tv Disaster Responses in Early America CSPAN December 20, 2020 1:55pm-2:56pm EST
hebrew] >> seasons greetings from all of us at american history tv. >> george mason university professor cynthia kerner discusses her new book inventing disaster: the culture of the jamestown colony to the johnstown flood, which explores ways early americans responded to disasters. she spoke at the university of history and culture in richmond. program, we are joined by cynthia kerner, inn --or at george maso george mason university in history. books.hor of several
superstorm sandy pummeled new york city and the jersey shore. i found that storm fascinating because it destroyed places i cared a lot about. that is my childhood roller coaster. it was not in the ocean when i rode on it. so i found stories about this storm really riveting, especially the human interest stories about its victims, survivors, about different efforts to provide post-disaster relief, the ways in which the whole situation became politicized, in part because it happened so soon before a presidential election. i also found interesting what all these stories told us about the larger world's of new york and new jersey -- larger worlds of new york and new jersey in 2012. read andmportant, as i
watched the news, i noticed that it followed a pattern that was familiar to me from katrina and from other disasters. first came the quantitative information about what happened. how may people died. how much property was destroyed. and the value of that property. second came the human interest stories, mostly uplifting stories about relief and resilience. third and finally came the post-disaster investigation and recriminations. this is a three-step process. this three-step process is how we do disaster. this is what the culture of calamity looks like in 21st century america. so when sandy struck, i was looking for a new book project. and my new sandy obsession seemed to point me in a fruitful direction. a few years earlier, as jamie
indicated, i had written a book about a sex scandal that occurred in virginia in the 1790's. they put blood on the cover. it was awesome. historianss what call on micro history, and other words, project that uses a single, very specific event or story as a window onto the past. so why not find an early american disaster and write a micro history about it? enlist anords, engaging and dramatic story in the service of teaching and learning and thinking about history. it seemed like a great idea. it was until i encountered a major problem. i could not find an early american disaster suitable for a book length study. i was looking for stories about tearful sufferers, about inspired efforts at disaster
relief or prevention in the 17th or 18th century and there was little to be found. it was not that bad things did not happen in early america. they happened all the time. there were epidemics, hurricanes, fires, all sorts of bad things happening. but these events did not have the same expansive cultural impact back then. and even more important for historian -- for a historian looking for sources, they did not result in the voluminous cultural production, newspaper articles, stories, things of that sort that they would in a later era. so my project evolved. instead of writing about a specific event, i began with a new research question, which is actually something we try to teach our students to do. begin with a question. my question was how and when did -- the ideas, rather,
about the causes, consequences, famines, fires, earthquakes, floods, epidemics and other events become recognizably modern? when did that happen and why? i will give you my answer briefly and then talk about more stuff. my answer, briefly, is that how we do disaster today, our culture of calamity, if you will, is the product of the enlightenment with a capital e. the enlightenment, as most of you probably know, was a cultural and intellectual the 18th and 17th centuries that celebrated human reason, the pursuit of knowledge, encouraged people to believe in the possibility of progress, that people can make things better by the use of their reason. and there are three aspects of
the enlightenment that i think are especially relevant in terms of this development of this modern culture of calamity. number one, the spread of information. information is just a whole lot more available to people during the enlightenment period and then thereafter. initially, information travels by way of letters written by officials, explorers, merchants, people on the move. later, it becomes even more widely accessible in this growing world of print culture that included newspapers, magazines, broadsides, sermons, treatises, travelogues, bad poetry, novels, many of which were bad as well. just at the beginning of the age of the novel. that is the first thing, the age of information. secondly, this new belief in human agency and progress.
