A year after Sandy, Red Cross still dogged by criticism


STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — A year after Superstorm Sandy tore through New York and New Jersey, displacing tens of thousands of people and racking up billions in property damage, the Red Cross is still facing criticism for its relief efforts.

Many storm victims and their elected officials slammed the nation’s leading relief agency just after Sandy’s landfall last Oct. 29 for being too slow to get volunteers and supplies out to the hardest-hit areas. Now, nearly 200 Sandy survivors say the Red Cross is denying funds they were promised last year to help them fix their homes.

The 132-year-old agency had raised $308 million for Sandy relief as of last month, and a spokeswoman says it has spent 90 percent of it so far, most in direct donations to victims and community organizations. While that figure pales in comparison to the more than $60 billion in federal funds approved for Sandy relief, the Red Cross is by far the biggest nongovernment player in relief efforts and is where most people go to donate if they want to help after any disaster. Even President Barack Obama urged people to contribute to the Red Cross to help with Sandy recovery efforts, calling it the "best" option for those who want to help storm victims.

But many of those affected by the storm said the Red Cross took too long to get volunteers, staff and supplies to the hardest hit areas. James Molinaro, president of the Staten Island borough of New York City, flatly said people shouldn’t donate to the agency if they wanted to help survivors. The agency countered that it hadn’t been able to pre-position supplies and other assistance before the storm made landfall since that would have put staff in danger, and Molinaro later praised the Red Cross for its relief work on the island.

Last summer, a different set of complaints surfaced from a watchdog organization called the Disaster Accountability Project. The group filed a complaint in July signed by more than 150 Sandy survivors with the New York attorney general’s office over the Red Cross’ Move-In Assistance Program. The group says victims were told by Red Cross caseworkers that they had qualified to receive up to $10,000 to repair their homes, only to find out later they no longer qualified. The mix-up led to crushing disappointment and added financial hardship for those attempting to put their lives back together, the complaint argues.

A total of 185 people had signed the petition as of mid-October, and Disaster Accountability Project founder Ben Smilowitz says he believes hundreds more were also denied the help after initially being told they qualified. Some who signed the petition, told by Red Cross representatives that a check was in the mail, hired contractors or made other financial decisions before the funding was revoked, Smilowitz said.

A spokeswoman for the attorney general, Melissa Grace, said the office would not comment on the Red Cross complaint, which is still pending. Meanwhile, the Red Cross says that it never changed its requirements for the program, but last summer said that some caseworkers had been misinformed and may have given out the wrong information to applicants.

One such applicant is Denise Rinzivillo, 44, who is currently living in her car after she lost a court case against her landlord, who evicted her from her Staten Island home last month. Rinzivillo was told in April by a Red Cross caseworker that she qualified for up to $10,000 in assistance because the house she was renting appeared infested with mold. Rinzivillo said she needed money for a deposit and first month’s rent to move into a new apartment.

Rinzivillo and her family had stayed in the rented house during Sandy, watching the water rise up to the stairs as if they were in a fishbowl. They continued to live in a few rooms upstairs for months after that, unable to leave and find a new place to rent because Rinzivillo’s husband, a butcher, had lost his job. Rental prices also went up on the island after the storm, making things more difficult still.

“The Red Cross came to my house and interviewed me, and wouldn’t come into the house because they smelled the mold from outside,” Rinzivillo said. “They handed me the paperwork right there and then. They told me I’m entitled to it.”

She filled out the paperwork, but learned later the criteria had changed for the rental assistance. She was told that she had to have stayed at a hotel funded by FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to qualify. Rinzivillo said she felt punished for choosing to stay at her house rather than relying on government assistance.

“I mean it’s ridiculous that they make me go through all this paperwork, running around and getting all this stuff, just to deny me,” she said. “I can’t keep doing it.”

Rinzivillo stayed at a city-funded hotel after she was evicted, and then spent her remaining savings on the hotel room before she ran out of money and moved into her car. She had to send her three dogs to a shelter in Brooklyn, where she’s worried they will be euthanized.

“Thanks to the Red Cross, I’m homeless,” she said.

The agency says it reviewed Rinzivillo's case and let her and her case manager know that she was eligible for assistance if she provided documentation. "To our knowledge, to date, she has not provided that documentation," spokeswoman Anne Marie Borrego said. 

The Red Cross also insists the agency’s eligibility requirements for the Move-In Assistance Program have always been the same: that a person’s primary home had to have been destroyed, and that they had to have been living in a government-provided hotel or received the FEMA maximum grant for their home after the storm.

Borrego said that the program provided $16 million to 3,000 households affected by Sandy. They expect to give out another $5 million in move-in assistance before the program is over.

“We are reviewing the names of those who signed the petition,” Borrego said. “If there were errors made, we’re going to correct them.”

Borrego said that the program’s guidelines are important to prevent people who don’t actually need help from getting aid.

“When folks were texting $10 to Hurricane Sandy victims, they wanted to be sure we were going to spend those dollars wisely,” she said. “A vast majority of those who are applying to us are well-meaning, but we do occasionally find examples of fraud.”

Out of $308 million the Red Cross raised from donations, $280 million has been committed or spent already.

The organization says it learned important lessons from Sandy that it hopes to use to improve next time.

“Responding to disasters in large urban areas provides really unique challenges,” Borrego said. “We need to pre-position more supplies inside urban areas like New York City to ensure they’re more mobile.”

The group is now putting dozens of mobile trailers around the city with bulk relief supplies like blankets, chargers and flashlights so that if another huge storm strikes, those necessities will already be there.

Sandy also drove home to the Red Cross just how extreme certain weather events can be. “We can have a hurricane followed by a snowstorm in a week,” Borrego said. “This is actually something that can happen.”

Update: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that the Red Cross has informed Rinzivillo that she is eligible for assistance and that James Molinaro praised the agency for its relief efforts a year after his initial criticism.