Horrified by the sight of carloads of Lake County residents fleeing for their lives in the first hours of the monstrous Valley wildfire Sept. 12, Calistoga resident Wendy Lopez drove straight to the startup emergency shelter at the Napa County Fairgrounds in town and asked how she could help.
That’s where a volunteer in a Red Cross vest tried to turn her away, she said.
Lopez was among a vocal group of people who said they were rebuffed by Red Cross representatives, who reportedly told people to go home and donate money, in what was the start of a series of alleged problems with the national humanitarian organization at the fairgrounds, local officials and volunteers said.
“We just wanted to help. They tried to shut us down,” Lopez said.
Lopez stayed anyway, joining a corps of local residents who spearheaded an effort to accept donations of clothing and other articles pouring into the fairgrounds for evacuees forced to abandon their homes and possessions. The Calistoga site, which is set to close Thursday, has served as the largest of several temporary shelter locations in the Valley fire, which displaced nearly 20,000 people in the first days and burned more than 1,200 homes. Roughly 3,000 people have been left homeless, authorities said.
Volunteers working apart from Red Cross ended up providing the bulk of services given to evacuees at Napa County Fairgrounds, sorting through heaps of goods and arranging daily meals donated and prepared by local restaurants and other groups.
Of the nearly 1,000 evacuees who stayed at the fairgrounds, only about 25 each day were housed in the Red Cross indoor area set up inside one of the fair buildings, with the bulk staying outside in tents or RVs, Napa County Fair chief executive officer Carlene Moore said.
Complaints included those lodged by rebuffed volunteers, others who said their donations of materials were turned away, and officials who said the organization was not a collaborative partner in the early aid effort. Some evacuees and volunteers said aid services provided by the Red Cross fell short.
Several Red Cross officials working in Lake and Napa counties defended the group’s altruistic efforts and track record for quickly dispatching highly-skilled representatives and volunteers able to direct people in crisis to immediate and longterm services.
“The last thing we want to do is to turn away people who want to help,” said Katie Wilkes, a Red Cross marketing manager from Chicago who arrived in Napa County on Thursday. “This is an issue of miscommunication and confusion. It is common for first responders to get stressed.”
Still, the complaints about the Red Cross spurred a backlash against the disaster-response powerhouse since the start of aid efforts in the Valley fire. A firestorm of criticism grew online as people posted rants and photographs showing piles of rejected supplies intended for victims. People rallied to gather donations for local nonprofits instead and at least one organization removed the Red Cross from its website.
Congressman Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, whose district includes Lake County, has spoken with a Red Cross official to discuss concerns that the group’s actions led to confusion and an inefficient provision of services in the wildfire’s wake.
Lake County Supervisor Rob Brown said he had serious concerns about whether donations made to the Red Cross in response to the Valley fire will ultimately benefit local residents.
“They’re not doing housing, the food and water has been donated, and all the workers here are volunteers,” Brown said. “So I’m curious where the hundreds of thousands of dollars (donated) are going?”
The Red Cross has spent an estimated $3 million helping people affected by wildfires in California so far this year, said Cynthia Shaw, a regional communications director based in San Jose. They’ve had at least 400 volunteers involved in both the Butte and Valley fires, which are being conducted as a joint effort within the organization, she said.
They don’t yet have a tally for how many donations they’ve received specifically earmarked for the Valley fire relief effort, she said. Most donations enter a general fund, and those donors who do indicate a preference for where the money is used generally mail a check, a process that takes longer.
Wilkes, the Red Cross marketing manager, said that the organization encourages monetary donations in place of supplies so that they are prepared before a disaster happens and can launch assistance on a moment’s notice. They do not prepare manpower to handle donations, and their focus is on providing indoor shelter, food and bringing in nurses and therapists.
Wilkes said Red Cross would examine their response to the Valley fire in the course of debrief meetings that routinely follow a disaster. The purpose of those meetings is to make any necessary changes going forward, she said.
In addition to the Calistoga site, the Red Cross is running shelter operations at the Twin Pine Casino outside Middletown, Grace Church in Kelseyville and Clearlake Senior Center in Clearlake. Red Cross volunteers have also been passing out cleanup kits to residents sifting through the remains of neighborhoods, as well as providing replacement prescription medication to fire victims.
