Katrina: Why the Red Cross was banned from New Orleans after the hurricane

This is a message from a New Yorker, written last Saturday, 3 September 2005, and headed "Weird News about the Red Cross":

I’ve been watching the TV news coverage of the horrific situation in New Orleans (and elsewhere) over the last few days, and it suddenly occurred to me last night that not only was there no evidence of the National Guard or any sort of army presence in New Orleans, but that the Red Cross wasn’t in sight. In every disaster like this around the world – and particularly natural disasters – the Red Cross is usually one of the first organizations to be there supplying food, water, blankets, medical aid and immediate relief. But the Red Cross didn’t seem to be at the Superdome, which is where all the evacuees had been officially sent, and where research and rescue operations were taking the people rescued from their homes.

I called up the Red Cross this morning to make a donation, and I asked – before I donated the money – why the Red Cross wasn’t in New Orleans. They told me to call their press office (or some sort of public affairs department), which I did. They told me that Homeland Security was in charge of the entire operation, and that Homeland Security had instructed the Red Cross NOT to go to or give aid to New Orleans. They were told to set up shelters and provide immediate relief in other parts of the state and in the neighboring states. They were told that New Orleans was being evacuated, and that providing relief to evacuees would hamper those evacuation efforts.

I’m fairly horrified by this, and I wonder whether this has been picked up by any press or media. Does Homeland Security have the right to tell the Red Cross NOT to go into disaster zones? There is no evidence that providing food and water and medical aid to those poor souls in the Superdome would have in any way hampered their non-existent evacuation.

Am I paranoid, or is this particularly scary?

No, the writer of that message isn’t being paranoid, and yes, the story is very scary.  Amazingly, the American Red Cross website confirms that the Red Cross was indeed barred by the National Guard, the local authorities and the Department of Homeland Security [but now see the footnote below and the first two Comments] from entering New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina:

Hurricane Katrina: Why is the Red Cross not in New Orleans?

  • Acess to New Orleans is controlled by the National Guard and local authorities and while we are in constant contact with them, we simply cannot enter New Orleans against their orders.
  • The state Homeland Security Department had requested–and continues to request–that the American Red Cross not come back into New Orleans following the hurricane. Our presence would keep people from evacuating and encourage others to come into the city.
  • The Red Cross has been meeting the needs of thousands of New Orleans residents in some 90 shelters throughout the state of Louisiana and elsewhere since before landfall. All told, the Red Cross is today operating 149 shelters for almost 93,000 residents.
  • The Red Cross shares the nation’s anguish over the worsening situation inside the city. We will continue to work under the direction of the military, state and local authorities and to focus all our efforts on our lifesaving mission of feeding and sheltering.
  • The Red Cross does not conduct search and rescue operations. We are an organization of civilian volunteers and cannot get relief aid into any location until the local authorities say it is safe and provide us with security and access.
  • The original plan was to evacuate all the residents of New Orleans to safe places outside the city. With the hurricane bearing down, the city government decided to open a shelter of last resort in the Superdome downtown. We applaud this decision and believe it saved a significant number of lives.
  • As the remaining people are evacuated from New Orleans, the most appropriate role for the Red Cross is to provide a safe place for people to stay and to see that their emergency needs are met. We are fully staffed and equipped to handle these individuals once they are evacuated.
  • Of course this is not to say that the American Red Cross isn’t doing excellent work elsewhere in the huge area devastated by Katrina.  But those responsible for keeping them out of New Orleans, at a time when thousands of people there desperately needed the kind of support that the Red Cross traditionally supplies, must surely sometimes wonder, in the wee small hours of the morning, whether the terrible price, paid by so many desperate, stranded people in the flooded city, of the ban on a Red Cross presence was really justified by the incentive to evacuate (how?  to where?) that the ban was apparently intended to provide.  Was it really right to starve people into evacuating, which is what it amounts to?  Leaving aside the morality of such a policy, was it even necessary?  Most of those left stranded in the city seem to have been desperate to get out;  receiving Red Cross support until they could do so would hardly have persuaded them to stay.

    Another fatal decision that surely merits re-examination when the dust has settled and the flood waters have begun to recede.

    Important footnote (9 Sept. 05)Please now see SR’s Comment below and my reply that follows it.  SR has helpfully pointed out that it was the Louisiana State Department of Homeland Security, under the authorty of the Louisiana State Governor’s office, not the federal department of the same name, that banned the Red Cross from New Orleans.  This of course puts matters in a very different light and the foregoing needs to be read accordingly.