inspired efforts to understand hurricanes, earthquakes, and other things of that sort rather than just accepting them. not only to understand them, but to find ways to limit their bad effects. in other words, science. the enlightenment is all about using reason to understand things. and sometimes to make things better. what scienceind of is ultimately all about. third and finally, a new appreciation for emotion. and for sympathy for the suffering of others. being able to experience fellow -feeling with suffering was increasingly seen at the time as a sign of virtue. if you could, as bill clinton used for say, feel their pain, that meant you were a good person. this is a quality that people of
the time called sensibility. that's mostly associated with the scottish enlightenment. it was a really key factor in explaining the huge popularity of novels, especially since the middle novels during this period. -- especially sentimental novels during this period. the book begins with jamestown. where roughly five out of every six settlers died between the colony in 1607 revoked, when the king the virginia company's charter and made virginia a royal colony. jamestown was a deathtrap. colonists died mostly of famine and disease, like endemic disease. in other words, things that we today would likely characterize as disasters, but the culture surrounding these episodes was
nothing like the response to the famine in ethiopia in the 1980's, say. virtually no one knew about the horrific situation in jamestown because there were no newspapers, certainly no radio or tv or anything like that, and the colony's corporate based -- colony's london-based corporate sponsors did everything they could do situation quiet. they did not want people to know jamestown was such a deathtrap. people would stop coming and investing. there was really no information about these troubles. the only disaster relief was to send more people and hope they did not die, boat of course they did -- but of course they did. five out of six. most of them did. jamestown was kind of my baseline. it is a time and a place where bad things happened, but where the response to those bad things that happened was nonexistent. i would just kind of colored
premodern. -- kind of call it premodern. it is not at all the way we need -- respond to disasters today. moving on from jamestown, a thorough search of every source i could get my hands on for the century or so after jamestown led me to shipwreck stories. they became an important literary genre as europeans embarked on voyages of exploration, trade, and colonization in the early modern period. , ifbook's second chapter the first does not thrill you, is actually about shipwrecks, because in a very basic way, shipwreck stories brought together those three elements of enlightenment culture that i mentioned earlier, information, science, and sensibility. first of all, information about shipwrecks was widely available. in part because of the appeal of thee adventure stories,
shipwreck narratives, but also veryse of readers practical interest in the military and economic value of ships and their cargoes. one could make an argument that the first newspapers in the american colonies are really about publishing where ships are going, what they are carrying, and when they sink, you know, how much property is lost as a result. people were really interested in this stuff. second, although many early shipwreck stories were just kind unemotional tallies of human and property losses, more seminal accounts came, and in newspapers -- sentimental accounts became common in newspapers but also in literature and art. i will show you this. the painting by the french artist bernet called the shipwreck -- how original -- was
painted in 1772. this is the cover of my book. this is an awesome painting. in real life, it is huge, colorful, dramatic. if you look at it, what the painting is telling a story of is not just the wreck of the ship, but the sad situation of the people suffering as a result of it. you see people trying to get to shore, hanging on the mast of people kind of half naked on the beach trying to recover. a woman raising her hands to ask for god's help. significant, less colorful illustration here is the cover page for a poem also called the shipwreck that was written in 1769 by a guy named william falkner, who was a sailor and a poet. book,tual title of the
the full book, is the shipwreck: a sentimental and descriptive poem. i am telling you it is sentimental -- you do not have to believe me. it is on the cover. no one has heard this poem today and it is quite as long to read it, however, it went through many editions from 1769 really up until the 1830's and 1840's on both sides of the atlantic, england and north america. so we are getting sentimental stories about shipwrecks in the same way that later we get seminal stories about katrina and sandy and so forth. third and finally, the science bit. more cool pictures. shipwrecks and the human and financial losses they caused led to important efforts by scientists and inventors to prevent maritime disasters or at least to limit the loss of life that occurred as a result of them.
so they experiment with improvements in maritime architecture. and they also invent a variety of flotation devices. here are two notable examples. the example on your right, my left, is the first lifejacket made of cork. it is patented by a british physician/inventor in the 1760's. and my personal favorite. this is one of my favorites of the book's illustrations. it is called the hydropsis. which, who knows, right? it is kind of a 3d doughnut. areou can see, there hinges, so it opens and you can put it around your waist if you are shipwrecked. there are secret compartments built into it. so you can put not only important papers that you want
to say from the water, but food and stuff so if you are shipwrecked for a long time, you have stuff to eat and drink. if you have a small child with you, you can set the small child on it. this is one of my favorite things. i don't think it ever caught on. but the lifejackets did. the important thing is these innovations are important early examples of people using science , not simply accepting bad things that happen as acts of god that they could not do anything about, but rather using their ingenuity, using their intelligence to solve potentially fatal problems. i love those pictures. in terms of a specific disaster with a huge cultural impact, the watershed moment was the great lisbon earthquake of 1755. which kill tens of thousands of
people and -- which killed tens of thousands of people and utterly destroyed the portuguese capital. most scholars consider lisbon the first modern disaster. they actually use that phrase to describe it and for a variety of reasons. news and information about the disaster in lisbon spread very quickly by letters, by newspapers, throughout europe and north america. and south america as well, were whereuese head -- portugal had colonies. it elicited cultural commentary from basically everyone who was anyone in 1755. the people who wrote about it wesley,diverse as john the english founder of the methodist church, to more secular minded people like voltaire, shown here.
