Katrina: Why the Red Cross was banned from New Orleans after the hurricane
This is a message from a New Yorker, written last Saturday, 3 September 2005, and headed "Weird News about the Red Cross":
I’ve been watching the TV news coverage of the horrific situation in New Orleans (and elsewhere) over the last few days, and it suddenly occurred to me last night that not only was there no evidence of the National Guard or any sort of army presence in New Orleans, but that the Red Cross wasn’t in sight. In every disaster like this around the world – and particularly natural disasters – the Red Cross is usually one of the first organizations to be there supplying food, water, blankets, medical aid and immediate relief. But the Red Cross didn’t seem to be at the Superdome, which is where all the evacuees had been officially sent, and where research and rescue operations were taking the people rescued from their homes.
I called up the Red Cross this morning to make a donation, and I asked – before I donated the money – why the Red Cross wasn’t in New Orleans. They told me to call their press office (or some sort of public affairs department), which I did. They told me that Homeland Security was in charge of the entire operation, and that Homeland Security had instructed the Red Cross NOT to go to or give aid to New Orleans. They were told to set up shelters and provide immediate relief in other parts of the state and in the neighboring states. They were told that New Orleans was being evacuated, and that providing relief to evacuees would hamper those evacuation efforts.
I’m fairly horrified by this, and I wonder whether this has been picked up by any press or media. Does Homeland Security have the right to tell the Red Cross NOT to go into disaster zones? There is no evidence that providing food and water and medical aid to those poor souls in the Superdome would have in any way hampered their non-existent evacuation.
Am I paranoid, or is this particularly scary?
No, the writer of that message isn’t being paranoid, and yes, the story is very scary. Amazingly, the American Red Cross website confirms that the Red Cross was indeed barred by the National Guard, the local authorities and the Department of Homeland Security [but now see the footnote below and the first two Comments] from entering New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina:
Hurricane Katrina: Why is the Red Cross not in New Orleans?
Acess to New Orleans is controlled by the National Guard and local authorities and while we are in constant contact with them, we simply cannot enter New Orleans against their orders. The state Homeland Security Department had requested–and continues to request–that the American Red Cross not come back into New Orleans following the hurricane. Our presence would keep people from evacuating and encourage others to come into the city. The Red Cross has been meeting the needs of thousands of New Orleans residents in some 90 shelters throughout the state of Louisiana and elsewhere since before landfall. All told, the Red Cross is today operating 149 shelters for almost 93,000 residents. The Red Cross shares the nation’s anguish over the worsening situation inside the city. We will continue to work under the direction of the military, state and local authorities and to focus all our efforts on our lifesaving mission of feeding and sheltering. The Red Cross does not conduct search and rescue operations. We are an organization of civilian volunteers and cannot get relief aid into any location until the local authorities say it is safe and provide us with security and access. The original plan was to evacuate all the residents of New Orleans to safe places outside the city. With the hurricane bearing down, the city government decided to open a shelter of last resort in the Superdome downtown. We applaud this decision and believe it saved a significant number of lives. As the remaining people are evacuated from New Orleans, the most appropriate role for the Red Cross is to provide a safe place for people to stay and to see that their emergency needs are met. We are fully staffed and equipped to handle these individuals once they are evacuated.
Of course this is not to say that the American Red Cross isn’t doing excellent work elsewhere in the huge area devastated by Katrina. But those responsible for keeping them out of New Orleans, at a time when thousands of people there desperately needed the kind of support that the Red Cross traditionally supplies, must surely sometimes wonder, in the wee small hours of the morning, whether the terrible price, paid by so many desperate, stranded people in the flooded city, of the ban on a Red Cross presence was really justified by the incentive to evacuate (how? to where?) that the ban was apparently intended to provide. Was it really right to starve people into evacuating, which is what it amounts to? Leaving aside the morality of such a policy, was it even necessary? Most of those left stranded in the city seem to have been desperate to get out; receiving Red Cross support until they could do so would hardly have persuaded them to stay.
Another fatal decision that surely merits re-examination when the dust has settled and the flood waters have begun to recede.
Important footnote (9 Sept. 05): Please now see SR’s Comment below and my reply that follows it. SR has helpfully pointed out that it was the Louisiana State Department of Homeland Security, under the authorty of the Louisiana State Governor’s office, not the federal department of the same name, that banned the Red Cross from New Orleans. This of course puts matters in a very different light and the foregoing needs to be read accordingly.
PS: The message quoted above from New York was written by Louise Barder, American citizen and New York resident. Yes, we are by chance related (Louise is my daughter, sister of Owen).