America’s Response to Disaster: The Changing Role of the American Red Cross

The American Red Cross was founded as an independent nongovernmental organization but over time it lost its independence and became a quasi-governmental entity. Today it occupies a unique position in the federal government as the only nongovernmental organization with primary agency responsibilities for disaster relief efforts.

“I feel obligated to withhold my approval of the plan, as
proposed by this bill, to indulge a benevolent and charitable
assessment through the appropriation of public funds for this
purpose. I can fi nd no warrant for such an appropriation in
the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty
of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of
individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to
the public service or benefi t…The lesson should be constantly
enforced that though the people support the Government, the
Government should not support the people.
The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always
be relied upon to relieve their fellow-citizens in misfortune. This
has been repeatedly and quite lately demonstrated.”
President Grover Cleveland, vetoing a Texas disaster relief
bill in 1887.

It’s now been almost a year since Hurricanes Katrina and
Rita devastated large portions of Louisiana and Texas. We’ve
read countless stories showing the selflessness and heroism of
Americans interrupting their work and leisure to help the struggling
residents of the Gulf coast get back on their feet.
But as newspaper editors ready themselves for their “Katrina:
One Year Later” stories, it’s time to take a long look back. The
hurricane season of 2005 was not, after all, the only devastating
weather-related disaster in our history. Looking back gives us
insight into how the role of American charity has evolved over
time. Why, for example, does the American Red Cross lead
disaster relief efforts? Given the chaos that resulted from the
first weeks of efforts to aid the victims of Katrina, would our
country be better served by a Presidential-appointed “disaster
czar” to coordinate the efforts of government agencies and
Here are stories of the relief efforts that followed two major
disasters: the Galveston flood of 1900 and the San Francisco
earthquake and fire of 1906. These stories not only show
Americans’ generosity and decency, but also show how charities
adapted and evolved in the wake of major disasters.

Galveston, Texas: September 1900
After a hurricane’s savage winds passed over Galveston
on September 8, 1900, Texas’s fourth-largest city lay in ruins.
The death toll has never been precisely determined, but it’s
likely that as many as 6,000 people–or nearly 20 percent of
Galveston’s population–perished in the hurricane and the
subsequent flood.
With telegraph wires down, six survivors took one of the
few seaworthy boats left in the city and sailed ten miles across
Galveston Bay to the railhead town of La Marque to make the
news known. The men found a railway handcar and pumped
their way for an additional fifteen miles until they were able to
flag down a train, which, after some delays, took them to Houston.
At 3 AM on September 10, a telegram was sent to Texas
Governor Joseph D. Sayers and President William McKinley
stating, “The city of Galveston is in ruins.”
Governor Sayers, fearing Galveston’s destruction, had
already pre-positioned relief supplies, and rescuers began to
arrive in the city later that day. As the nation learned of the
devastation in Galveston, one of America’s foremost charitable
leaders got involved–Clara Barton.
Barton was, at the time, 78. She led the Red Cross for
nearly 20 years– personally overseeing all of the organization’s
disaster relief effort in the U.S. and abroad. But this time, due
to her advanced age, her friends and board of directors urged her to stay home.

