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Readers Blog: Art's Milwaukee

Haiti & American Disaster Relief, Past & Present

            Starting with the White House, Americans are responding compassionately to the gigantic devastation of the Haiti earthquake. 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 very human terms. The Haiti disaster dramatically highlights the interplay between people and media.

            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 phones carry the process still further. These media are very much engaged in responding to the terrible tragedy in Haiti.

            Across the past century as well, Americans steadily have raised the bar regarding expectations of government, especially at the federal level. Pres. George W. Bush was very seriously damaged politically by the widespread perception that his administration was both ineffective and uncaring in reaction to the enormous devastation created by Hurricane Katrina. One very widely distributed photo showed Bush in Air Force One, gazing down without apparent feeling at the floodwaters far, far below.

            Fair or not, that media image, combined with news that an unqualified socialite buddy had been put in charge of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), brought great political cost. Continuing Katrina political tremors undoubtedly were a factor in Republican Congressional losses in 2006 and Sen. John McCain’s defeat in the 2008 presidential election.

            By contrast, exactly a century earlier another Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, established the precedent of immediate, direct White House disaster relief leadership when a devastating earthquake struck San Francisco in 1906. 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 significant military engagement in 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 greater challenge than today. An estimated five hundred looters were shot by military and police, including thirty-four men who attempted to rob U.S. Mint and Treasury buildings that contained $239 million in bullion and cash.

            There was no FEMA, which was created during the Carter administration. Roosevelt instead stressed the role of the Red Cross. Today the White House Web site features a Red Cross link, and the vast contemporary network of nonprofit organizations is helping Haiti.

            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 very effective 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 the 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. Pres. Lyndon Johnson immediately flew to New Orleans and spent many hours visiting storm victims, many of whom were doubtless amazed as well as reassured. Follow-up federal efforts were comprehensive.

            The Obama administration is pursuing the right course, guided by American history, traditions – and people.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of ‘After the Cold War’ (Palgrave/Macmillan and NYU Press). He can be reached at acyr@carthage.edu

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