"we are identifying some breaches in levees we did not see initially"
Volunteer Cook Needed

The Red Cross Is No Substitute for Competent Government

One of the early media photos of a NOLA dead body was of a woman weeping over the body of her husband who had been suffering from lung cancer. When his prescription oxygen supply ran out, he suffocated and died.

Yesterday the Harvard School of Public Health released a survey of evacuees in shelters in the Houston area conducted in cooperation with The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation. The survey had the following health-related findings:

  • 52% report having no health insurance coverage at the time of the hurricane. Of those with coverage, 34% say it is through Medicaid and 16% through Medicare. Before the hurricane 66% of people evacuated to Houston shelters used hospital or clinics as their main source of care and of those, a majority (54%) used Charity Hospital of New Orleans, substantially more than the second most common care site (University Hospital of New Orleans, at 8%).
  • 33% report experiencing health problems or injuries as a result of the hurricane and 78% of them are currently receiving care for their ailments.
  • 41% report chronic health conditions such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and asthma.
  • 43% say they are supposed to be taking prescription medications, and of those, 29% percent report having problems getting the prescription drugs they need.
  • Of the 61% who did not evacuate before the storm, 38% said they were either physically unable to leave or had to care for someone who was physically unable to leave.
  • 39% report that they did not get help from any government agency or voluntary agency during the flood and evacuation.

Earlier this week, I had my adventure trying to solve a prescription problem for someone long distance, which I chronicled in my post, Walmart Wonderland: A Strange Tale. While the situation  I was trying to help with was potentially life-threatening, I remember thinking how glad I was that it didn't involve either psychiatric meds or withdrawal. This morning, Navy Blue emailed me a link to the story of a discussion board's attempt to help someone out of a situation involving both.

About the post, she writes:

I am frustrated. AND I am concerned.  This is an entry on the teeny little tale of me, a couple a people, and our friend Dan. He needed medication and had to have it sent from halfway across the country.

I still have the Red Cross link on my pages, and I still feel people should donate and that it is better to have the Red Cross trying to help than not, but as disturbing anecdotes involving Red Cross folk pile up in my inbox, it seems to me that for someone out there there is a book in this: a case study on how the Red Cross is just no substitute for competent government. (And neither is FEMA, for that matter.)  Here are notable passages from Navy's account:

Now it was Saturday, the 9th. Two of his medications will run out tomorrow.  One is a moodstabilizer and an anticonvulsant.  When one quits an anticonvulsant 'cold turkey', you are at risk for seizures.  The other one is a strong anti-depressant- known for heavy withdrawal symptoms. Combine this with such a traumatic experience and the physical and psychological stressors that come with it and Dan was in a very bad situation.

He emailed FEMA and The Red Cross, asking for information on what he can do.
A Red Cross truck came and delivered water and meals.

The Walgreens, a couple towns over, opened.  He drove through the dirty roads to  the store, stopping to wait three hour for gas. Then he brought his medication bottles, which were current and clearly had refills on them, to the pharmacy. They wouldn't be refilled unless the pharmacist could get in touch with his pharmacy or doctor.
. . .
On the 15th, 6 days after he had contacted them, Dan finally heard from FEMA, by email and the Red Cross, via a representative.

“Fema said that in a few days I will be assigned to a case handler who will check into the situation and drive out to interview me for an assessment of my needs. ”
“Red Cross said they only get involved in drugs when it is a matter of life or death.  I tried explaining; the guy, who had a double digit IQ, stood there with a sort of glazed look in his eyes.  Nothing I said penetrated the fog. ”

He received the last package [FedExed by a member of the online discussion group] and has taken four doses, and the discontinuation symptoms are generally improving.

While in Walgreens, Dan ran into an acquaintance of his, who's psychiatrist is still in the area.  He will tell the psychiatrist of Dan's situation and likely enable Dan to get new scripts for his medications.  In the meantime, he will be ok with what he was able to receive.

By the time FEMA sends him a case worker for an interview, he will have probably already gotten his refills.   If he hadn't had another resource, which happened, in this case, to be online friends, he could be severely ill.  In a worst case- Dan could be dead: seizures; acute dehydration- he was getting weak and likely wouldn't have gotten food and water very easily in the next few days; physical illness [ he was extremely sick and lost 11 pounds in about three days, no doubt lowering his immune system when he is already weak and prey to several infections]...

(The other Red Cross anecdote I received was from someone whom I had tried to help assess possibilities of rescuing a trapped relative in the early days of the flooding crisis. After exhausting all governmental avenues to place a request to have some people in a specific spot in NOLA rescued, the family tried calling the Red Cross. The person they reached didn't want to help with the rescue but did want a donation. The desperate family tried to exchange a donation for the person taking the rescue request and passing it along to someone who might help. The representative eventually allowed as how no rescue request would be passed along even if a donation was made.  At that moment, as nearly as my correspondent was able to assess, there was NO organization anywhere in the country willing to receive rescue requests. The request was ultimately conveyed via helpful journalists to the Coast Guard.)

People are suffering and dying because the emergency prescription infrastructure just doesn't work well enough. The Red Cross can help, but the nature of that help is far from ideal. We should not rest assured that all we have to do is donate money and that the hurricane survivors' needs will be taken care of, because it just ain't so.


  • Reed Hundt has a bunch more excellent questions that need to be asked of the government we have, competent or not.
  • Boy, our President sure knows how to roll up his sleeves, doesn't he? I'm very impressed with his sleeve-rolling competency. He's been practicing a lot lately, hasn't he?