Red Cross answers questions about Harvey aid distribution problems

HOUSTON – The president and CEO of the American Red Cross answered KPRC2's questions Monday about problems the organization had distributing more than $100 million in direct aid to Hurricane Harvey victims in the Houston area.

Gail McGovern talked with Channel 2 Investigates' Mario Diaz from Washington, D.C.

During a nearly 9-minute long interview, she addressed the technical issues plaguing the Red Cross. McGovern also addressed a phone system that victims tell Channel 2 is not providing direction or answers as well as transparency on how donations are being spent and issues with the organization's website.

Below is the full transcript of the interview:

KPRC2's Mario Diaz: Considering the fact that you still had the donation portal on your website to take donations in, but families in dire need of financial assistance were not able to get those funds -- why?

Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern: We brought the website back up. I'm happy to report that we have given $100 million in financial relief to the people who were impacted by Hurricane Harvey. The website is continuing to stay up and we are continuing to process applications. I'm terribly sorry that it was down for six days, but having said that, it's very gratifying that it's back up and we're moving the money quickly. We have never embarked on anything like this before. We've never distributed money this quickly and if I had to do it all over again, I would do it again because we were able to eventually get money in the hands of the people that needed it.


Diaz: Last night I spoke with a 64-year-old man on disability who called the 1-800-Red-Cross number, and he says he kept getting bounced around or was on hold for approximately eight hours. He is not alone. There are others complaining of not getting answers. You are a former executive and vice president at AT&T; in fact, you were in charge of the $26 billion residential business unit. For someone who deeply understands phone service, can you explain why victims of Harvey are not getting help through your phone system?

McGovern: It's simply an issue of volume, and as we're working through these applications and as we're staffing up our phone centers, more and more people are getting through. As I said, $100 million has been given to people that were victims of Hurricane Harvey.

Diaz: On Sept. 12, a full 24 hours into the crashing of your website, you posed with a giant check for $500,000 from Taiwan designated for Harvey relief. But yet on the Red Cross social media pages, I could not find any images of you on the ground helping families in Southeast Texas. How many hours did you spend in Houston during and after Harvey? 

READ: Reasons why Red Cross denied some applicants financial assistance

McGovern: I visited six different shelters in Texas and in Florida. I made two trips to Texas, spent a few days in Florida. I spoke to residents in those shelters. I heard a lot of thank yous. I saw a lot of people getting relief.

Diaz: Houston is not in Florida. How many hours were you here in Houston in the aftermath of Florida?

McGovern: I was there for two days in Houston.

Diaz: By any chance, did you happen to stay at the St. Regis Hotel?

McGovern: No, I did not. If you're implying that our volunteers were staying in expensive hotels, there were two, three, four people in those hotel rooms. We got a wonderful discount and as a result, we were able to house more volunteers. Volunteers are sleeping in tents as I speak. Volunteers are in staff shelters; sleeping together with cots that are right next to each other. Volunteers are working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week.

READ: Red Cross launches new disaster assistance website after crash

Diaz: For the family that's suffering and sees this and says you have volunteers staying at the St. Regis, and it's on your watch, how is this not interpreted as a misappropriation of funds for those families out there?

McGovern: Because we have several volunteers in each room and we got a discount on that hotel. And hotels were difficult to come by. We also have volunteers that are in a military ship off the coast of the Virgin Islands. Our volunteers are oftentimes in areas where they can't even take a shower. Our volunteers are humanitarians. They see a need, they need to fill it, they go right into these places. We brought volunteers to the George R. Brown shelter in Houston in dump trucks; in high-water vehicles. They do whatever it takes to deliver comfort and hope.

Diaz: Are you willing to open up your books and show how every dollar is being spent in Houston?

McGovern: We do that for every disaster. We provide stewardships with where the money is spent. We get the highest ratings from the Better Business Bureau. Yes.

Diaz: Will you provide us with a copy?

McGovern: Yes. We will provide a stewardship report.

READ: Mayor Sylvester Turner has strong words for Red Cross

Diaz: We're going to follow up on that. We appreciate you telling us that we're going to be able to look at your financials, because right now in Washington, D.C., we know that there are two bills calling for transparency from the Red Cross, but you're offering it up to us and saying you're going to provide us with that transparency, so we do appreciate this.

McGovern: The Red Cross is extremely proud of how transparent we are. We get the highest ratings from the Better Business Bureau; the highest ratings from Charity Navigator. In addition, we are audited by KPMG, the U.S. Army Audit Agency, the IRS; the GEO periodically does inspections. We're very proud of how we spend the money. We pride ourselves on keeping our overhead being low. We pride ourselves on being outstanding stewards of our donors' dollars.

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