The American Red Cross responds to nearly 70,000 disasters every year, ranging from a fire damaging a single home to tornadoes, hurricanes and floods which impact entire communities.
Red Cross disaster response goes all the way back to Clara Barton and the beginning of the American Red Cross. The first disaster response was in 1881 when a forest fire in Michigan burned through a million acres in 24 hours. The fire claimed almost 300 lives and left thousands homeless. New Red Cross chapters collected food and supplies which were shipped to Michigan to assist the 14,000 people in need of help.
Before the Red Cross existed, the U.S. War Department was the main responder to disaster in the country. After the fire in Michigan, the Red Cross proved it could respond to large disasters and President Chester Arthur and the U.S. Senate officially recognized the American Red Cross by signing the Treaty of Geneva, March 16, 1882.
On April 18, 1906, a severe earthquake shook the city of San Francisco. Buildings crumbled and fires destroyed four square miles of the city. More than 200,000 people were homeless. Red Cross response was challenging as the organization had no financial reserves and no one at headquarters with disaster experience. The country responded and with more than $8 million in donations, and the Red Cross set up food kitchens throughout the city, constructed simple lumber houses, and provided financial assistance to help people rebuild their homes and businesses get back up and running again.
Cherry Mine Disaster of 1909
In November of 1909, more than 260 miners and some of their rescuers were entombed in a coal mine at Cherry, Illinois. The Red Cross established a pension fund for the widows and orphans which was credited with influencing the eventual passage of workers' compensation laws in many states, forcing industries to take more responsibility for the welfare of their employees.
Influenza Epidemic of 1918
In 1918 one of the largest and deadliest flu outbreaks in recorded history left millions of dead and dying in its wake. In the United States, the American Red Cross National Committee on Influenza supplied nurses, furnished emergency hospital supplies, mobilized doctors, helped educate the public on prevention and treatment of the disease in the United States.
The requests for trained medical help surpassed the supply of people available. In less than two months, the Red Cross recruited about 15,000 nurses, student nurses, practical nurses, nurse's aides and other women who had taken the Red Cross Home Hygiene course. Despite the high risks of infection and death, these women stepped forward to help across the United States. A total of 223 nurses and five dieticians are known to have died while providing humanitarian aid and service to flu victims.
The Red Cross supplied and staffed influenza wards in army camps, schools, armories, railroad stations and country clubs for this unprecedented medical emergency. Canteens were also set up to feed people who could not receive food at home because of illness in the family. The Red Cross Motor Corps, consisting of almost entirely women volunteers, transported nurses, doctors and patients and supplies to and from the influenza wards.
Other Major Disasters in History
In 1912, Red Cross workers provided relief for the survivors of the Titanic. In 1915, the Red Cross responded when the S.S. Eastland capsized in the Chicago River with 2,000 people aboard, killing 800. In 1923, the Red Cross responded in Tokyo and Yokohama, Japan after a disastrous earthquake. Other responses included flooding along the Mississippi in 1927 and helping victims of the Dust Bowl in 1932. Disaster workers were on the scene after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the fire at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston in 1942 which killed 494, a massive earthquake in Alaska in 1964 and the destruction in the northeastern end of the country by Hurricane Agnes in 1972. And on September 11, 2001, disaster workers responded to the terrorist attacks in New York, at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Hurricane Katrina struck August 29, 2005, resulting in the largest single disaster relief effort ever undertaken by the American Red Cross. The storm killed nearly 2,000 people and left millions homeless. Hurricanes Rita and Wilma followed soon after, worsening the devastation and leaving behind more than $81 billion in damage.
In the largest sheltering operation in its history, the Red Cross opened nearly 1,400 evacuation shelters in 27 states and the District of Columbia. More than 3.8 million overnight shelter stays were provided. More than 90 kitchens were set up to prepare meals. Five days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, the Red Cross served nearly one million meals in a single day. More than 68 million meals were served during the response.The Astrodome in Houston was one of several large facilities used to shelter people during the American Red Cross response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the largest single disaster response in Red Cross history.
More than 244,000 disaster workers, 95 percent of them volunteers, responded to help the hurricane survivors. The Red Cross deployed thousands of health and mental health professionals to help the victims of Katrina. Truckload after truckload of food and supplies were shipped into the area. More than 4 million people received emergency assistance.
Testifying before Congress, Joseph Becker, who was in charge of Red Cross response and preparedness, described the response to Katrina as “the most significant level of human need the Red Cross has faced in its 125-year history”. “Katrina produced human needs exceeding those of all previous disasters in this country,” Becker said. “None of us could have envisioned the sheer scale of catastrophe. The challenges were immense and the circumstances difficult, and the Red Cross persisted because of our tireless volunteers. It is because of their selfless work that we have managed to do the work that we do.”