Hurricane Relief Before FEMA

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.


One thought on “Hurricane Relief Before FEMA

  1. I accidentally posted this on another blog. On that blog, I received the following comment:
    So your claim is that wanting to eliminate FEMA is equivalient to wanting to use disaster relief efforts from the 1900′s as a model. You’re not very imaginative, are you? Why can’t non-profit groups like the Red Cross embrace modern technology? Why not acknowledge the role that private solutions like Google and social media play in aiding disaster relief and recovery?
    Not only do we not need FEMA, not only can we not afford FEMA, but one could make a strong argument that the FEMA bureaucracy will always hamper relief efforts more than they help. If all they are ultimately bringing to the table is the dissemination of disaster relief funds to individuals and small businesses, is all the bureaucracy really necessary?
    My answer is an emphatic “NO”.
    My response is simply that history has shown that non-profit groups do not have the resources necessary to quickly and effectively respond to a huge disaster. As far as FEMA’s cost, we cannot forget about the cost involved if a city or region is down for an extended period of time. That can take a significant economic toll, and may justify FEMA’s cost.

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