The American Red Cross, a name synonymous with disaster aid and help for those dealing with natural disasters and catastrophes is, post-Katrina now marred with another feeling by the public. It’s lack of trustworthiness and transparency. When we should all be patting ourselves on the back for financially helping all of neighbors along the Southern states we have to now consider whether or not the dollars will make it to their recipients in need.
Unfortunately, in the last decade or so the organization, which is a congressionally chartered instrumentality of the U.S. government, has a history of failing to accurately account for its spending or respond to requests for information. But we all feel that with a little more trustworthiness and transparency they can easily regain the trust of the people.
So how much of the aid given specifically for the Harvey disaster in Houston and other parts of Texas and Louisiana actually gets to those people in those areas? Well according to The Red Cross’ vice president of disaster operations, Brad Kieserman, He could not exactly tell National Public Radio last week what portion of its donations go to Hurricane Harvey disaster relief. And unfortunately the CEO of the Red Cross Gail McGovern didn’t help to calm anyone’s nerves about the “controversy”. She has repeatedly refused to give interviews to NPR in recent years. NPR has stated that is attempting to allow The Red Cross to essentially clear up its name and explain how the funds are allocated when they are promised to certain regions, people or disasters. No comment from McGovern.
The Red Cross wasn’t completely silent however. They know that any response even if it’s not exactly what the public wants to hear is better than no response at all. And in their defense they have many moving pieces in the organization and are trying to do the impossible in what are literally disaster areas. In a statement provided to the Register, the American Red Cross said it segregates donations for Harvey so it goes to the communities affected. “We work to keep our management, general and fundraising expenses low so that on average 91 cents of every dollar the Red Cross spends goes to our programs and services,” it said.
The lack of transparency has gotten so bad in recent years and the American Red Cross takes in so much money that Senator Chuck Grassley from Louisiana has co-sponsored the “American Red Cross Transparency Act” to essentially force the charitable organization to open the books. He called on the Red Cross to, “spend donations given for Hurricane Harvey relief wisely and transparently”. And so far The Red Cross does not show any signs of being opposed to this measure as they are trying to update their procedures to be as transparent as they can while helping millions of affected people across the globe.
At the state level the transparency of spending on Harvey relief isn’t unfortunately much better. And not only could the lack of transparency in Texas hinder synergies between groups, encourage fraud and squander an opportunity not only to rebuild after one of the country’s costliest natural disasters, but also to mitigate the risks of the next monster storm.
The state of Texas alone has received more that $11 billion dollars. And unlike money that goes directly through federal agencies that maintain public and frequently updated books and databases of their spending the state of Texas does not keep such records. This seems like a recipe for disaster instead of helping with the Harvey disaster.
So how does the state of Texas spend money differently versus spending and record keeping at the federal level? Well, first it’s much harder to track federal money being distributed through the state and so far $500 million in funds have washed through the state. Most of it has gone to reimburse state agencies and local jurisdictions for debris removal, power restoration and emergency infrastructure repairs. But how the money has been spent is unclear. And for we the people. Or rather we the taxpayers, this is a significant problem.
Governor Abbot can created a commission to help the hardest hit counties to get reimbursed by FEMA but if the commission isn’t tracking the funds, and they’re not, then what is the commission go for? Apparently FEMA puts the responsibility for tracking the funds being spent on local authorities in case of a federal audit. The commission spokesperson Laylan Copelin didn’t inject a vote of confidence much further when she said, “We’re on the service end of things, we’re not really in the money trail.”
The U.S. government doesn’t require states to provide a detailed accounting for disaster relief. But that could change under legislation awaiting a vote in the House. The bill, the Disaster Recovery and Reform Act, aims to streamline data on the acquisition and administration of federal funds. And before hurricane season next year Congress should lobby to get some accountability in place or people will be much less likely to give donations and taxes if no one has any idea where the money went.
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