Moore, who runs the fairgrounds, said that when she heard that Red Cross representatives were turning away donations, even as evacuees were pouring into the fairgrounds with little more than the clothes on their backs, she asked the Red Cross to stop interfering.
“I said no. We had volunteers who were willing to continue to take it. We made sure that was able happen. This is a community effort by Calistoga and Napa County” Moore said.
A fast-acting engine of relief during disasters across the world, the Red Cross is able to quickly respond to small-scale tragedies like destructive house fires as well as large-scale international crises like the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
On Sept. 12, the day the Valley fire ignited and swept across southern Lake County, Red Cross volunteers in uniform were already at the fairgrounds in Calistoga as evacuees arrived from the fire zone.
But the operation that enables the organization to respond with remarkable speed to bring supplies to those in need appeared to balk in the face of local support, including material donations, local volunteers said. The result left some evacuees feeling the organization fell short of its far reaching mission.
A mother of four, Maria Vasquez, 45, whose apartment in Middletown was destroyed, said that she received inadequate help from the Red Cross when she asked for assistance in caring for one of her daughters, who has significant cognitive and physical disabilities.
On Sept. 12, she and her children stayed in a tent but her disabled daughter did not sleep at all because she could not get comfortable, keeping the whole family awake. Exhausted, Vasquez, a native Spanish speaker, said she asked Lopez, the Calistoga volunteer, for help communicating to a Red Cross volunteer her request to borrow one of their sleeping pads.
“They told me you have to be in the shelter to use a cushion,” Vasquez said. “They said me and my daughter could be in there.”
Unwilling to leave her other children in a tent alone, Vasquez said she declined. Eventually they moved into an RV brought to the fairgrounds by a family from San Francisco for use by evacuees.
The Red Cross is a public-private hybrid that was first chartered in 1900 by Congress and has an designated disaster response role in the United States. The organization is mostly funded by private donations but also receives tens of millions of dollars in government funding. Its headquartered on government property, virtually rent free, in Washington, D.C.
The humanitarian organization has been under fire for some aspects of its responses major events, including Hurricane Sandy and the earthquake in Haiti, prompting an 18-month inquiry by the Government Accountability Office that found the humanitarian agency lacked proper oversight.
Last week, a Mississippi congressman proposed legislation that would establish an avenue for tighter federal oversight of the Red Cross.
For many people wanting to help the Valley fire evacuees, the Red Cross was their first call.
After the Valley fire destroyed his parents Jefferson Street home in Middletown, Israel Galindo, 40, rallied a large group of friends where he lives in Los Angeles to fill 28 cars with donated goods and caravan north.
“When I called the Red Cross, they said they would send them to Sacramento to distribute to all fire locations in California,” Galindo said. “I wanted all the donations I was bringing specifically to Lake County.”
Galindo has remained closely connected to Lake County even though he moved away, with his parents and many relatives still in the area. He’s the reunion coordinator for Middletown High School’s class of 1989. Galindo said that it was important to him that the clothing and supplies be provided to people suffering from the Valley fire’s devastation.
He called the Lions Club in Middletown and, with their blessing, and a nod from a CHP officer who let them into town, he set up a donation center at the Central Park Road clubhouse in Middletown.
“It’s things like that that have soured my opinion of the Red Cross,” Galindo said.
Much of the consternation appears to stem from the lack of referral by Red Cross volunteers to other local organizations that could handle donations and provide services that the Red Cross does not do.
Linda Davis, the Napa- and Marin-based leadership group’s chief executive officer, said that her organization was brought in by Napa County to work with relief helpers four days after the fire, a delay that may have provided some of the confusion.
Davis said that once they got to the fairgrounds early Thursday, she was struck by the stalwart group of local volunteers who stayed despite a clear conflict with the Red Cross representatives.
“We all work together but for some reason people with the Red Cross…there has been incident after incident where there has been miscommunication, turning people away, taking credit for work being done by other groups,” Davis said.
People told stories about the Red Cross demanding the local athletic boosters stop preparing food, but then failing to provide enough lunch for the evacuees, she and others said.
Davis said that they are arranging for about ten truckloads of donated goods to be taken to Lake County as the Calistoga fairgrounds prepares to close Thursday. She said they’ve had nearly 300 volunteers on most days.
“There is so much good going on, it’s unfortunate if one person has a bad experience,” Davis said.
For complete wildfire coverage go to: www.pressdemocrat.com/wildfire
You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jjpressdem.