voltaire, if you have heard of him at all, is probably known to you as the author of candide, which is a kind of satirical story that is set in the aftermath of the lisbon earthquake. poem,re also wrote this upon the lisbon disaster, which is not satirical at all. it is in fact very sad and very affecting and also very, very graphic in terms of describing what you would have seen in the aftermath of lisbon. it is long, but i have chosen the sexiest verse for my slide. and imagine.es women and children heaped up crushed,high, limbs mangled, torn, and panting for their breath. buried, beneath their sinking their sinking --
groups expire, they and their wretched lives and torment. this is pretty hot stuff. some people did indeed view the earthquake as a sign of divine vengeance. it led to sustained scientific investigation of earthquakes and their visible causes. scientific observations about lisbon in the aftermath of the earthquake really shaped a very ambitious government funded rebuilding of the portuguese capital after the earthquake was over. so science was really important in terms of understanding what happened and trying to prevent what had happened from happening again at the same time, poetry lisbon tobitbout peoples heartstrings and inspired an unprecedented number not just images, poetry, but visual images, some of which was available really quickly.
got this image, which i from the royal picture collection at windsor castle, very cool place to visit, by the way. it was available on the streets of london, london booksellers, within a month of the actual earthquake, which is really fast for the 18th century. this before and after set up was something that was very popular. the before parts, which is very detailed and would have taken a lot of time to do, was done, significantly, before the earthquake. the after parts, which is kind of like a mess, you could make it quickly, was done in the immediate aftermath. they tacked on an eyewitness description and boom. people could hang it in their living room. i'm not sure what you would do with this. the idea is that when we are talking about lisbon, we are talking about not just poetry. but an unprecedented number of pictures.
the lisbon earthquake also significantly gave rise to the first international relief effort. disaster relief effort in world history. it is kind of a big deal in that regard as well. i am interested in the british empire. -- i am interested lisbon mostly for its impact on the english-speaking world. i am interested in the british empire, in what eventually becomes the united states, and i would argue the earthquake had a profound impact throughout the world,h-speaking not only because england and portugal were longtime military allies and because there was this community of english merchants living and working in lisbon. for my purpose, what was most significant about the earthquake was its effect on british philanthropy and benevolence. at the time, in the 1750's, philanthropy was growing
--rmously in rate written in great britain, especially with newly wealthy merchants looking for ways to use good works to enhance their stature in society. what was different about the response to lisbon, though, was the unprecedented contribution of government to post disaster relief, specifically king george know, asd, who, you kings go is not one of your glamour kings. in his 80's, did not speak english, only spoke german, but he very publicly, presumably through a translator, donated 100,000 pounds of money and provisions to help the portuguese. really unprecedented. and on both sides of the atlantic, his subjects praised him for his generosity, which fit very nicely with britain's britons sense -- with
emerging sense of themselves as uniquely enlightened and never lent. well, of course we have a great king. we are a great people. here is some more of that bad poetry i alluded to praising george's liberal bounties, bequeathing stuff to a foreign land. they are really enthusiastic about the king and having such a benevolent monarch reflects well on the british nation generally, both in great britain and in british north america. and as colonists in america lavishly praise their benevolent monarch, they also came to expect relief from the mother country when disaster struck, and this is something that they had previously neither expected nor received. between the lisbon earthquake in
1755 and american independence in 1776, colonists looked to london for relief after hurricanes, floods, and fires, and they typically did get some, though it was more likely to come from these philanthropic committees of merchants and clergy than it was to come directly from the king and parliament. but the main point i am trying relief is that disaster sort of becomes a thing in the aftermath of lisbon and then colonists saw themselves as part of a larger british imperial community. not,hat, more often than people in britain had information about disasters that happened in the american colonies and they also made some sort of donation that signaled their sympathy for people who were suffering in america. i could give you a lot of examples of this happening
within that relatively brief window before american independence -- and there are more in the book -- but i will stick with four for now. otherwise, you will be hungry and whatever. off,ronologically, first in march of 1760, there is a big fire in boston. there are fires in boston all the time. this is a big one. they call it the great fire because it was a great fire. there were no deaths. surprisingly, people -- there are fires all the time but people really died because most of the buildings are low. there are no deaths, but about 400 buildings were destroyed, totaling at least 50,000 pounds sterling in property losses -- a lot of money. more than 200 families are left homeless. what happens? the king's representative in massachusetts, the royal governor, decides he needs to
step in, that he needs to help. and he creates this successful contacting effort by all of the royal governors from nova scotia to virginia and asking them for help and they do. it is a very successful sort of government-sponsored or at least interventionsored that helps people in boston in the aftermath of the fire. ofe years later, in may 1765, there is another fire in montreal this time. relatively 1765 is recent addition to the british empire, having been conquered by great britain in 1763 with the victory over the french in the seven years war. the overwhelming majority of people in montreal are french. they are kind of like, well, we have spent our lives hating the british. we are not real keen about being there's now.