    PS:  The message quoted above from New York was written by Louise Barder, American citizen and New York resident.  Yes, we are by chance related (Louise is my daughter, sister of Owen).   

    2 Responses

    1. SR says:

      Please look at what the Red Cross stated:

      The state Homeland Security Department had requested–and continues to request–that the Red Cross not come back into New Orleans following the hurricane. Its presence would keep people from evacuating and encourage others to come into the city.

      There is a difference between the Federal Homeland Security Dept and the State Homeland Security Dept. This needs to be verified but your answer makes it seem as though the federal government stopped the Red Cross when it was the STATE Homeland Security Dept.

    2. Brian says:


      I’m extremely grateful for that correction, which I agree puts the ban on the US Red Cross working in New Orleans in a very different light. I had assumed, wrongly as it seems to turn out, that ‘State Department of Homeland Security’ simply meant the Louisiana office of the Federal Department. But if the Rush Limbaugh Show and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News are anything to go by (?), it was actually a Louisiana State agency responsible to and presumably controlled by the State Governor’s office:

      It’s about 6:20 last night Eastern Time, and a Q&A going about why was there no food and why was there no water delivered for all those days to the Superdome? I mean, we saw people for three or four days standing outside clamoring, where was the water? Here’s the first thing Major Garrett said.

      MAJOR GARRETT (Fox News correspondent): The Red Cross was ready, just got off the phone with one of their officials. They had a vanguard, Brit, of trucks with water, food, hygiene equipment, all sorts of things ready to go, where? To the Superdome and the convention center. Why weren’t they there? The Louisiana Department of Homeland Security told them they could not go.

      RUSH: A-ha. There has to be an answer to this and there it is. There was plenty of water, there was plenty of food and it was on the pallets and it was ready to be delivered, and the Red Cross was told no, you can’t go there by the Louisiana Department of Homeland Security. So Brit Hume’s next question, “Now, this isn’t the Louisiana branch of the federal homeland security, this is the state?”

      MAJOR GARRETT: The state’s own agency devoted to the state’s homeland security. They told them, you cannot go there. Why? The Red Cross tells me, that state agency in Louisiana said, look, we do not want to create a magnet for more people to come to the Superdome or the convention center. We want to get them out. So at the same time local officials were screaming, where’s the food, where’s the water, the Red Cross was standing by ready, the Louisiana Department of Homeland Security said you can’t go.

      RUSH: And it was later said by Major Garrett that the actual order that prevented the Red Cross from getting in there came from the Louisiana governor’s office. The governor’s office runs the state Department of Homeland Security, and they didn’t want any more people showing up at the Superdome that were already there. So if the word spread that there’s plenty of water and food, they knew it would be a magnet, so they chose instead to starve and dehydrate a bunch of people. I’m sure they didn’t think it would go as many days as it did, but they chose that, they kept the food out. Now, all this time everybody thought it was incompetence on the part of the Bush administration for not acting fast enough, and then, everybody thought that it was neighbor purposeful, Bush wanted to kill those people, don’t you know. But now we find out, once again, like I said on Tuesday of this week, if you want to find the answers to all your questions, you go to the mayor’s office in New Orleans and the governor’s office in Louisiana, because that’s where you will find the answers to all these questions.

      (Rush Limbaugh Show, 8 September 05)

      And this seems to be confirmed by the President of the Red Cross, speaking on the Larry King Show on 2 September:

      MARTY EVANS, RED CROSS PRESIDENT AND CEO: Well, Larry, when the storm came our goal was prior to landfall to support the evacuation. It was unsafe to be in the city. We were asked by the city not to be there and the Superdome was made a shelter of last resorts… [My emphasis – BLB]

      If anyone has reliable information to the contrary, I would be glad to have it. The politics of Mr Limbaugh and Fox News do cast a certain a question-mark over what they say.

      Meanwhile I’m adding a suitable postscript to my original post. Many thanks for making this important point.

      Incidentally, I have seen somewhere a list of the offers of help for the people of New Orleans allegedly rejected or ignored by FEMA, but I can’t now find it. The F in FEMA would seem to suggest that these refusals, if confirmed, were at the federal level rather than the State’s.