Charting Disasters

The disaster considered the most deadly in American history is the hurricane that devastated Galveston, Texas, on September 8, 1900. Galveston, an affluent and rapidly growing island city on the Gulf of Mexico, was also a popular tourist community, and many residents and tourists ignored warnings by the U.S. Weather Bureau to seek higher ground. Instead, they chose to stay put and watch the huge waves. What they failed to realize was that Galveston was no match for those waves (up to fifteen feet high), accompanies by winds reaching 130 miles per hour. The hurricane slammed directly into Galveston and swept away more than half the structures. The storm claimed more than 8,000 lives.

The first federal legislation directed toward disaster relief was passed by Congress in 1803 during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson. That legislation provided assistance for a New Hampshire community that had been ravaged by fire. Although the federal government continued to provide disaster relief, (more than 100 times through the nineteenth centu-ry), that relief was primarily given on a case-by-case basis. There was no formal procedure for obtaining aid.

It was during the nineteenth century that the American Red Cross was established by Clara Barton, who served as a battlefield nurse during the American Civil War. Modeled after the International Red Cross, which provided battlefield aid during wartime, the American Red Cross visualized by Barton was created to provide disaster relief during peacetime. The American Red Cross was formally established in 1881. The Salvation Army, which had been established three years earlier, offers disaster relief assistance as well, both material and spiritual. Many Salvation Army members are ordaind clergy and can serve in chaplain roles at disaster sites.

Inside Charting Disasters