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Mississippi congressman concerned about "inadequate" Red Cross response to flooding

Rep. Bennie Thompson Source: Twitter Rep. Bennie Thompson Source: Twitter
HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) -

U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson sent a letter to the President and CEO of the American Red Cross expressing his concerns about the non-profit's response to Mississippi's March flooding.

"As Ranking Member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, I have spent well over a decade trying to work with ARC to address the issues that led to its inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina, and I am troubled that despite these efforts, many of the same problems persist in my home State of Mississippi," Thompson wrote. 

Thompson's letter comes after a ProPublica investigation discovered Mississippi Emergency Management Director Lee Smithson told his staff the Red Cross response was "marginal at best."

"Ten years ago, I identified a series of failing that undermined ARC's response to Hurricane Katrina, particularly related to problems with ARC's staffing and inadequate community outreach," Thompson said. "Since then, I have worked hard to help ARC address its shortcomings. I also wrote to ARC - on at least two occasions - to express my concern about changes to its staffing model that I believed could negatively affect its ability to execute disaster response activities. Although well over decade has passed since ARC's botched response to Hurricane Katrina, similar planning and coordination and training problems continue."

Lamar County Emergency Management Director James Smith told ProPublica changes to that staffing model and recent cutbacks have hindered the Red Cross' response.

“The turnover rates have been tremendous here lately,” Smith said. “This is a hotbed of activity, and the responses have been slow.”

Thompson said, "As someone who has continually tried to work with ARC to address internal staffing and diversity challenges that have undermined its disaster response performance, I am concerned some of the problems appear to be getting worse."

Thompson asked the Red Cross to respond to three major concerns by June 13, 2016: 

  • ProPublica indicated that ARC closed several chapters in Mississippi since 2008. How many Mississippi ARC chapters existed in 2008 and how many Mississippi ARC chapters exist today?
  • ProPublica's report indicated that staffing cut backs and high turn-over hindered ARC's response to the recent flooding in Mississippi. Please provide ARC's Mississippi staffing levels in 2008 and today, including position titles and where the employees are based.
  • ProPublica identified lingering communications challenges as a factor undermining ARC's ability to carry out  its disaster relief mission in Mississippi. What is your plan to improve communication and coordination between ARC staff and emergency managers in Mississippi?

The American Red Cross sent WDAM 7 News this statement Thursday:

“All disasters, by their nature, present challenges, but the American Red Cross once again accomplished our mission this past spring in Mississippi and served thousands of people who needed our help. Following the devastating floods in Mississippi, we provided nearly 15,000 meals and snacks, more than 17,000 relief items and opened more than 3,000 cases for individuals and families that were in need of recovery services. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of our workforce, primarily made up of volunteers, we met the needs of the people of Mississippi and we are proud of our performance.

We are a charity, not a government agency, but we are committed to working closely with local, state and federal officials to get the job done. Red Cross and Emergency Management officials do confer and coordinate every day, but we may not always follow a pre-determined plan; Red Cross workers meet the need where we find it. We empower local teams to make decisions and frequently they must make difficult decisions in the heat of the moment with whatever information is available.

It is not surprising that ProPublica, in its ongoing attempts to discredit the work of the Red Cross, buried what should have been the lead of the story: Mississippi Emergency Management Director Lee Smithson “praised the charity’s work and said he couldn’t do his job in emergency management without it.”

Thompson said he has committed to helping the Red Cross address its problems so future disaster response is improved.

"I do not question the important role ARC plays in helping communities respond to a disaster, nor do (I) question the passion and dedication of the thousands of local ARC volunteers spread across the country," he said. "That is why I was disturbed when ARC dismissed as hyperbole the complaints about its performance during the Mississippi flooding response. The time has come to chart a new course and address head on the challenges that have historically plagued the organization."

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