After historic floods drove thousands from their homes this past week, Brandi Lipsey drove from her hometown in Concordia Parish to Ascension Parish with a trailer full of brand new medical supplies.
She arrived at the Lamar Dixon Expo Center, where hundreds of evacuees were being housed. But the shelter, which receives support from the American Red Cross, rejected her haul of wheel chairs, crutches, canes, diabetic supplies and other goods like clothes and water, Lipsey said.
She wasn't allowed to bring her donations inside of the facility, so people in the shelter, many of whom left their homes with only the clothes on their backs, came outside to her trailer where she handed out goods directly.
"The people standing at the door would say, 'No, you're not going in there,'" Lipsey said. "But then there's people inside who are so grateful for the help and asking you to come back with more items."
Lipsey is just one of many volunteers and evacuees who has recently voiced frustration at the policies of the American Red Cross, which is either managing or providing support to many of the regional shelters for evacuees. Lipsey and others say the organization is letting bureaucracy get in the way of common sense by denying offers for hot meals and turning away donations and volunteers that didn't go through their own channels, even when it's desperately needed.
Gov. John Bel Edwards' office acknowledged some of the problems. A spokesman for the office said they were addressing the issues and would reevaluate the state's partnership with the organization in the future.
“We recognize the enormous task the Red Cross undertakes to help, and we are tremendously grateful to the many volunteers who jumped to our aid in the aftermath of this historic flooding. However, the governor has expressed several concerns with the Red Cross’ response to this storm," said Richard Carbo, Edwards' spokesman. "Going forward, the state intends to reevaluate its partnership with the Red Cross to ensure displaced citizens of any future disaster receive the best support possible.”
Nancy Malone, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross, said there's misinformation being spread around, and people are confusing the Red Cross with their partner organizations. She also said there are liabilities to feeding people food that doesn't come from certified vendors, which is why some offers to cook hot meals have been turned away.
But she categorically rejected allegations that the Red Cross has thrown away donations.
"If you came today and said you have 5,000 meals to offer, well, we already had food delivered today, let's find a way to arrange for you to help someone else or come back another day," Malone said. "It has to be about coordination. We are held accountable to state regulations. This food has to come from a certified kitchen."
The Red Cross has served more than 250,000 meals and snacks since their flood response began more than a week ago. They are managing or assisting at 19 shelters that served about 2,900 people Sunday night.
She also said the Red Cross relies on partner organizations to sort donated goods, because they don't have the staffing to do so on site at the shelters.
The shelter at Celtic Media Centre is expected to close by the end of the week once all of t…
But the red tape has still been maddening for many who say that the Red Cross is turning away aid even when help is still needed.
Annie Spell, from Covington, said she was working at the North Park Rec shelter in Denham Springs, where as many as 180 evacuees were staying.
"I had to ask for permission to come clean the toilets," Spell said. "They told me no."
Initially, before the Red Cross got involved, the shelter relied on volunteers and donations from the community. She said when the Red Cross showed up, they rejected food from outside sources, which left a couple instances where people had to miss a meal.
She said one night last week, there was only one Red Cross certified volunteer overseeing the night shift taking care of about 100 people. No other volunteers were allowed to work because they weren't Red Cross approved.
Spell said Monday it appeared as if Red Cross managers were loosening their grip, allowing her to assist with some cleaning and other duties at the shelter and pass out individually wrapped, store bought muffins to evacuees, as long as it was right outside the shelter.
Though church buildings are shattered and members are scattered, for local ministers Sunday …
Spell's concerns about food and volunteers being turned away were echoed across social media in several posts from different people that have been shared thousands of times this week.
Capt. Clay Higgins, a reserve Lafayette city marshal who is running for Congress, posted a video of himself on Facebook saying he had tried to visit with evacuees and pray with them at the Heymann Center in Lafayette and was asked to leave by the Red Cross.
"Red Cross people here are great, but they have Red Cross rules they have to follow," he said in the video. "A man can't walk around the shelter and offer love and prayer for people who have been displaced."
Malone acknowledged that the organization does have a policy intended to be respectful of all faiths, but she said if Higgins had approached managers they would have accommodated him.
While the American Red Cross is one of the most recognizable names in disaster response, it's been under intense scrutiny in recent years for its response to high profile, prolonged crisis situations.
Most recently, after the March floods enveloped much of North Louisiana, ProPublica published a story that quoted parish officials and emergency response leaders who said the Red Cross had been a massive disappointment in providing assistance to their flooded communities.
Richard Gremillion, director of the Calcasieu Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, said in an interview with The Advocate that "there was a general dissatisfaction in the community about how things were handled by the Red Cross."
Gremillion said the Red Cross was slow to open a shelter when it was needed, so local volunteers put one together on their own only to have the Red Cross take it over later.
Asked if he felt the Red Cross helped the community, he said, "Well, that's hard for me to say."
Help is on the way, at least temporarily, for people displaced by floods who are seeking hou…
"I don't know how many people actually received help from them," he said. "If you're going to be in the shelter business you need to be prepared."
Patrick Mulhearn, who runs Celtic Studios, received support from the Red Cross after he opened up his studio to thousands of evacuees last week. He said their help was a welcomed relief.
"You need someone organized who understands the needs of dealing with a mass evacuation, and that's what they do. They're experts in that field," he said.
Mulhearn noted that people are naturally frustrated when they are turned away from helping, but shelters have been inundated and people's uncoordinated efforts can sometimes be more of a draw on resources.
"They have to turn away food that's perishable because we just didn't have capacity for it or it's going to go bad," he said. "No one should get their feelings hurt."