Barton ignored their advice. She first heard of the disaster
on September 10, and swiftly decided to go. By September 13,
she was headed south, on a special train funded by the Pulitzer-owned
New York World. The newspaper agreed to send Barton
and her associates to Galveston for free and also held a fund
raising drive that collected $2,000. In return, the newspaper
made sure that the public knew of its generosity. Photos of the
converted warehouse where the Red Cross had its headquarters
show the first floor festooned with an “American National Red
Cross” banner–and, on the second floor, an even larger banner
saying “N.Y. World, Galveston Bureau.”
In Galveston Barton’s health suffered. After one speech,
she told one of her assistants, Ellen Mussey, “I’m going to
faint,” and then collapsed. But after spending four days in her
hotel room with “the grippe,” she resisted efforts by her board
to send her back to Washington. “I was quite well, in three or
four days and have been able to conduct my part of the work
without interruption,” Barton declared, remaining in Galveston
for an additional three months.
Having Clara Barton in charge in Galveston, note historians
Patricia Bellis Bixel and Elizabeth Hayes Turner, “cannot be
underestimated. Although there were others in the organization
who managed the detail work, her reputation and that of
the Red Cross were what inspired the country to send money
and supplies.”
What was Clara Barton like as a boss? Captain Edwin
Goudge commanded a British tramp steamer that was blown
into Galveston harbor during the earthquake. He donated his
services to the Red Cross, and constantly accepted assignments
from Barton to ferry supplies. “I expected to find a commanding
sort of person, but I was mistaken,” Goudge told the Galveston
News. “On the contrary she was one of the most genteel women
I ever met. Sat quietly at her desk listening calmly to reports
from all kinds of people, and issuing orders in the most ladylike
manner imaginable.”
When not issuing orders, Barton sent a constant flow of
dramatic, first-hand accounts to the press. Americans responded
with a steady flow of contributions. The Elgin Milkine Co. of
Elgin, Illinois sent 72 bottles of dried-beef extract, in lemon and
chocolate flavors. The state of New York contributed $93,697.77;
New Hampshire contributed a dollar. Two girls in Baltimore
set up a lemonade stand and raised $1.50. Still another dollar,
notes historian Herbert Molloy Mason, Jr., came from “a classic
little old lady” who “doddered into a Philadelphia precinct
station and told the desk sergeant to mail her dollar bill, the
only one she possessed, to Texas.”
As with other disasters, some donations were unneeded
and unnecessary. The Red Cross received thousands of winter
coats–which sweltering Galvestonians couldn’t use. One shoe
salesman donated 115 shoes–for the left foot.
Wealthy Americans and big businesses also did their part.
Andrew Carnegie contributed $20,000; Standard Oil, $10,000.
William Randolph Hearst contributed $50,000, and also provided
a “Hearst Relief Train,” which sped from Chicago to
Galveston with five surgeons, eleven nurses, and boxcars full
of medical equipment. The train’s “director of medical activities”
was Dr. William L. Crostwait, a Texas general practitioner
who got the assignment because he was walking up Michigan
Avenue, heard newsboys shouting news of the disaster, and
rushed into the lobby of Hearst’s Chicago American seeking
more information. When the press lord heard that a “doctor
from Texas” was in his building, he held a meeting and swiftly
made the appointment.
Hearst’s generosity didn’t end with his train. He also recruited
Sara Pryor, one of New York’s charitable doyennes,
to put her fundraising prowess to work. “I saw at once that I
had an opportunity to accomplish great good,” Pryor recalled
in her memoirs.
“I also realized the difficulties I should have to encounter.”
Pryor was asked to create a grand bazaar–in three weeks.
Pryor knew what she had to do to attract the great and the
good to her fete. “I knew well this city of New York,” Pryor
recalled. “I must have prestige. I must have ‘stars,’ and bright
ones, on my list of patronesses.”
So she started at the top, sending a telegram to Queen Victoria.
“I telegraphed her Majesty, laid the cause of the Galveston
orphans at her feet, and craved a word of sympathy in the effort
I was making for their relief.” The Queen agreed to be a
patron. Princess Alexandra, a future British queen, also gave
her support. Other British aristocrats soon followed, including
the Duchess of Marlborough and the Dowager Duchess of
Marlborough. Some also gave donations; Sir Thomas Lipton,
the tea tycoon, sent a $500 check.
“To this foreign list I was able to add a large number of the
New York names best known and most highly esteemed with
us,” Pryor recalled. “With such guarantees for the ‘tone’ of the
event, I was assured of patronage.”
When her bazaar opened, Pryor recalled, “a fairy village of
booths filled the great ball-room of the Waldorf Astoria, and the
generous merchants of New York had enriched them with great
and beautiful things.” Donors could bid on “rich furs, tiger rugs,
opera-cloaks, ladies’ hats, silverware, watches, jewels, bicycles,
a grand piano, and an automobile.” Attendees included Army
chief of staff Gen. Nelson Miles, ten other major generals,
Governor Sayre of Texas, and the Mexican Ambassador. The
evening closed with a “happy speech” from Mark Twain.
“We sent $51,000 to Galveston!” Pryor recalled. The money
was used to build an orphanage, which opened a year later.
When the building was opened, one of the orphanage’s managers asked Pryor, “What can we do for you?”
“Nothing,” she said. “The work is its own reward.”
Within a month, over $2 million had been raised for the Red
Cross. Barton and her staff put the money to good use, Over
1,100 homes were rebuilt, at a cost of $265 per home. And
when Barton learned that the region’s strawberry farms had
been destroyed, she persuaded other growers to ship 18 million
plants to the region, to help devastated farmers get back
on their feet.
By late October, the Red Cross warehouses were closed. Barton and her staff
stayed on until early December, when
they finally headed home for Christmas.
The staff, Barton recalled, were “pale and
ill” when they boarded the train, “and
even I, who have resisted the efforts of
so many climates, needed the help of a
steadying hand as I walked to the Pullman
waiting to take us away.”

