In the wake of the devastating flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey in late August 2017, many began donating to the Red Cross to support their disaster relief efforts. This, in turn, has allowed old rumors that the American Red Cross charges for disaster relief services to resurface — a false claim which we have already analyzed, and which is rooted in the fact that the Red Cross did, at one time, charge WWII soldiers for off-base food and lodging.
Just to make sure their policy regarding disaster assistance has not changed since the last time these claims surfaced, we reached out to the Red Cross to ask if they charged for any disaster relief related services in the wake of Harvey. A media representative assured us that all Red Cross disaster assistance is provided free of charge.
The rumors, this time, seem to have spread most rapidly from a 28 August 2017 post ("Why You Shouldn’t Donate To The Red Cross To Help Hurricane Victims") by Affinity Magazine, which makes the statement that some disaster victims never received money collected by the organization that was ostensibly there to help them:
When the World Trade Center went down back in 2001, the Red Cross this time raised over a billion dollars in donations. Again, victims of the terrorist attack never saw the money. They opened only a few shelters during the attack and no one came to them. They even handed out coffee and donuts for the rescue workers on site, yet charged them for the food and drinks.
The specific claim of charging rescue workers for food and drinks, according to links within the Affinity Magazine post, stems from a 2005 Huffington Post article written by Richard Walden, president of the disaster relief charity Operation USA. In that piece, he states that the Red Cross was accused of that activity — which he told us via e-mail was "widely-known" — but of which we can find no direct evidence:
The Red Cross responded to 9/11 by opening a few shelters to which no one came; tried to trace missing persons but were pushed aside when the World Trade Center site was dubbed a crime scene and police and FBI took over identification of missing persons; and, served coffee and donuts to rescue workers at the World Trade Center site only to be accused of charging for them. (It later paid Daniel Bouley, New York’s star chef, to cook for them after the news about charging for coffee was made public.)
What is certainly true, however, is that the Red Cross has a controversial history with disaster relief, and that it has been the focus of numerous unflattering investigations about the use of the funds raised in these times of crisis. After the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the Red Cross caused major controversy by initially announcing that not all of the funds raised for those relief efforts would go to 9/11 related activities, as reported by the New York Times in 2002:
The agency's first efforts to get aid quickly to people were marked by missteps and delays. The Red Cross's announcement that it intended to withhold some $200 million raised after Sept. 11 for future disasters provoked outrage among victims and donors and angry Congressional hearings. And the agency, under attack, found itself having to name former Senator George J. Mitchell of Maine as special administrator of its Sept. 11 relief program.
Their response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, similarly, raised questions about what the Red Cross does — and is actually able to do — with funds raised in the wake of humanitarian crises and disasters. A ProPublica and NPR investigation released in 2014 alleged widespread failure to meet the needs of both Hurricane Isaac and Sandy, which both occurred in 2012:
The Red Cross botched key elements of its mission after Sandy and Isaac, leaving behind a trail of unmet needs and acrimony, according to an investigation by ProPublica and NPR. The charity’s shortcomings were detailed in confidential reports and internal e-mails, as well as accounts from current and former disaster relief specialists.
What’s more, Red Cross officials at national headquarters in Washington, D.C. compounded the charity’s inability to provide relief by “diverting assets for public relations purposes,” as one internal report puts it. Distribution of relief supplies, the report said, was “politically driven.”
Most infamous, perhaps, was the Red Cross response to the Earthquake in Haiti, which — as ProPublica and NPR also reported — alleged that the Red Cross "Raised Half a Billion Dollars for Haiti and Built Six Homes". Their main problem, as alleged in this report, was that the Red Cross did not know how to handle the massive funds they were given:
Lacking the expertise to mount its own projects, the Red Cross ended up giving much of the money to other groups to do the work. Those groups took out a piece of every dollar to cover overhead and management. Even on the projects done by others, the Red Cross had its own significant expenses — in one case, adding up to a third of the project’s budget.
On 31 August 2017, the Red Cross detailed how it would be spending its funds for Harvey, introducing that documentation with this statement:
The American Red Cross has been truly humbled by the outpouring of public support for those affected by Hurricane Harvey. Working around the clock, the Red Cross is making good use of donations and bringing help where it is needed. Each cot holding a sleeping child, each meal served to a family who is hungry and each blanket a disaster worker wraps around someone wet from the floodwaters is a result of a generous donation. As the storm moves north, flash flood emergencies are in effect throughout the Gulf Coast, and the storm may produce as much as a foot of rain through the end of the week.
Past controversies aside, there is no evidence that the Red Cross is charging Hurricane Harvey victims for disaster relief services and the Red Cross explicitly states it does not charge for these services. As such, we rank this specific claim false.