When disaster strikes, people’s lives change in an instant. Often, they lose everything they hold dear — their home, family photos, clothes, furniture — everything. When the worst happens, American Red Cross volunteers are there to help.
The Red Cross has supported disaster victims since its beginning. Over the past 140 years, we’ve continued to adapt to people’s emerging needs and deliver emergency relief to those who need it most.
1881 MICHIGAN FOREST FIRE Months after Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross, the organization launched its first disaster response — donating money, clothes and furniture to victims of the devastating forest fires in Michigan. The fire claimed almost 300 lives and left thousands homeless. Red Cross chapters collected food and supplies, which were shipped to Michigan to help assist the 14,000 people in need.
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.
1889 JOHNSTOWN FLOOD In 1889, a dam collapsed near Johnstown, Pennsylvania, sending millions of gallons of water toward the town of 30,000 people. More than 2,000 people died, hundreds were missing and tens of thousands were left homeless. To help, Clara Barton and a team of doctors, nurses and relief workers set up hospital tents, feeding stations and our first sheltering operation with “Red Cross hotels” to house the people whose homes were destroyed. Clara Barton and her team of 50 volunteers remained in Johnstown for months, helping the survivors get back on their feet.
1893 HURRICANE SEA ISLANDS, SC Before hurricanes were named, the Red Cross launched its first major hurricane response when a powerful storm struck the Sea Islands in South Carolina in August 1893, claiming the lives of thousands of residents. As bad as the damage was, starvation was a chief concern. Red Cross volunteers, led by President Clara Barton, helped feed thousands of people until the next year’s spring crops were harvested. She set up a warehouse to stock clothing and food to support those in need. For nearly a year, the Red Cross stood with survivors who lost everything, helping them rebuild their homes and livelihoods by providing seeds for new crops and creating local sewing groups for people to create and sell clothes.
1927 MISSISSIPPI RIVER FLOOD The Red Cross was called into action along the Mississippi River during the Great Flood of 1927, which covered about 16 million acres in Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri, Illinois and Kentucky. The Red Cross helped with transportation, sheltering, feeding and clothing, as well as furnishing nursing and medical care.
More than 325,000 people stayed in Red Cross tent camps across affected states, and the Red Cross fed another 300,000 people staying in public buildings or on the second floor of damaged homes. People joined the relief effort in different ways, including a large group of cowboys from Texas who help save people’s livestock — working day and night to perform floodwater rescues with their lassoes. Eventually, when the water receded, the Red Cross helped local families return home using fleets of boats, caravans of vehicles and the railroad.
1969 HURRICANE CAMILLE On August 17, 1969, Hurricane Camille made landfall on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama as a deadly Category 5 storm, causing extensive damage and unprecedented flash flooding. At the time, it was the most damaging storm on record in the U.S. During the height of the response, the Red Cross fed and sheltered nearly 260,000 disaster victims and relief workers. In coordination with federal and state authorities, the Red Cross assisted families with their long-term recovery and returning to their daily lives.
1994 NORTHRIDGE EARTHQUAKE On January 17, 1994 a powerful earthquake struck southern California, knocking down walls, collapsing parking structures, crushing cars and buckling freeways. The city of Los Angeles suffered heavy damage and thousands were in need. The Red Cross mobilized thousands of disaster volunteers, many of whom had loaded their families into cars and drove them to safety, only to turn back around and drive to their local chapter to report for duty. In the first 36 hours, the Red Cross opened numerous shelters and service delivery sites throughout the San Fernando Valley. Over the course of the response, the Red Cross served 1.7 million meals, provided shelter for nearly 22,000 people and provided mental health support to more than 40,000 affected Californians.
2005 HURRICANE KATRINA The largest single disaster relief effort ever undertaken by the American Red Cross was the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In fact, parts of our response were nearly 20 times greater than any previous disaster relief effort. The storm killed nearly 2,000 people and left millions homeless. 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 and provided more than 3.8 million overnight shelter stays. Five days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, the Red Cross was serving nearly 1 million meals in a single day — distributing a total of more than 68 million meals during the response. More than 244,000 disaster workers, 95 percent of them volunteers, responded to help the hurricane survivors.
2012 SUPERSTORM SANDY On October 29, 2012, Superstorm Sandy came ashore near Atlantic City, New Jersey, having already pummeled much of the East Coast. The massive storm hit hard across New Jersey and New York, paralyzing the nation’s largest city with unprecedented flooding, taking lives and displacing hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. Storm damage left 8.5 million people without power across 11 states and sparked a massive fire in Queens, New York, which leveled more than 100 homes.
Survivors looked to the Red Cross for help, which came in the form of shelter, food and care. Red Cross workers served over 17.5 million meals and snacks, and they drove more than 300 emergency response vehicles to navigate blocked roads, closed bridges and tunnels, and gas shortages as they worked to bring relief throughout the region, providing food, blankets, health care, emotional support and sorely needed relief supplies like cleanup and comfort kits.
ADAPTING TO TODAY’S CHALLENGES Since then, severe weather has continued to batter communities — some, again and again. In 2017, back-to-back hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, became some of the worst in U.S. history. And record-breaking wildfires continue to rage each year.
As disasters become more frequent and intense, and with disaster seasons lasting longer, the Red Cross is continuing to adapt — just as we have for the past 140 years. In light of climate change, we’re committed to grow our response capacity and deliver our services more sustainably — so the American Red Cross can continue to help future generations in need. To learn more and how you can get involved, visit redcross.org today.
This story is part of a special historical series marking the 140th anniversary of the American Red Cross. Visit redcross.org/RedCross140 to learn more.