1905: The Red Cross Becomes Quasi-Governmental
Galveston was Clara Barton’s last hurrah. At the time of the
Galveston disaster, she was in the middle of an epic decadelong
feud with her board. The details of the feud, like most
office quarrels, aren’t really worth repeating, save to say that
both sides had some merit to their positions, and Barton had
clearly stayed on too long.
By 1904, the battle was over, and Barton had lost. She
was, at age 83, forced into retirement. The organization Barton
had created, the American Association of the Red Cross, was
dissolved. In 1905 its successor, the American National Red
Cross was created, and continues to this day.
When the American National Red Cross was created, its
organizers insisted on a Congressional charter for the organization.
With the creation of this charter, the American Red Cross
became a quasi-governmental organization.
“The American Red Cross is a quasi-governmental organization,”
Solicitor General John W. Davis wrote in 1918, “operating
under Congressional charter, disbursing its funds under
the security of a government audit, officered in part, at least,
by government appointment, disbursing its funds under the
security of a government audit and designated by Presidential
order for the fulfillment of certain treaty obligations which the
government has entered.”
Many nonprofits obtained Congressional charters in this
period, including the American Academy in Rome and the
American Historical Association. In the late 1990s, Congress
withdrew its charter for the United Daughters of the Confederacy,
claiming that it was wrong for Congress to give its seal of approval
to an organization supporting Confederate heritage.
Of course the Red Cross is not as much a part of the government
as, say, Amtrak or the Postal Service. Its 2004 Form
990 reports that the organization only received $40 million
from governmental sources out of a $3 billion budget. But the
organization nonetheless has its governmental ties:
? The President nominates eight members of the Red Cross’s
50-person board of directors. Between one and three of these
members represent the armed forces. Each president from
Theodore Roosevelt to Herbert Hoover was also a president
of the American Red Cross.
? The Red Cross’s headquarters in Washington is government
property, although the government subcontracts maintenance of
the building to the nonprofit. When Red Cross headquarters
was opened in 1918, it was the result of a public-private partnership;
half the money came from the government and half
from private donors, including Olivia Sage, Mary Harriman,
and the Rockefeller Foundation.
? Most importantly, the Red Cross is the only nonprofit to
be a member of the federal government’s National Response
Plan, designed to coordinate disaster-fighting efforts between
federal, state, and local officials–and the Red Cross. Under
the plan, the Red Cross is designated the “primary agency”
for “mass care, housing, and human services” in the event of
a disaster. A Red Cross press release boasts that the agency is
“the only nongovernmental organization with primary agency
The Department of Homeland Security unveiled the National
Response Plan in December 2004, but the plan supersedes
earlier plans that have been in existence since at least the
1950s. In all of these plans, the Red Cross retained its privileged
position, despite grumbling from some federal officials.
Michael Armstrong, who served as a regional director of the
Federal Emergency Management Agency during the Clinton
administration, says that “when I was at FEMA, there was some
discussion about replacing the Red Cross with the Salvation
Army as the lead provider of services.” According to Armstrong,
FEMA officials were worried both that the Red Cross
wouldn’t accept orders from senior government officials and
that Red Cross president Elizabeth Dole, a staunch Republican,
wasn’t eager to work with a Democratic administration. But
the discussions on kicking the Red Cross out of the national
disaster plan, Armstrong says, “went nowhere.”

