Americans have a short and forgiving historical memory. Most can remember last year's Super Bowl champs and World Series winners, but few seem able to remember a $1 billion scandal involving the American Red Cross following 9/11, America's most disastrous terrorist or military attack on its homeland.
The details are brief. The Red Cross responded to 9/11 by opening a few shelters to which no one came; tried to trace missing persons but were pushed aside when the World Trade Center site was dubbed a crime scene and police and FBI took over identification of missing persons; and, served coffee and donuts to rescue workers at the World Trade Center site only to be accused of charging for them. (It later paid Daniel Bouley, New York's star chef, to cook for them after the news about charging for coffee was made public.)
The Red Cross' own 9/11 Liberty Fund indeed shows only $336,000 in US or state government reimbursement for what little it did do as a "first responder," a designation equal to police, fire and emergency medical service personnel.
Jogging your memory a bit -- Red Cross was the flavor of the month following 9/11. Celebrities, corporations and foundations wrote million-dollar checks and performed or sponsored TV and live events ad infinitum; ad campaigns were rewritten as Red Cross appeals; media outlets pushed their name across the airwaves and online. FEMA did not put out a preferred list of agencies helping 9/11 victims, thus precluding groups like Pat Robertson's Operation Blessing and Rev. Larry Jones's Feed The Children from infiltrating legitimate lists of agencies as now being done via the White House's Faith-Based Initiatives Office.
New York's own charities and foundations were given equal space on How To Help lists and Red Cross' $1 billion was just under half of all funds given to help families of 9/11 victims. Those foundations wisely made grants to a host of small community-based programs or directly to victims' families. Red Cross did no such thing...at least not immediately.
After quickly firing Dr. Bernadine Healy as Red Cross CEO under fire from the NY Times and Fox News pit bull Bill O'Reilly, the mostly GOP-infused, Elizabeth Dole-packed Board of Directors asked retired Democratic Sen. George Mitchell to come to the rescue of the agency's rapidly plunging reputation. Mitchell gave orders to Red Cross staff to rid the agency of the 9/11 funds by any means necessary -- which meant $30 million to NY limousine drivers who had lost Wall Street/World Trade Center income; paying utility bills (no matter what their owners' rent and income level was) of many people in SoHo and Tribeca; and, sent many millions off to powerful Red Cross chapters whose own fund-raising had suffered when all funds raised were sent to the Red Cross National Disaster Account. As the Red Cross does not fund non-Red Cross agencies when it has spare change, few New York institutions benefited from its 9/11 funds.
Flash forward to Hurricane Katrina and you find the same unthinking, reflexive, robotic response from Diddy to Spielberg and hundreds of other celebrities, businesses and the unknowing public. Primal fear may be what motivates them but their trust is misplaced.
No one seems to read Red Cross ads with any real subtlety: they do not rescue or medicate people; they do shelter them, feed them and help them relocate via motel/hotel vouchers...all of which is reimbursed via pre-existing contracts as long as there is a state or federal disaster declaration.
They can indeed spend the money they have collected for Katrina -- $750 million as of September 19th -- on people and community institutions in need beyond what they will get back from FEMA and the state governments; but there is no history of them doing so to any significant extent. Local chapters, yes; it's their community's disaster. The national Red Cross, unlikely; they were the ones who did not appear in New Orleans and pulled out their local chapter from its own community.
Read the New York Times of September 20th and this week's Time Magazine for just the opening salvos of what will become yet another American Red Cross "cause celebre."