Disasters, whether natural or manmade, are an unfortunate yet unavoidable fact of human existence. They can be limited to affecting only small regions of a country, or they can wreak havoc across continents, or even the world. Thankfully they are relatively rare, though this may change in the near future as climate change continues. That being said, it seems that the US government is ill equipped to handle large scale disasters. Current examples include the California wildfires, a litany of hurricanes, and, of course, COVID. Looking at these, it is easy to assume that the federal government has never really had a competent disaster response. Is this really the case? Has the federal government always been doomed to inadequacy when responding to disasters? Let’s take a look.
In 1889, the worst natural American natural disaster before Hurricane Katrina occurred when a dam broke upriver from the Pennsylvania city of Johnstown. There were approximately 2200 deaths, with over $17 million (which would be almost $500 million today) in damages done |i|. Relief efforts came from all over the nation, with additional funding coming in the form of donations from all over the world. Clara Barton led volunteers from her still young American Red Cross Foundation into the relief effort. Various societies and companies from around America sent goods, volunteers, and funds they had raised, while Governor James Beaver created a statewide Pennsylvania Relief Committee to take charge, and called in the state militia to keep order. The efforts to rebuild the town were resoundingly successful, and according to the Johnstown Area Heritage Association (JAHA), “six weeks after the Flood, the town was well on its way to recovery.”|ii|
As successful as this was, federal involvement was minimal, with most support either coming from within Pennsylvania, or from non-governmental parties sending goods, money, and personnel. The state of Pennsylvania itself only helped as far as cleaning up and temporarily caring for the survivors. JAHA states that “no city, county, or state legislation was enacted to protect people from similar disasters in the future…The city would continue to suffer nuisance floods, with water in the streets and in people’s basements especially in the spring of the year. It would be another 47 years, and not until more property was destroyed and more lives lost, until some constructive efforts were made to control the waters that flowed through Johnstown.”|iii| Joseph Arnold, in an analysis of flood control programs and legislations notes that “no major federal response to flood destruction occurred until the beginning of the 20th century.”|iv| The federal government did not contribute much to rebuilding, and did not develop a flood prevention plan for the area either, which would result in much more devastation throughout the region over the years until they did. Granted, the country was still in the reconstruction period following the Civil War, so there were many pressing matters that required the attention of the government |iv|. There were a few actions the government did to control Mississippi River floods a few years prior, as that is a much larger body of water and more readily noticeable when it floods |iv|.That being said, this was the largest disaster in American history at the time, and they should have had a more involved response.
Though late and after several more floods, lives, and damages, the government did eventually prepare a response to address the problem. Bear in mind that there had been extensive flooding throughout areas along the Mississippi River, Ohio, California, and parts of New England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and that this was not just a problem in Pennsylvania where the Johnstown Flood had occurred |iv|. Throughout the early twentieth century there were numerous attempts to get Congress to approve a national program of flood prevention, but none of them realized fruition. In 1917, the first major national legislation for flood prevention was passed by Congress. It was not very effective, but it set some major precedents that allowed for future bills to expand on the program |iv|. It permitted the government to contribute to the construction of levees and canals in flood prone areas, but required that local contributions cover most of it. World War I was still in full swing, and Congress was understandably more concerned with this than floods on the domestic front. There was some progress in the form of surveying waterways in the early 1920’s, but there had still not yet been any improvements in flood prevention since the 1917 bill. A particularly damaging flood brought attention back to flooding in 1927 after the Mississippi flooded and displaced over 700,000 people in the lower Mississippi region. A year later, the Flood Control Act of 1928 was ratified. It allowed an expenditure of $325 million (~$6 billion today) to be spent on flood control, which was even more than the Panama Canal cost! This bill was further expanded in 1936 under FDR, and allowed the US Army to travel to high risk areas and construct levees |iv|.
We have seen that the federal government was in fact consistent with its current trend of failure in the face of crisis when it came to flooding, but how about another form of disaster? Fires have also been a pressing concern around the country, and still are. The Peshtigo Fire and the Great Chicago Fire both happened on the same day, October 8, 1871. The Peshtigo Fire has the largest body count of any fire in US history at anywhere between 1,200-2,400 |v|, but was obscured in the headlines by the Chicago Fire, which was enormously devastating in damages and displacement of people |vi|. In 1881, the Department of Agriculture created the Division of Forestry, which had a primary objective of study and experimentation to find out more about the country’s vast forests, mainly for logging reasons |vii|. This had little effect for fighting fires, but it was a start in getting the federal government involved in managing natural resources.
Conservationist efforts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries succeeded in convincing the federal government to set lands aside for national parks and preservation. These efforts culminated in the organisation of the federal Forest Service in 1905. Still, fires continued to wreak havoc as these conservation efforts were not intended for fire control. In August of 1910, enormous wildfires swept through Washington, Montana, and Idaho, destroying 3 million acres of land, while other fires around the country burned an additional 2 million |viii|. The government deployed troops to help fight the fires, but it was about a week before the fires began to show signs of being reigned in. The tremendous amount of damage made the Forest Reserve question their strategy of putting out fires as quickly as possible, and instead opt for a strategy of fire prevention combined with suppression when they did occur. The passing of the Weeks Bill of 1911 allowed for greater cohesion and cooperation between local and federal firefighting efforts, and allowed for monetary rewards to be dispatched to states for efficient firefighting |vii|. This was an improvement, but at this time in history they did not yet understand the ecological good fires had, and the notion of controlled burns had not yet been considered. The Forest Service continued to develop programs to raise public awareness and limit fire in forested areas. This continued until the sixties and seventies when scientific research showed that the better policy would be to let fires grow under control, even starting some when necessary |vii|. This policy was very successful in reducing fire damage over the years, but it is simply impossible to prevent them entirely as the recent California fires have shown us.
Between the 1889 Johnstown Flood and the 1928 Flood Control Act, almost forty years, and several more catastrophic floods had passed before the federal government finally addressed the problem. This would not completely eliminate the problem of flooding, as no mortal hands could ever hope to do so, but this effort certainly helped save vast amounts of lives and money. After the largest fire in history, it took almost a century for the government to find a reliable plan for fire prevention. Why did it take so long to pass legislation that was clearly needed? Well, for one thing, many politicians thought it was not constitutional for the federal government to get involved in these matters |iv|. They did not think it was fitting to interfere with state affairs, and private property was certainly out of the question. Another matter was the fact that such projects were tremendously expensive, and the United States was not always the superpower that it is today and so had to be much more frugal with its budget. It is fascinating to see that FDR went for this in 1936, in the heat of the Great Depression. Another important matter was that the technology available at the time limited the overall efficiency, limiting engineering projects only to levees, which are rather basic and inexpensive, but fill up with debris quickly in major flooding events |iv|.
The delay between some of the largest disasters in American history and finally finding effective federal response was long, but there were reasons behind it. Why then, does it seem that the government is still struggling to address them when they occur? Technology has improved so much that the entire world knows about them mere hours after they’ve occurred. The government now has decades worth of precedent to justify its involvement, and now has vast amounts of wealth that administrations of the past could never have imagined. Though beyond the scope of this research, which only sought to examine the disaster plans of the past, it is most certainly a question deserving of our attention, as there are lives at stake.
|iv| Arnold, Joseph. The Evolution of the 1936 Flood Control Act. Fort Belvoir, VA: United States Army Corps of Engineers, Office of History. 1988.