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Staten Island fury: Official blasts Red Cross response after Sandy as a 'disgrace'

John Makely / NBC News

Staten Island resident John Dellorusso looks over his backyard, which now contains debris from a nearby restaurant. His Yetman Avenue home, at right, was severely damaged. The homeowner next door and his 13-year-old daughter were killed when their house was flattened.

Staten Island officials had some choice words Thursday to describe what they said was a feeble disaster-relief response to people left dying, homeless and hungry in the New York City borough hit particularly hard by Sandy.

Staten Island’s top elected official blasted the American Red Cross response as “an absolute disgrace” and went so far as to urge its residents not to donate to the largely volunteer agency.

“All these people making these big salaries should be out there on the front line, and I am disappointed,” a frustrated Borough President James Molinaro said Thursday morning at a press conference with other local officials to talk about the needs of the hard-hit borough. “And my advice to the people of Staten Island is, ‘Do not donate to the American Red Cross. Let them get their money elsewhere.’"

A top Red Cross official said he understood Molinaro’s frustration.

At a press conference, Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro says "It's an absolute disgrace" that the American Red Cross is "nowhere to be found" during his county's time of intense need in the wake of superstorm Sandy.

“He’s advocating for his community in a time of extreme distress and incredible need,” said Josh Lockwood, CEO of the American Red Cross Greater New York region.

And a disaster-relief expert said angry outbursts aren’t surprising in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.

“I think obviously in any sort of disaster context there’s always going to be a fair amount of frustration about how quickly things happen,” said Keith Tidball, Cornell Cooperative Extension disaster education program director.

Staten Island, the least populated of the five New York City boroughs with about 468,000 people, has been sometimes called "the forgotten borough" or "the neglected borough" by inhabitants who feel they're routinely ignored or shortchanged by city government.  At least 19 Sandy-related deaths have been reported on Staten Island as of Thursday -- more than any other borough – and hundreds of homes have been destroyed or damaged. The deaths include two boys who were swept away from their mother during the storm surge and whose bodies were found Thursday morning.

“We have the worst tragedy that’s ever happened to Staten Island, and I would say New York City, since 9/11 – and we need help,” Molinaro told reporters before singling out the Red Cross for scathing criticism.

“I have not seen the American Red Cross at a shelter. I have not seen them down at the South Shore where people are buried in their own homes, have nothing to eat and nothing to drink,” Molinaro fumed. “Yesterday I toured the South Shore with the mayor. The neighbors down there that didn’t have electricity managed to put together pots of soup and they were distributed to the people down there whose homes were just destroyed --  and the American Red Cross was nowhere to be found.”

David Friedman / NBC News

Superstorm Sandy made landfall Monday evening on a destructive and deadly path across the Northeast.

He added: "This is America. This is not a Third World nation. We need food. We need clothing. We need everything you can possibly think of."

Other local officials also criticized the relief response, though not singling out the Red Cross by name.

State Sen. Andrew Lanza lashed out at the city for giving the go-ahead to the New York City Marathon this weekend and for putting a priority on pumping water out of flooded East River tunnels

“We’re talking about getting water of the tunnel. Let’s get the water out of the tunnel tomorrow, let’s get the people out of the water today. There’ve been thousands of people who have been displaced. There are people who are cold, who are hungry, who are without a place to go, and looking for warmth.,” Lanza said, according to Politicker.

“There are people still trapped. Yet we’re talking about marathons and tunnels.”

Lockwood, the regional Red Cross CEO, was visiting Staten Island Thursday afternoon. Lockwood said he spoke to Molinaro after hearing of his remarks. He said Molinaro was “doing the right thing” by advocating for his community.

John Makely / NBC News

Jane Caravello pauses with her son Vincent Caravello after wading a couple hundred yards from her house on Kissam Avenue on Staten Island. "Half of it is down there and the other half is on Beach Ave."

“We’re certainly stretched by this event and we're trying to respond. We’re all working 24/7,” Lockwood told NBC News. “For the people of Staten Island, I wish we could respond more quickly but we are here now and we’re here for the long haul.”

Red Cross spokeswoman Anne Marie Borrego in Washington said Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern also called the borough president to let him know that “help was on the way.”

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The Red Cross has  five emergency response stations set up at  New Dorp Lane on Staten Island, she told NBC News.

“We’re not going to put our people and supplies in the path of the storm. We have to pre-position our supplies in safe places,” Borrego said. “We’re in the same boat as all other New Yorkers in getting around with trains and bridges shut down and roads clogged. We’re there, we’re moving and we’re on it.”

Tidball, the disaster-relief expert, said it’s common for elected officials and others to express frustration at the level of outside help after a large-scale disaster.

“Wherever people feel need to point fingers I would encourage them to reach out their hands and help instead,” he said.

Beware of charity scams in wake of Superstorm Sandy

Tidball, who works with the disaster-aid relief group National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, said that, from his vantage point, local and state officials have been coordinating quite effectively with other state and federal officials. He said lessons from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Irene in 2011, coupled with the emergence of Twitter and other social-media as essential communication tools, have paid off and likely saved lives this time around.

“There are a lot of places around the country and around the world that have experienced large-scale disasters but perhaps weren’t able to get things going as quickly or do as good a job in preventing loss of life and key structural functions,” Tidball said. “When you think of a city or metropolitan region that’s experienced what they’ve (New York) experienced, it’s pretty impressive.”

He said the best way outsiders can help victims of Sandy is by donating cash that would go directly to meet specific needs in flooded areas.

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