The National Response Plan has only been activated once,
for Hurricane Katrina. The Los Angeles Times found that the
Red Cross’s privileged position did it little good, as state and
federal officials blocked the Red Cross from entering New
Orleans for several days, because they thought that Red Cross supplied
food would encourage evacuees to stay. “Every day
we were in touch with state officials offering to go in,” Red
Cross spokeswoman Devorah Goldberg told the Times. “They
said they don’t want us in there.”

1906: The San Francisco Earthquake
When the San Francisco earthquake struck on April 18,
1906, the American Red Cross was so small that it fit in Room
431 of the U.S. War Department building. That day, Edward
T. Devine, head of the Charity Organization Society of New
York, boarded a westward-bound train for San Francisco. When
the train stopped in Albany, the conductor handed Devine a
telegram from President Theodore Roosevelt, Acting in his
capacity as American Red Cross president, Roosevelt requested
that Devine be the Red Cross representative to San Francisco,
Devine, who was the author of a well-received book on disaster
relief, eagerly accepted the assignment.
In Chicago, Devine boarded a second train headed west for
San Francisco. Union Pacific and Southern Pacific head E.H.
Harriman, an hour ahead, personally led the first train. When
Harriman heard of the San Francisco disaster, he dropped everything
and vowed to use the facilities of his mighty railroad
to help the unfortunate.
Harriman’s biographer, Maury Klein, notes that the rail
tycoon spent three days heading out west, periodically stopping
to collect and send hundreds of telegrams with news and
information. When Harriman arrived in Oakland, he found the
Southern Pacific docks intact and used them as a base to ferry
supplies into San Francisco and to send earthquake victims
to the east. (Many victims traveled for free, on Harriman’s
express orders.)
Harriman spent the next two weeks in Oakland, doing everything
he could to help San Francisco get back on its feet.
“The rich and the poor have to be cared for alike,” he said in
one telegram, and anyone who asked for aid got it.
One day Harriman’s secretary, E.E. Calvin, was approached by
a man who said that the earthquake caused his wife’s death and
left him penniless. Calvin instantly signed an order to provide
free transportation for the man and his wife’s remains.
“How do you know the man’s story is true?” Harriman asked
his assistant afterwards.
Calvin explained that he didn’t know, but decided to make
the gift anyway because it was the right thing to do.
“It is well that you reached that conclusion,” Harriman said.
“if you had not done so, I would have taken the decision out
of your hands and given him the money myself.”
While E.H. Harriman made decisive contributions to disaster
relief, the Red Cross encountered more problems. When
he heard about the earthquake, President Roosevelt issued
a statement urging Americans to give to the Red Cross. On
April 22, President Roosevelt wrote to Mabel Boardman, Clara
Barton’s successor, suggesting that Edward Devine’s mission
should be to make sure that contributions were used wisely.
“I do not intend that any red tape shall interfere with at once
succoring the San Francisco people in their dire need; but we
have to remember that when the emergency is over there will
be plenty of fools and plenty of knaves to make accusations
against us, and plenty of good people who will follow them,
and it is necessary that as early a date as possible we shall have
things in such shape as to enable us to make a clear statement
of what we have done.”
But by this time San Francisco’s leaders had already
created their own nonprofit, the San Francisco Committee of
Fifty, to raise funds for relief. These leaders bitterly resented
President Roosevelt naming a competitor to receive charitable
funds, particularly since San Franciscans, through their own
efforts, had already housed 300,000 homeless people with no
Red Cross assistance. The San Francisco Chronicle denounced
the president for insisting that the city could only be rebuilt
through the aid of outsiders.
When Devine and his assistant, Ernest Bicknell, reached
San Francisco on April 24, six days after the earthquake and
three days after the city-wide fire was out, their first task was
a lengthy meeting with the leaders of the Committee of Fifty
about who should control donations for the earthquake victims.
They compromised by creating a joint venture, the Finance
Committee of Relief and Red Cross Funds, to be the primary
vehicle for charitable contributions. Edward Devine was named
secretary of this committee and the Red Cross had three of the
board’s fifteen seats.
Once this committee was created, Americans responded with
their usual generosity. Ultimately $9.7 million was raised for
relief; $2.5 million of this came from the federal government,
but the rest came from private donors. Perhaps the most unusual
