Born Out Of The Chaos Of Hurricane Harvey, The American Black Cross Is Reinventing Disaster Relief

Frustrated with the recent failings of the American Red Cross, these Texans organized their own aid group. Can they hold it together for the long term?

Born Out Of The Chaos Of Hurricane Harvey, The American Black Cross Is Reinventing Disaster Relief

The list of recent disasters just keeps growing—from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Jose to this week’s deadly Santa Rosa wildfires—with no respite in sight. Along with the natural destruction, too often many of these disasters going back to Katrina and Sandy have been marked by human failures, with woeful responses that caused only more suffering for victims. The frequent inability of the country’s leading humanitarian and disaster relief group, the American Red Cross, to efficiently convert millions in donations into effective aid, has been documented by investigative journalists and the federal government.


Fearing a repeat of those failings when Hurricane Harvey drenched Houston last month, a band of Texas entrepreneurs formed their own aid group whose name—the American Black Cross—addresses the political conflicts inherent in disaster relief on several levels. “I wanted to do something to participate in relief efforts, and I didn’t particularly trust some of the older organizations,” says S. Lee Merritt. The Dallas-based attorney specializes in high-profile civil rights cases, with clients such as De’Andre Harris, who was beaten by white nationalist demonstrators during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville on August 12.

Lee Merritt (far left) [Photo: courtesy of American Black Cross]
“Its just been my experience since Katrina, to some of the more recent storms, to what we saw happen in Haiti where people were being neglected . . . too many of the dollars being sent were going toward other causes as opposed to the cause that people were sending funds in for,” says Merritt. He joined with fellow Black Lives Matter activists to form an effort that would minimize overhead costs by relying entirely on volunteers.

“I don’t want to come out as being completely negative toward another group, but we’re trying to look for the opposite of the Red Cross,” says Merritt. “Think of it as a black market or a shadow group that cuts out the middle man.” The name doesn’t refer to race, according to Merritt, and the group’s focus is on underserved communities regardless of ethnicity, he says. But the founders and most volunteers are African-American, and the group’s activist roots are a defining characteristic.

The American Black Cross (ABC) reports that it’s delivered around 400,000 pounds of emergency supplies, which small donors mainly purchase and ship via Amazon, to victims of hurricane Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida. Plans are under way to reach Puerto Rico by next week, where Hurricane Maria wreaked astounding damage, and later the U.S. Virgin Islands. There’s also some talk of projects in California, where wildfires are incinerating the landscape.

The group has also filed paperwork to create a not-for-profit organization, but one without employees. “We’re pretty content with the volunteer model,” says Merritt. ABC’s foundation in social activism is a great source of strength: It draws on passion and a deep sense of purpose. But it also poses challenges: sustaining support from people with day jobs (not least of which is leadership) and a less-than-inclusive-sounding name that Merritt admits could turn off some potential sponsors.


The DIY Humanitarian Movement

“Since Superstorm Sandy we have seen an increasing number of spontaneous, or ‘pop-up’ groups, form in the wake of a natural disaster,” writes Erik Dyson, CEO of All Hands Volunteers, which organizes cleanup after natural disasters, in an email to Fast Company. He names the “Cajun Navy” volunteers that rescued Houstonians by boat as a prime example. Dyson hadn’t heard of the American Black Cross before we spoke, but it made sense to him as a manifestation of this trend in disaster relief.

The group was also unknown to Bob Ottenhoff, who heads the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, which advises donors, including corporations and foundations, on how best to support disaster relief. “It’s so admirable to see this happen. We’re not going to wait for someone else, or we’re not going to wait for the government,” he says. “Where it becomes a problem is donations of products. There’s no place to store them. No way to transport them. They’re often inappropriate products,” he says, like thousands of teddy bears.

Merritt was aware of those perils and his own limitations. “I personally am a civil rights lawyer, so I don’t coordinate this kind of thing,” he says. “But we’re bringing in people who kinda know what they’re doing.” One of the first was his college friend and Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King. As founding pastor of the Courageous Church in Atlanta, King first organized disaster relief in 2009, when flash floods killed 10 people and damaged or destroyed 20,000 buildings in the Atlanta area. He went on to participate in relief for other natural disasters, including Haiti (where documented American Red Cross waste was epic) and Superstorm Sandy in New York City, where King now lives. He also sent supplies to activists protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline project.

Instead of accepting money or just any items people chose to send, King set up Amazon wish lists of the products most needed—a strategy that ABC adopted with a massive wish list including medication, tools, food, and cleaning supplies. King also furnished plenty of donors. “I have an email list with almost 700,000 people. I have about 1.5 million people on Facebook,” says King. “We would just put hundreds or sometimes thousands of things on that wish list, and people stepped up.” Merritt’s law office filled up in one day. The building’s landlord offered a vacant floor that filled up the following day.

