Hurricane Harvey’s storm status was reduced just after reaching the coast of Texas, but damage was severe. There was destruction in and around Houston and elsewhere before the storm faded further north over Ohio.
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.”
President Donald Trump and Melania Trump were quick to visit the area. In the past century, American society has steadily expanded disaster relief efforts.
Within the same period, the mass media have played a steadily more important role in reporting terrible events in graphic human terms. Reporting on severe storms shows the complex contemporary interplay between media and people.
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.
Simultaneously, Americans have steadily raised the bar regarding 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 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, one century earlier in 1906, another Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, established the precedent of immediate direct White House involvement after the San Francisco earthquake. His initiatives included a quick congressional appropriation of $2.5 million, a radical move and substantial sum for that time.
Teddy Roosevelt also involved the military in humanitarian relief.
Military methods 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, which was created during the Carter administration. Roosevelt instead stressed the role of the Red Cross.
Future President Herbert Hoover developed a further great expansion of 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 Herbert Hoover spearheaded an enormous humanitarian effort after massive Mississippi River flooding.
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.