donation came from a donor allegedly who went to his local
bank, put a thousand-dollar bill on the counter, and shouted
“For San Francisco!” as he left.
“What name?” the teller said.
“Put it down to ‘cash,'” the donor said.
We don’t know who this donor was or if the donation actually
happened. But other donors were just as generous. Immediately
following the earthquake, for example, Daniel Guggenheim
wired $50,000 to an Oakland bank. The money was put into a
horse cart, wheeled around the city and put to good use. Other donors gave even more. Hundred thousand dollar contributions
came from Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, U.S. Steel,
and Standard Oil. E.H. Harriman not only donated weeks of
his time, but he and his railroads gave a combined $200,000
to the recovery effort.
As San Francisco began to recover in late April, it remained an
open question what the Red Cross’s role
in the city’s reconstruction should be. San
Francisco was under martial law; troops
from the Presidio under the command of
Gen. Frederick Funston and Gen. A.V.
Greely patrolled the streets and issued all
relief supplies. (In his memoirs, Edward
Devine remembered Gen. Greely as a
forceful man who always exclaimed,
“Sunthin has got to be done!” before issuing an order.)
In a proclamation issued April 25, 1906 urging Americans
to donate to the Relief Committee, President Roosevelt said,
“The need of employing the Red Cross, save as an auxiliary,
has passed.”
But the city remained in ruins. In his memoirs, Ernest Bicknell
reprinted a letter he had written on April 28, ten days after
the quake. At the time, there was no water, and food was only
available after a two-hour queue at an Army-run relief station.
Food could only be cooked on open-air fires, and people did
their cooking in shanties made of whatever scraps they could
find in the ruins. “As far as one could see the streets were lined
with endless rows of these shapeless little shanties,” Bicknell
wrote. “They varied in size from a dog kennel to a tiny room
in which the cook could stand erect….The style and variety in
name was in accordance with the sense of humor of the tenants.
All the famous hotels in the United States were to be found,
villas and terraces and all manner of romantic and bizarre titles.
Some occupants added proverbs, religious and otherwise, with
a tendency towards philosophy. I remember on one of these
little shacks, chalked in large letters, this—
Make the best of it
Forget the rest of it.”
By June, most San Franciscans were making the best of it.
The U.S. Army had established a field hospital in Golden Gate
Park, and most survivors had a regular supply of food. But as
Bicknell relates, “a large force of experienced social workers”
came to San Francisco to investigate cases and separate freeloaders
from worthy recipients of aid. But these social workers
couldn’t make decisions by themselves; their reports had to be
reviewed by a central committee. “The investigators seemed
hopelessly behind on their task,” Bicknell wrote, “Complaints
of delay in handling urgent cases began to come in and rapidly
increased to a flood.” The central committee found that it took
an average of 43 days from the time a request for aid was made
until a decision was produced.
Bicknell created a “Bureau of Special Relief,” which had
its own warehouses and strived to deliver aid with a minimum
of red tape.
Some well-intentioned aid, however, was misused. The Relief
Corporation had created a fund to loan money to businesses
to help them restart. By 1909, it had come time to ask these
businesses, once again thriving, to repay their loans.
“The response was frigid silence,” Bicknell wrote. When the
Relief Corporation asked for its money back, “shrewd lawyers
were engaged by the borrowers and jury trials were demanded
in all cases. The lawyers pointed out that the relief funds had
been given by the generous people of the United States, not
to be issued out, but given with promptness and with warm
sympathy. They scathingly criticized the committee for using
this sacred trust fund for commercial purposes. These lawyers
also demanded to know what the corporation proposed to do
with any money it might collect from their borrowers.”
The defendants’ lawyers won every time, and the Relief
Committee lost several hundreds of thousands of dollars. “Here
was a valuable lesson to the Red Cross,” Bicknell wrote–not
to loan money to business.
The Red Cross also learned how to deal with inappropriate
donations. America’s millers began to flood San Francisco
with flour. When told that supplies were more than adequate,
the millers shipped even more. By September 1906, General
Greely had announced that San Francisco had a ten-year supply
of flour, and that the Relief Committee would sell 5,000 tons
on the open market. While this stopped donations, California
millers complained that the surplus sale was unfair competition.
Only when the Relief Committee agreed to limit the sales of the
surplus flour to exporters did the fl our sale go through.