American Black Cross late night crew. #ItsOnUs #WeWillRespond

A post shared by ABC (@americanblackcross) on

It was the overabundance that Ottenhoff warns of, but ABC kept finding help, next from K.C. Fox, a journalist, publicist, and activist who collaborates with Merritt on his cases and leads a women’s empowerment group called The Lady Generals Foundation. Fox introduced Merritt to Dallas businessman John Dixon, who provided warehouse space for supplies and trucks to take them down to Houston. Fox, who has experience in military logistics, joined with fellow BLM activist Cory Hughes to coordinate on the ground with churches and community groups in Houston. (Dixon, Fox, Hughes, and Merritt serve as the four heads of the American Black Cross.)


More trucks, and military expertise, came from Veterans R Moving Us, a Dallas-based moving company founded by Army vet Verna Owens to provide jobs for ex-soldiers transitioning to civilian life. “You never stop serving your country, even though you’re out of the service,” says Owens. The former medical logistics specialist closed his business for two weeks to make delivery runs to Houston, where he met fellow soldiers. “That kind of tugged at me a bit. You had these wounded veterans in their homes. They paid for it with a VA [Veterans Administration] loan, and now it’s gone,” says Owens. “It sparked something in me to help even more.”

Owens and Merritt found each other on Facebook and joined forces to deliver aid to communities in Texas and South Florida. “The Red Cross, they do really good work,” says Owens. “The difference for us is we’re smaller, and we have the people who started it who can go out there and get our hands dirty.” A native of Modesto, California, Owens is anxious to organize relief for the many California communities leveled by runaway wildfires, but ABC hasn’t decided yet if it will head to the West Coast. (Merritt is a native of Los Angeles, and King has lived in southern California, where more fires are burning.)

First, there’s Puerto Rico. “This is a catastrophe that is challenging even the most sophisticated logistics handlers,” says Bob Ottenhoff. “Even FEMA, even organizations like UPS, are having trouble getting materials in and out.” And ABC’s goal is especially ambitious. “There’s a great need in the impoverished area on the south side of the island, but most of the aid is going to San Juan,” says Merritt. Reality TV star Bethenny Frankel has offered planes to fly up to 42,000 pounds of supplies from Miami to the south side of Puerto Rico in the coming days, where ABC will coordinate with the local relief effort Ayuda Mi Isla (Help My Island).

Merritt says he is negotiating transport for future shipments with American Airlines and United Airlines. And ABC is working to secure a ship to take supplies to the U.S. Virgin Islands, which Irma swept across before slamming into Florida.

[Photo: courtesy of American Black Cross]

An Accidental Institution

The American Black Cross is already well beyond a local pop-up group. It’s spreading to Florida and the Caribbean; it’s also digging deeper. “We’re in for the rebuild of Houston and for the cleanup and rebuild of South Florida,” says Merritt. And the group is wrapped up in social movements that take it beyond hurricanes and fires. “We talked about help for distressed communities to recover,” says Merritt. “And that’s communities that are distressed both from disaster and from economic depression or from environmental hazards.”

ABC is defined by its social justice mission and the organizing skills brought to the group by seasoned Black Lives Matter activists. After the beating of De’Andre Harris, Merritt, and other activists, including staff at the Southern Poverty Law Center, used social media to identify suspected attackers. (Video of the beating has circulated online.) Three suspects have been arrested, but the case has gotten increasingly muddied. Now Harris has also been charged with assault during the melee.


“If the organizations that we pay, or that we rely on to do this sort of thing won’t do it for us, we can continue to complain about it . . . or we can just do it ourselves,” says Merritt. “And I think we kinda tapped into that same kind of sentiment [with disaster relief] like, yeah we know that the Red Cross doesn’t give a high percentage to the people that [we] are concerned about.”

The same activist energy that sustains the American Black Cross also prompted an ugly backlash. A video report about the group on NewsOneNow, a self-described “Black Network,” drew ugly flame wars in the YouTube comments. “Black Activists? WTF do they do besides scream racism 24/7?” wrote one commenter. “There you go African-Americans help yourselves, don’t worry about anyone else,” wrote another.

Merritt reiterates that the organization’s mission is to reach any underserved communities—that neither the volunteers nor recipients are exclusively black. The population of Puerto Rico is almost entirely white Hispanic, for instance. “If you look at our mission, you look at our activities, you look at our vision, there’s nothing about race in it,” says Merritt. But there is an undeniable racial identity to the group. “It’s okay for black people to run an organization. And to the extent that it seems to be Afro-centric, or it seems to be ethnic, that’s okay, too,” says Merritt. He acknowledges that the group’s racial identity could dissuade donors.

Big funders may seem less of a concern for an organization that relies on many small donors making online purchases and free labor that is currently plentiful. “We have at least five people who own their own companies who are contributing their staff and their time,” says Merritt.

But is that sustainable in the long term? Merritt acknowledges that his own business is strained by the effort. He says that the American Black Cross will have breathing room to organize and plan strategically once the strain of hurricane season has passed. But with long-term plans to help in the rebuilding, the group may not get much of a respite. “What we say a lot is, this movement will only go as far as the people allow it to,” says Merritt. “When volunteers don’t want to do the work . . . and if it becomes unsustainable, we fold it up and go home.”


About the author

Sean Captain is a Bay Area technology, science, and policy journalist. Follow him on Twitter @seancaptain.