History of Disaster Relief

History of Disaster Relief in the USA: Before 1950

Before 1950, state and local governments and non-governmental organizations – like the American Red Cross (ARC) and Salvation Army – were largely responsible for disaster relief assistance. One of the initial tests for national disaster relief organizations was the Johnstown Flood of 1889. The ARC set up food and water stations, provided medical care, and established mass shelters to house the disaster victims.


Clara Barton, the founder of the ARC, wanted the Red Cross to provide assistance to people in peacetime. After proving itself as a primary disaster relief organization, in 1900, Congress granted the ARC its first federal charter which called the ARC to provide relief during wartime, as well as peacetime. Even as the primary disaster relief provider, the ARC received little government funding.


Throughout the first half of the century, voluntary organizations, as well as the United States military, assisted in multiple disasters like the Galveston Hurricane and Storm Surge in 1900, San Francisco Earthquake in 1906, the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, and the droughts of 1930-1931. Up until this point, Congress only funded relief efforts incident by incident. Congress believed that disaster relief was best left to charitable organizations.


Federal Disaster Relief Program of 1950 to NVOAD

This inefficient and piecemeal approach to disaster assistance was partially remedied in 1950 when Congress passed the Federal Disaster Relief Program. This Program transferred power from Congress to the President to federally declare disasters. It also established the Federal government’s role as merely supplementing local and state efforts.


The Federal Disaster Assistance Administration, established within the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), provided major federal recovery and response in the 1960’s. The federal government was able to test this program in the Anchorage Alaska Earthquake in 1964. This disaster marks the beginning of serious federal involvement in disaster relief.


Hurricane Camille in 1969 also caused major shifts in disaster relief, including the practice of it, as well as the national structure. Minorities and those of lower socio-economic classes claimed that voluntary agencies provided uneven assistance. The ARC established standardized guidelines for providing equal and fair assistance to everyone. The response also showed how fragmented and uncoordinated the different agencies were.


On July 15, 1970, seven voluntary agencies came together in Washington, D.C. to form the National Voluntary Organizations Assisting Disaster (NVOAD). NVOAD serves to provide a place where disaster relief agencies convene and discuss best practices and prevent duplication of tasks.



While the private organizations aimed to consolidate efforts, more than 100 federal agencies were involved in some aspect of disasters, hazards and emergencies. Many parallel programs and policies existed on the local level and state level. In an executive order in 1979, President Carter created the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) which subsumed disaster-related responsibilities in the different federal agencies. FEMA absorbed agencies like the Federal Insurance Administration, the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration, the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration, etc. Importantly, FEMA also became responsible for aspects of civil defense.


In the first few years, FEMA faced many significant challenges that tested its abilities to respond to a wide range of disasters. Early on disasters and emergencies included Love Canal, the Cuban refugee crisis, and the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. Later on, the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989 and Hurricane Andrew in 1992 focused major national attention on FEMA. James L. Witt, the Clinton nominated FEMA director in 1993, initiated sweeping reforms that streamlined disaster relief and recovery operations, insisted on a new emphasis regarding preparedness and mitigation.


After Hurricane Katrina and FEMA’s inadequate response, President George W. Bush signed into law the Post-Katrina Emergency Reform Act. The act significantly reorganized FEMA, provided it substantial new authority to remedy gaps that became apparent in the response to Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, the most devastating natural disaster in U.S. history, and included a more robust preparedness mission for FEMA.


History of Disaster Relief in Texas

In the twentieth century, Texas faced a multitude of disasters, ranging in type and magnitude. From industrial disasters like the Texas City Disaster to tornados in Waco to Hurricane Ike, Texas has seen it all and is actively engaged in preparing and mitigating disaster.


Before 1950, besides coordinating the police to protect citizens and their property, the state left relief and recovery up to local jurisdictions. After a string of disasters ending with the Texas City Disaster, the state recognized that it needed a permanent organization to provide support for local jurisdictions and coordinate between federal government and local jurisdictions.


William McGill, a staff worker for the governor, witnessed the various problems in coordination between different government departments and levels and with voluntary organizations. He was asked to create a structure to provide the badly needed coordination. In 1951, the Texas legislature passed the Texas Civil Protection Act created by McGill. This Act reflected both the need for changes in the fragmented way Texas had been responding to disasters and the Federal Disaster Relief Act of 1950.


The Texas act created the Division of Defense and Disaster Relief of the Office of the Governor. This act provided structure for the coordination between different state resources within a prearranged plan. It also created the State Civil Defense and Disaster Relief Council, which was composed of the heads of state departments involved in disaster response. This Council, which would create plans for disaster response, was headed by McGill, the first ever Coordinator of Defense and Disaster Relief.


In order to prepare for disasters, Texas was divided into six regional disaster districts and further divided into two districts with the Highway Patrol captain as liaison officer between the Division of Defense and Disaster Relief and his district. In 1963, the division was moved to the Department of Public Safety. After this transition, its name has changed multiple times, but 81st session of the Texas Legislature has formally named the organization to the Texas Division of Emergency Management. Disaster legislation and response has evolved in such a way that still places the greatest burden on local jurisdictions to respond. Furthermore, they have incorporated into its structure a place for faith-based organizations.

(Photo ”Clara Barton” by User Marion Doss used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.)
(Photo Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries. UH Digital Library.
”Destroyed ship” by User UHDL used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License.)

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