Sandy, humanitarian relief and American tradition
Cyclone Sandy was technically downgraded from hurricane status but remains highly disruptive. Both the Obama-Biden and Romney-Ryan campaigns temporarily suspended frenetic activity. This reflects practical impossibility of moving through the storm region, but also more fundamental considerations.
Today, the White House and associated agencies are expected to provide effective leadership in mitigating national disasters, which until the 20th century were fatalistically viewed as unavoidable “acts of God.”
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.
President George W. Bush suffered serious political damage from public perception that he was both ineffective and uncaring in reaction to the Hurricane Katrina devastation.
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 (FEMA), the image of Bush far above the fray proved costly.
By contrast, President Theodore Roosevelt established the precedent of immediate direct White House involvement after 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.
The USS Chicago rescued 20,000 people, still one of the largest amphibious evacuations in history. Soldiers distributed food, water and medical supplies.
Military methods also restored order. An estimated 500 looters were shot by soldiers and police, including 34 men who attempted to rob U.S. Mint and Treasury buildings that contained $239 million in bullion and cash.
A further great expansion of the U.S. approach to disaster relief, including overseas efforts, was developed by Herbert Hoover. During and after World War I, 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 the White House.
In 1965, Hurricane Betsy became the first Gulf Coast storm to create more than $1 billion in damage. President Lyndon Johnson immediately flew to New Orleans and spent many hours visiting storm victims, slogging through water to isolated shacks. 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 and author of “After the Cold War” (Palgrave/Macmillan and NYU Press). He can be reached at email@example.com.