Hurricane Sandy has made me think about what disaster relief before FEMA was created in 1979, and before the federal government began playing a major role in disaster relief in the 1950s. Specifically, what were relief efforts like after the Galveston Hurricane of 1900?
On September 8, 1900, a category 4 hurricane flattened Galveston, Texas, a booming city of 37,000. The city was less than 10 feet above sea level, so the 15-foot storm surge covered every point in the city. Historians estimate that between 6,000 and 12,000 people were killed.
The hurricane cut-off the city’s lines of communication to the outside world, so, shortly after the hurricane, the city dispatched a group of citizens to nearby Houston to appeal for help. Men and resources began pouring into the city, from nearby areas. The American Red Cross came to the scene, the Salvation Army provided assistance, and donations poured in from all over the world. Interestingly, it’s not the case that the federal government stood on the sidelines during the hurricane. Nearby army units stepped in to apply martial law, and the War Department provided the city with rations and tents.
But all of these resources took time to reach the city. Moreover, the Galveston citizen’s committee that oversaw the relief efforts had no expertise in disaster relief, and little ability to quickly marshal resources and efficiently utilize volunteers. As a result, in the critical hours and days after the storm, little could be done to rescue those trapped under debris, and thousands more died. It’s hard to see how the response to the Galveston hurricane could provide a useful model for today.