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Red Cross Disaster Services Began in 1881

Hurricane Katrina shelter at the Astrodome
...the Red Cross responds to nearly 70,000 disasters every year...

The American Red Cross has been helping people during times of disaster since its inception and today responds to nearly 70,000 disasters every year.

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. Red Cross chapters collected food and supplies which were shipped to Michigan to assist the 14,000 people in need of help.

Disaster responses today are both large and small, ranging from a fire damaging a single home to tornadoes, hurricanes and floods which impact entire communities. In 2012, thousands of Red Cross disaster workers responded to help those affected by Hurricane Sandy, a response which continues today.

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 on March 16, 1882.

During the years, Red Cross disaster workers have responded to emergencies like the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco which left more than 200,000 people homeless and the flu epidemic in 1918 during which millions succumbed to influenza.

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 northeast 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.

The largest single disaster relief effort ever undertaken by the American Red Cross was the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. 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.

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.

Today, the Red Cross continues its response to help those who were affected by Hurricane Sandy. More than 17,000 disaster workers have served more than 13 million meals, distributed more than seven million relief items and made more than 112,000 health and mental health contacts.

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About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies about 40 percent of the nation's blood; teaches skills that save lives; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a not-for-profit organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit or, or visit us on Twitter at @RedCross.