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Congressman to Red Cross: ‘How Do You Get Lost Going to a Disaster Area?’

Rep. Bennie Thompson wants answers about the Red Cross’ performance.

“How do you get lost going to a disaster area, and how do you just leave supplies unattended?” Rep. Bennie Thompson said. (Gabriella Demczuk/Getty Images)

This story was co-published with the Clarion-Ledger.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the ranking member of the congressional committee that oversees the Red Cross, sent a three-page letter to the charity’s CEO on Monday demanding that she explain why the Red Cross struggled to respond to record flooding in Mississippi this spring.

Thompson pressed Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern for details on the impact of its staffing cuts and how it plans to coordinate better with state emergency managers.

His letter referenced a ProPublica story published last week about concerns Mississippi officials expressed about the Red Cross’ lackluster performance. The head of Mississippi’s emergency management agency wrote in an email to his staff that the Red Cross’ help was “marginal at best.” In one instance, two Red Cross volunteers were trying to distribute supplies far away from flooded areas; in another, Red Cross volunteers left goods in a parking lot after feeling uncomfortable in a crowd.

“How do you get lost going to a disaster area, and how do you just leave supplies unattended?” Thompson said to ProPublica. “That’s not the response Congress intends to happen.”

The Red Cross was chartered by Congress in 1900. The charter comes with perks such as free D.C. headquarters and financial support. Last fiscal year, the Red Cross received about $46 million in government grants, according to is financial disclosure report.

Red Cross spokeswoman Suzy DeFrancis declined to comment, saying that she would respond directly to Thompson’s office. Thompson has given the charity until June 13 to do so. Much of the flooding occurred in his district.

“None of these problems were unforeseeable,” Thompson wrote. “I have spent well over a decade trying to work with [the American Red Cross] 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.”

After Mississippi Flooding, Red Cross Stumbles Again

The director of Mississippi’s Emergency Management Agency called the Red Cross’ disaster response “marginal at best.” Read the story.

Help Report on the Red Cross In Your Community

If you have experience with or information about the American Red Cross, you can help us in several ways. Learn more.

The long-serving Mississippi lawmaker has written multiple letters to the charity—several in response to ProPublica reports—asking for answers and improvements. In September 2015, he introduced the American Red Cross Sunshine Act, which would require regular government audits of the nonprofit. Thompson also initiated an 18-month Government Accountability Office investigation of the Red Cross, which McGovern unsuccessfully tried to stop.

Thompson hopes the Red Cross will be receptive this time around rather than, as he says, “being in a defensive posture all the time.”

“We reimburse them handsomely for these disaster declarations,” Thompson told ProPublica. “For the money we put in, we want a first-class response. And we are not there.”

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