Count Gov. John Bel Edwards among the many Louisianans who were dissatisfied with how the American Red Cross responded to the record-breaking floods in August.
On Monday, members of his staff had a second meeting with Red Cross officials to address the organization's shortcomings in the days after the flooding that displaced thousands of people from their homes. State officials have asked the Red Cross to lay out a plan detailing how they will respond to "no notice disasters" like the flood in the future.
"I think there is clearly room for improvement," said Shauna Sanford, a spokeswoman for Edwards. "We know the complaints are real and the concerns are real, and the governor takes these complaints to heart."
After the flood, many people told local news outlets and shared stories on social media about volunteers and donations being turned away at Red Cross shelters despite escalating needs. Many complained the shelters appeared to be understaffed. Photographs of meager food rations served by the Red Cross — contrasted against plentiful hot plates served by other good Samaritans — were widely shared and criticized online.
After historic floods drove thousands from their homes this past week, Brandi Lipsey drove f…
Edwards did not attend the Monday meeting because he's in Cuba on a trade mission. But members of his staff, representatives from the Department of Children and Family Services and Red Cross officials participated.
Sanford said the Red Cross plan is to be completed by the end of the year.
She said the plan will address how food is served and how private donations are accepted. It will also address minimum staffing levels and how the Red Cross will take over managing shelters after local governments open them.
"We're hoping that this could be a template that could potentially be used around the nation," Sanford said.
Nancy Malone, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross, called the meeting productive but did not answer questions about potential policy changes to address weaknesses.
"We acknowledged those aspects that went well during the recent floods, but also focused on how we can build better procedures to address our common challenges," she said in an email. "We look forward to building on our strong partnership with the state, as we all continue to serve the needs of people affected by this disaster."
She pointed out that over almost two months, the Red Cross provided 1.3 million meals and snacks as well as 81,000 overnight stays for evacuees, "all at no cost to the state of Louisiana." The Red Cross had received about $25 million in donations designated for Louisiana as of Sept. 29, she said.
In a previous interview, Malone told The Advocate that the Red Cross has to adhere to state regulations, which is why some food could not be used.
Asked if state policies would also be amended, Sanford said "everything is up for discussion."
Frustrations with the Red Cross sparked a series of communications among state officials, according to a report published Monday by the nonprofit investigative journalism newsroom ProPublica, citing emails.
Shortly after The Advocate ran a story about volunteers and donations being turned away from Red Cross-run shelters after the flood, state officials were planning to meet with the Red Cross officials about problems, emails obtained by ProPublica show.
"I need folks to send me any issues, concerns, or questions they may have related to shelter operations before 9 am in the morning," wrote Bruce Parker, a staffer in the Governor's Office. "This is important because it is our only chance to provide meaningful feedback and to get issues addressed."
James Gilmore, director of the Children's Cabinet in the Governor's Office, responded that the organization had been a total disappointment.
"Food. Donations management. Under staffed," he said in an email. "If you really want me to attend, I will. But I'm really OK not attending. Not really interested in telling them how much of a failure they have been. If they want to help, then where are the debit cards and direct cash assistance these people need to replace clothing, help with gas to get to work, buy work uniforms. They failed for 12 days in disaster response. I'm more interested in knowing what are they bringing to the table to make things better in the future."
ProPublica reported that the leader of a local nonprofit, which it didn't name, wrote that people at one shelter had "no food or water for 24 hours over the weekend" and that a "woman gave birth with no medical assistance" at a Red Cross shelter.
The Red Cross doesn't receive regular public funding, but it has a unique federal charter which requires it to "maintain a system of domestic and international relief" coordinated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to its website. The Red Cross also contracts with state and local agencies to provide assistance, as part of its federal charter obligations.