Interlude: Disaster Relief Becomes a Profession
Between 1906 and 1927, America suffered only one substantial
disaster, the Ohio floods of 1913. But in this period, the Red
Cross transformed itself from a small defense auxiliary into one
of the nation’s biggest charities. In 1917, for example, it was the
beneficiary of America’s first $100 million fund raising drive.
But as the agency grew, notes historian Foster Rhea Dulles, “the Red Cross did not wish to run again into the difficulties
faced in 1906. Techniques were gradually developed whereby
it was prepared to jump at once into any emergency.”
Two of the leading books about disaster relief in this era were
Edward T. Devine’s The Principles of Relief (1920) and J. Byron
Deacon’s Disasters and the American Red Cross in Disaster
Relief (1918). Both books came to strikingly similar conclusions.
Deacon and Devine both argued that the very first step
in a disaster relief program–before anyone was fed, clothed, or
sheltered–was establishing a committee to determine who was
in charge and what everyone’s task was. Deacon, for example,
proposed a Central Committee that would oversee seven other
committees, including an Executive Committee, a Finance
Committee, a Committee on Relief Supplies and Warehouses,
and a Committee on Relief and Rehabilitation.
This was an age when social work was trying to become a
profession, and both Devine and Deacon argued that only trained
professionals, who would coolly sort the deserving from the
undeserving, should aid disaster victims. “The first lesson” of
disaster relief, Devine wrote, “is the folly and wastefulness of
relying upon inexperienced, untrained, or incompetent agents
for the distribution of relief.”
Devine at least thought volunteers had a limited, supplemental
role to play, in such projects as placing orphans in orphanages
or foster homes. Deacon took the harder line that volunteers
should have no role at all in disaster recovery. “If there are
enough experienced workers on hand to assure prompt and full
attention to all needs,” he wrote, “the executive officers should
not hesitate tactfully to refuse to enlist the inexperienced, or,
better, to find work for them in places where they will not deal
directly with the disorganized families…Volunteers should not
be used in disaster relief unless they are needed, because the
work, to be effective, must be done with a rapidity, disciplined
steadiness, and smooth team play which the inexperienced
cannot reasonably be expected to display.”
Ever since this time, there’s been a debate between volunteers
and professionals in disaster relief efforts. Ernest Bicknell notes
that by 1920, local volunteers were increasingly incensed by
the Red Cross’s attitude that they were dishonest amateurs who
needed to be shoved out of the way. “Your workers go into a
community after a disaster,” Bicknell wrote, “after some of the
best citizens of a community have done a fine piece of work,
and take the attitude, ‘The Public be damned. We are in charge,
Everybody is dishonest but us.’ If that attitude is continued you
will lose the respect and co-operation of the public.”
Nor is it clear how “scientific” the Red Cross workers of this
era actually were. A 1924 Los Angeles Times article (headlined
‘RED CROSS AIDS A SCIENCE”) featured an interview with
American Red Cross disaster relief director Henry M. Baker.
Baker told the Times that he had 70 people serving under him
ready to aid in disaster recovery. One of their primary tasks, Baker
said, was making sure that victims had enough fresh milk.
“It’s a funny thing,” Baker said, “but you can generally
count on all of the cows in a community going dry immediately
following a community disaster. It’s the excitement, I guess.
I’ve known of a herd of 1600 cows in the Middle West going
absolutely dry immediately following a cyclone.”
Three years later, Baker had far more things to worry about
than dry cows. He was in charge of the Red Cross’s efforts to
deal with the Mississippi River floods.

In next month’s Compassion and Culture Martin Wooster
follows the story of disaster response and the American Red
Cross through the Mississippi floods of 1927 and the Arkansas
drought of 1930-31.

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