Santana: Can the Red Cross Handle Disaster Response in OC?

Norberto Santana Jr.

San Juan Trail overlooking the Santa Ana Mountains in the Cleveland National Forest during spring 2016.

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Like many Americans, I was lucky enough this year to enjoy a spring break with my family last week but the rains prompted us to switch beach plans for an often overlooked Southern California jewel, our Cleveland National Forest.

While the imposing peaks and valleys of the Santa Ana Mountains were drenched in rain this past week, heading back out to my old beat grounds (I once covered the Cleveland National Forest for the San Diego Union Tribune from the East County bureau) and reflecting on old wildfire headlines (Cedar Fire 2004, Freeway Complex Fire 2008) reminded me how quickly nature’s mood can turn ugly.

This idyllic playground will turn potentially deadly in the later part of the year when it dries out and wildfires become part of the public threat matrix.

Are we prepared?

Ironically, as I looked over the agenda for today’s county supervisors’ meeting, I saw the annual memorandum of understanding between the county and the American Red Cross on disaster response.

The MOU is up for renewal at today’s supervisors’ meeting on the consent calendar.

That means it’s not likely to get much of a discussion or review.

That’s a shame.

The Red Cross is an agency under significant stress with longtime systemic problems around transparency and disaster relief and a blood business that’s in serious trouble, and some say, dragging down local disaster relief capabilities.

I hope supervisors ask some hard questions today about what happens regarding victim relief funds and local fundraising when there’s a disaster in Orange County?

I hope we hear that we have America’s best Red Cross chapter.

Yet there should be a real clear understanding about what disaster relief provided by a charity offers and what it doesn’t.

What charity efforts can do and what they can’t.

Most importantly, supervisors should publicly consider how much should the county government depend on the Red Cross?

Here’s the dirty secret officials won’t tell you.

Congress gave the Red Cross a fancy disaster relief “charter” back in 1900 but – like total politicians in the end – never provided the funding to actually do that job.

Agency officials and politicians have been dancing around that inconsistency ever since.

While Red Cross officials are very good at fundraising during national and local disasters, they have a mixed record when it comes to actual service delivery to disaster victims.

I ran into exactly that back in 2001 during a wildfire in East County, San Diego where our investigation at the Union-Tribune showed that the Red Cross took in nearly $500,000 in donations but only gave out a little more than $6,000 in direct relief to victims.

San Diego Red Cross leaders tried desperately (and ultimately unsuccessfully) to cover that up. Their efforts exposed the secret nature of the charity and ultimately forced reform in San Diego. When large wildfires struck the region in 2004, the chapter was much better positioned to offer disaster relief as a result of all the questioning.

Now, much has changed since then.

The San Diego Chapter became much better focused on disaster response as a result of press and community engagement. Its ensuing board chairman, Jerry Sanders, went on to become a two-term Mayor of San Diego after fixing the local Red Cross. I moved on to Orange County. And my colleague in the Red Cross investigation at the Union-Tribune, David Washburn, eventually became the editor of Voice of OC.

But it seems not much has changed at the Red Cross.

As a contest judge last year for the national investigative awards for Investigative Reporters and Editors, I was stunned when I read National Public Radio and ProPublica’s investigation into Red Cross disaster response that found serious problems.

Amazingly, the stories read exactly the same as what we reported a decade earlier.

Propublica also recently profiled the agency’s CEO and noted a trend around consolidation of chapters across the country – in some cases affecting service delivery.

In one recent disaster in Northern California, local officials relieved the Red Cross of its command.

In many cases, Red Cross officials aren’t very open when questions get detailed and even fight efforts aimed at transparency on disaster relief.

Overall, Propublica’s outstanding journalistic efforts to shed light on how the Red Cross does business deserves a hard look from anyone, especially a public official, approving a contract with that agency.

Now, looking over the documents for the agenda item on Monday, it wasn’t very clear what the level of preparedness is in Orange County or how county officials coordinate with the Red Cross during disasters other than general language in the MOU.

And the Orange County Red Cross website is pretty much non-existent.

Forget about getting any budgetary data or annual reports online.

About the only thing that’s local is a listing of the board of directors, which includes Donna Boston, who serves as director of Emergency Management at the Sheriff’s Department and is one of the official contacts listed for the MOU.

I couldn’t reach any county supervisors on the issue Monday but was able to reach Tony Briggs, the Red Cross Regional Communications Director, for some quick questions late in the day.

Briggs, who told me he had just returned from a month-stay in flood ravaged Louisiana, confirmed that there’s not much electronic information on the website but he was able to offer some data on Orange County.

Our chapter is part of the Desert to Sea region and is headed up by regional executive Linda Voss. Riverside and San Bernardino Counties each have their own executive director.

The Orange County chapter works with a $6 million annual fundraising budget and employees about 22 fulltime workers, Briggs said.

The chapter has 1,941 volunteers and responded to 91 incidents in FY 2015. That same year, the chapter opened 116 fire cases and helped nearly 400 residents, according to Briggs.

Not bad for a quick response to a reporter on deadline.

But I hope on Tuesday supervisors are able to drill a little deeper and shed more light on what kinds of budgets, staff and volunteers are in place in Orange County for large disasters.

Thoughtful public planning and discussion now, during the soft rains of spring, could really pay off big later during the scorching heat, and potential fires, of summer.

  • LFOldTimer

    It’s not just the Red Cross. It’s our public safety agencies.

    Are our memories so short that we’ve forgotten all about the Freeway Complex Fire?

    The fire departments were absolutely worthless even with the hundreds of millions of dollars we spend on them each year. Hundreds of taxpayer homes burnt to the ground due to public servants failing to do their jobs.

    No doubt these failures will just repeat themselves. Just give it some time. Government rarely learns. Why would they? Government workers aren’t punished for not doing their jobs.