Arthur Cyr - After disaster, victims count on federal relief

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Americans once fatalistically viewed natural disasters such as the Superstorm Sandy as unavoidable "acts of God," with victims largely expected to cope on their own. But through the 20th century, society steadily expanded relief efforts, so that today the White House and associated agencies are expected to lead in mitigating devastation.

Over the same period, the mass media have played a more important role in reporting terrible events in graphic human terms. Sandy 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 cellphones -- increasingly visual -- carry the process further.

Simultaneously, Americans have raised the bar regarding expectations of government. President George W. Bush suffered serious political damage from the public perception that he was both ineffective and uncaring in reaction to Hurricane Katrina's impact on the Gulf.

One 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, the image of Bush above the fray proved costly.

By contrast, exactly a century earlier another Republican 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 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 gold bullion and cash.

Roosevelt stressed the role of the American Red Cross. The Obama White House, too, has had a link to the Red Cross for relief efforts following the Haiti earthquake and now Sandy.

Herbert Hoover further expanded the U.S. approach to disaster relief, including overseas efforts. 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, then-Commerce Secretary Hoover spearheaded an enormous humanitarian effort after huge Mississippi River flooding. Hoover was confirmed -- temporarily -- as a Great American Hero, securing a lock on the 1928 Republican 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. (The Federal Emergency Management Agency was created in 1978 under the Carter administration.)

President Barack Obama must equal this tradition -- or pay a price.

(Arthur Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of After the Cold War.)

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