Arthur I. Cyr: Storm relief U.S. tradition
November 1, 2012 4:14PM
Updated: December 3, 2012 6:39AM
Cyclone Sandy was technically downgraded from hurricane status just before striking the U.S., but remains highly disruptive. Both the Obama and Romney presidential campaigns temporarily suspended their frenetic activity. In part, this reflected the practical impossibility of moving through the storm region, but more fundamental considerations were at work.
Today, the White House and associated national organizations are expected to provide effective leadership in combating national disasters, which until the 20th century were fatalistically viewed as unavoidable “acts of God.” Over the past century, American society has steadily expanded efforts and expectations regarding disaster relief.
Over the same period, the mass media have played a steadily more important role in reporting terrible events in graphic human terms. Sandy shows the complex contemporary interplay between media and people. Haiti earthquake relief early in 2010 followed a similar pattern.
Photography transformed newspapers by adding graphic, sometimes shocking, visual images to text. Radio and television greatly expanded the capacity of the news to communicate the emotional, human aspects of events. The Internet and increasingly visual, as well as audio, cellphones carry the process further.
Simultaneously, Americans have steadily raised the bar regarding expectations of government. President Bush suffered serious political damage from public perception that he was both ineffective and uncaring in reaction to the devastation created by Hurricane Katrina.
One very widely distributed photo showed Bush in Air Force One, gazing down at the floodwaters far, far below. Combined with news that an unqualified socialite buddy was in charge of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the image of Bush far above the fray carried political cost.
By contrast, exactly a century earlier another Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, established the precedent of immediate direct White House disaster relief leadership during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. His initiatives included a quick congressional appropriation of $2.5 million, a radical move, as well as substantial sum for that time.
Teddy Roosevelt also emphasized military humanitarian relief. The USS Chicago rescued 20,000 people, still one of the largest amphibious evacuations in history. Soldiers distributed food, water and medical supplies. Anarchy was a challenge. An estimated 500 looters were shot by military and police, including 34 men who attempted to rob U.S. Mint and Treasury buildings that contained $239 million in bullion and cash.
There was no FEMA, created during the Carter administration. Roosevelt instead stressed the role of the Red Cross. During the Haiti relief effort, the White House Web site had a link to the Red Cross.
A further great expansion of the U.S. approach to disaster relief, including overseas efforts, was developed by Herbert Hoover. During and after the First World War, he led the enormous U.S. Food Administration and American Relief Administration, credited with preventing mass starvation in Europe.
In 1927, Commerce Secretary Hoover spearheaded an enormous humanitarian effort after huge Mississippi River flooding. Hoover was confirmed — temporarily — as a great American hero, securing a lock on the 1928 Republican nomination and election to the White House.
In 1965, Hurricane Betsy became the first Gulf Coast storm to create more than $1 billion in damage. President Johnson immediately flew to New Orleans and spent many hours visiting storm victims, slogging through water to isolated shacks, anxious Secret Service agents and local politicians in tow. Follow-up federal relief was comprehensive.
President Obama must equal this tradition — or pay a price.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., and author of “After the Cold War”