Portlight Strategies and the National Council on Independent Living are considering severing ties with the American Red Cross after a series of missteps during the recent wildfires in California. “We just can’t in good conscience continue to be engaged with them and we have no hope they’re going to make the internal changes necessary to serve our folks,” says Paul Timmons, CEO of Portlight, which specializes in disaster relief for people with disabilities.
“The National Council on Independent Living’s Emergency Preparedness and Response sub-committee has recommended to NCIL’s governing board that it immediately review its partnership with the American Red Cross,” says Christy Dunaway, who chairs the sub-committee. “We have significant concerns regarding the services that were offered, or not offered, by Red Cross to individuals with disabilities in California as well as Red Cross’ unwillingness to meet its commitments as outlined in the Memorandum of Understanding with NCIL in a timely and appropriate manner.”
At the request of the Red Cross, Portlight had sent a staffer to California and found that many shelters had serious accessibility issues, service animals were turned away, and there were concerns that at least two wheelchair users may have been moved from the shelters into institutions. “It was an exercise in teeth-pulling to finally get all the information to understand what was going on,” says Shari Myers, chief operating officer of Portlight Strategies. “We were trying to confirm who these people were, how many of them there were, where did they go and who sent them there.”
The Red Cross volunteer in charge of health services for the wildfire operation, Diane St. Denis, seemed purposefully vague. “If they are in long term care, all their needs are being met,” St. Denis wrote in a Sept. 23 email to L. Vance Taylor, head of the Office of Access and Functional Needs in the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. Yet in the next paragraph she confirmed she did know where they were. “They are currently safe, and they are on my to-do list, but I have other matters that have to take priority.” The email was in a chain initiated by Portlight to verify exactly where the wheelchair users went from the shelter.
Brad Kieserman, vice president of Disaster Operations & Logistics for the Red Cross, says he hopes Portlight and NCIL won’t cut ties with the Red Cross. “I understand very personally why people are frustrated when the American Red Cross isn’t able to provide an excellent experience to people who are in the midst of a disaster,“ he says, admitting mistakes were made in the wildfire response.
But it may be too late. “What happened in California is just the last straw,” says Timmons. “Unless or until the Red Cross meaningfully indicates that they take the expertise of our community seriously, absolutely no one with a disability should ever seek or accept a Red Cross shelter or services as to do so is unsafe.”