President Donald Trump and Melania Trump were quick to visit Texas in Hurricane Harvey’s wake last month, arriving just as relief efforts were getting underway.
Today, we expect the White House and federal agencies to provide effective leadership in mitigating national disasters, which people until the 20th century fatalistically viewed as unavoidable “acts of God.” Over the past century, American society has steadily expanded disaster relief efforts.
During that same period, the mass media have played an increasingly important role in reporting terrible events in graphic human terms. Severe storm reporting 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 cell phones carry the process farther.
Simultaneously, Americans have steadily raised their expectations of government. President George W. Bush suffered serious political damage from public perception that he seemed 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 friend was in charge of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the image of Bush far above the fray proved costly.
By contrast, in 1906, another Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, established the precedent of immediate and direct White House involvement after the San Francisco earthquake. His initiatives included a quick congressional appropriation of $2.5 million, a radical move and a substantial sum for that time.
Teddy Roosevelt also involved the military 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.
Military methods also restored order. Soldiers and police shot an estimated 500 looters, 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 Haiti earthquake and Hurricane Sandy relief efforts, the Obama White House website had a link to the Red Cross.
Future President Herbert Hoover further expanded the U.S. approach to disaster relief, including overseas humanitarian assistance. During and after World War I, he led the enormous U.S. Food Administration and American Relief Administration, credited with preventing devastating mass starvation in Europe.
In 1927, Commerce Secretary Hoover spearheaded an enormous humanitarian effort after huge Mississippi River flooding. The people confirmed Hoover—temporarily—as a great American hero, securing him the 1928 Republican presidential 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 Lyndon 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.
U.S. presidents for more than a century have developed this tradition as a leadership test.