Red Cross Says It's Spending 'Wisely Rather Than Quickly'

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP)While President Barack Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced the Jersey Shore was “open for business” Tuesday, some residents said they are still in sad shape seven months after Hurricane Sandy – and would like the American Red Cross to step up.

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The complaints followed revelations that more than a third of the $303 million it raised in the aftermath of Sandy by the Red Cross remains unspent.

In hard-hit Sea Bright, where every business was wiped out, some still remained shuttered all these months later. Likewise, many homes remained uninhabitable.

“I think you’ll probably find people in this town — they’ll have to walk away from their properties,” Sea Bright Councilman C. Read Murphy told CBS 2’s Alice Gainer. “They just won’t be able to afford to rebuild.”

Murphy, who also works as the Office of Emergency Management coordinator, is in temporary housing himself. He said while the area has made great strides in rebuilding, additional money would go a long way.

Residents in other hard hit shore towns agreed.

“We still need help,” said Pam Ferguson of Neptune. “There’s still a lot of damage done to the area and we need this area to be lifted up.”

“There’s still a lot of people who are homeless and displaced, and going through a lot of trouble and heartache,” added Ken Napalo of Brick Town.

The American Red Cross raised $303 million to help the victims of the storm. To date, the agency has only spent about $192 million — just under two thirds of the total.

Some disaster relief experts say that’s smart planning. But others question whether the Red Cross, an organization best known for rushing into disasters to distribute food and get people into shelter, should have acted with more urgency in the weeks after the storm and left long-haul recovery tasks to someone else.

“There were not enough services and people were struggling more than they needed to struggle, considering all the resources that had been donated,” Ben Smilowitz with the nonprofit Disaster Accountability Project told WCBS 880’s Peter Haskell. “The Red Cross brands itself as an organization that provides mass care or immediate relief.”

“The Red Cross has never been a recovery operation. Their responsibility has always been mass care,” Smilowitz added. “Stick with what you’re good at.”

Sandra Miniutti with Charity Navigator agreed that the money should have been spent sooner, but added that the Red Cross deserves some leeway.

“They’re more known for providing short-term relief, they’re not necessarily in the business to provide long-term relief,” she told Haskell, adding “you don’t want charities rushing in and spending all the money immediately and then finding out it could’ve been done better.”

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The Red Cross said despite what it looks like, it is not waiting to spend the money.

“As we have seen with other disasters, recovery is a marathon, not a sprint,” the Red Cross said in a statement. “Our Katrina recovery work lasted for five years, our work in Haiti is now entering its third year and we are still helping people in Joplin, Missouri, two years after that 2011 tornado.”

Added Josh Lockwood, CEO of the Red Cross Greater New York Region: “We are waiting to see where the greatest need is going to be over time. We are more concerned with spending our resources wisely rather than quickly.”

Red Cross officials pledged that all the money in its Sandy fund will eventually be spent on the storm recovery and not diverted to other disasters or used to support general Red Cross operations.

Over the next few months, the Red Cross expects to spend as much as $27 million of its remaining Sandy donations on a program providing “move-in assistance” grants of up to $10,000 to families displaced by the storm. About 2,000 households have been assisted by the program so far, with an additional 4,000 waiting for an eligibility determination.

Part of the delay in spending, officials said, is to wait to see how the hardest-hit states allocate a $60 billion pot of federal relief and address gaps in the government aid package.

The Red Cross said it is planning substantial grants to other nonprofit groups doing Sandy recovery work and is doing much of its current work in conjunction with charitable partners with local ties.

Red Cross volunteers working in conjunction with the organizing group New York Cares are going out several days a week to muck and clean flooded homes and remove mold. Red Cross staff and caseworkers have been holding “unmet needs roundtables” in hard-hit communities, trying to identify victims not covered by traditional aid programs.

Red Cross officials said they have the ability to meet both long-term and short-term needs, noting the organization has served 17 million meals and snacks, distributed 7 million relief items, mobilized 17,000 workers and volunteers, and provided 81,000 overnight stays.

Meanwhile, their complaints notwithstanding, many Jersey Shore residents were happy to see Obama and Christie expressing hope Tuesday.

“You are stronger than the storm,” Obama said. “After all you’ve dealt with, after all you’ve been through, the Jersey Shore is back and it is open for business.”

It was Obama’s second trip to the shore since the storm, and many local leaders said it was a good opportunity to remind him of the help they still need.

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