful accountable -- and the Red Cross is a worthy subject for scrutiny, given Americans trust it with their money almost more than any other non-profit.

We started on this project because we got a tip, sometime in the spring. As it happens, we couldn't confirm that tip and didn't run a story on it. But we did realize in reporting it out that the Red Cross's disclosures were troublingly opaque. So we wrote that small story: http://www.propublica.org/article/long-after-sandy-red-cross-post-storm-spending-still-a-black-box

Justin started making public records requests and wrote several stories about that. As he was doing that excellent reporting, tips started pouring in.

And then we got some of the documents.

After that, it was a matter of confirming the documents, fleshing the story out, finding other sources, running everything we had by the Red Cross for their comments and the context. And writing!

All slow and painstaking, alas. And so unsexy. We need to start meeting sources in garages or something.

BruteSquad441 karma

Why does ProPublica cover some big stories and not others? Like my friend sent you guys a tip about a major pharmaceutical company that was allegedly using a fake advocacy organization in order to get people to participate in their clinical drug trial, and then to keep them in the study. Scary stuff, they set up a fake facebook, twitter, and even Pinterest account. The lack of transparency was entirely unethical, especially considering the drug being tested is controversial.

Kinda a big thing right there, and she didn't even get even get a generic response back. ProPublica definitely lost some credibility in my eyes after that. I would've liked to have seen some investigative journalism with that story. So I'm curious how the reporters at ProPublica decide what stories to pursue, and which ones to look into?

JEisinger2 karma

Friend, we have about 35 people here, and about 20 reporters. Some of us are even busy with other big stories. We gotta pick and choose. And we probably miss good tips.

That does sound like a good one so please re-send to me: [email protected]

As for how we pick our stories, it's basically all instinct. Does it stir the conscience? Is it relevant for the public interest? Can we report it out or would it be impossible? Sometimes we try to ask big questions and try to report specific answers and sometimes we get specific tips and try to confirm and broaden them out to make them relevant to the widest audience possible.

page_mathews0 karma

Hi guys, can you tell us something we don't know about you, and something fun or surprising, like a hiden talent? :)

JEisinger0 karma

Justin's real name is Ignacio and he plays the ukelele in a Yes cover band.