When the fire marshal of Humble, Texas, sent a request for the Red Cross to send resources two days after the storm hit, for example, a local emergency management official said the agency was "completely out of resources and [has] almost no road accessibility." And in DeWitt County, where the storm ripped the roof off a hotel, a local emergency management coordinator argued in an email to the organization that "[it] was not there," leaving a school superintendent to run a shelter in an unused district building that eventually sheltered four hundred people with assistance from only two Red Cross volunteers, neither of whom had ever run a shelter before. The organization disagreed with that assessment, arguing that it maintained two shelters in the county — including the one the superintendent established — and recorded nearly sixteen hundred overnight stays.
While the Red Cross is operated as a nonprofit, it has a congressionally mandated role to work with local jurisdictions to provide food and shelter after a disaster. But as many areas prone to natural disasters have become more populated and disasters themselves have become larger and more frequent, the Red Cross has gotten smaller, with budget shortfalls forcing it to close many local chapters and stripping the organization of experienced disaster management personnel. According to tax filings, the number of paid personnel at the organization between 2008 and 2015 fell from 36,000 to just over 21,000 — a drop of roughly 41 percent.
In a statement to ProPublica, the Red Cross said it had provided more than 414,000 overnight shelter stays in Texas and Louisiana after Harvey struck, served almost 3.2 million meals and snacks, provided more than $142 million in financial assistance, and has more than 2,700 disaster workers still on the ground, with an additional 170 expected to join them in the weeks to come.
In a subsequent statement, the Red Cross said that it had responded to ProPublica's questions with nine pages of answers, little of which appeared in the article. "Disasters, by their nature, are chaotic. That means things don't always go as planned. In the early days of our response to Harvey, we couldn't gain access to every impacted community without putting our volunteers at risk. But we did make every effort to be everywhere we could — including loading our volunteers onto Houston City dump trucks to get them to shelters. That's reality in a disaster zone — not failure."
Although some Houston officials argue that the Red Cross worked as hard as any organization to respond to what was an unprecedented storm, others were not as forgiving. "I have not seen a single person in Kingwood or Clear Lake that's a representative of the Red Cross," said Houston city councilman Dave Martin, referring to two of the harder hit areas in the affected region. "You know who opened our shelters? We did. You know who sent water and supplies? We did."