-- theirs now. the fire in montreal was a perfect opportunity for the british empire, specifically the king, to do pr about how great it is to be in the british empire. sowill take care of you and forth. the fire killed 10 people, property loss was comparable to boston's. the governor of quebec decides he will do a fundraising effort similar to the governor of massachusetts. his was less successful, mostly because of the stamp act crisis. people in the lower 13 are like we are kind of pissed that you guys. a fundraising committee of mostly merchants raised about 9000 pounds for montreal, and can george iii -- and king succeeded, who's
his grandfather by this time, contributes and sent a statue of his very benevolent self. i am telling you pr. of the statue is pulled down by english .ontrealers the statue with this inscription, talking about what a benevolent dude can george was. -- king george was. this was the fundraising pamphlet used by people raising money in london for the fire. this woman is britannia. the kneeling figure is supposed to represent montreal. we know it is supposed to represent canada because there is a beaver right next to her. montreal being the center of the for trade.
trade. then you see the city burning in the background. and so there is a good response to that as well. august, there a major hurricane in the leeward islands in the caribbean. these are british colonial possessions. there are hurricanes in the caribbean all the time, of course, even then, but this was particularly bad. hundreds of people died, at least 21 ships and their cargoes were destroyed, and property losses totaled about 500,000 pounds sterling. 1772, minimal in aid comes from london. and the reason for that is that london is in the midst of a profound financial crisis, so the very people who would be likely to send aid to the colonies are not really in the position to do that. the king, though, does send 2000
pounds to help rebuild destroyed military barracks -- hospital. -- a destroyed military barracks hospital. my fourth image from barbados and jamaica. another hurricane, this one much worse. indeed, i think it is still the worst hurricane in caribbean history. as many as 30,000 people died. nearly 2 million pounds sterling in property losses. and by 1780, we are talking about a very different sort of context. were loyal barbados colonies during the american revolution. in other words, they could have declared independence. people in north america wanted them to declare independence, but they did not. sende king and parliament 120,000 pounds sterling in hurricane relief and disaster relief. personally donated
5000 pairs of shoes for the island militia and significant funds were also raised by merchants and by others in britain who organized disaster relief efforts. what all of this crash course in imperial disaster relief should tell you, among other things, is that disaster relief was a thing. it is something that happened between the 1750's and the 1780's, but that the quality and quantity of imperial disaster relief is situational. in other words, it mattered what kind of a context the disaster happened in. for instance, hurricane relief for jamaica and barbados in 1780 favor that the colonies earned for their loyalty during the american revolution. and interestingly, government
relief becamester standard practice within the british empire after the war was over, at least for the next couple of decades. americans who declared their independence in 1776, by contrast, established political institutions that did not provide relief to people who suffered the ravages of hurricanes, fires, and other calamities. response to the yellow fever epidemic that killed or than 5000 people in philadelphia in 1793 is instructive. theffects pretty much whole city, but the red parts are the most profoundly impacted. it is important for a lot of reasons, but for me, what is important about it is it is the first test of how the u.s. government would respond to a disaster.
at the time, philadelphia was home to three governments, federal, state, and local, all of which led the city as soon as the epidemic happened. they are like, sorry, we are out of here. at the time, philadelphia was deserted by government types citizen volunteers -- at the time philadelphia was deserted by government types, citizen volunteers were left to bury the dead. if you look at george washington's correspondence with his cabinet during this period, it indicates that the nation's leaders saw the war in europe between britain and france as much more pressing business than the fever in philadelphia. this is what they are writing about. when congress reconvenes , they debate on a national quarantine law in terms
of constitutionality, not on the potential to save lives. congress considered something that looks like disaster relief legislation after a fire happened in the city of portsmouth, new hampshire in the summer of 1802. the part of the map circled is where portsmouth was affected by the fire. the other shaded parts were other fires. there were a lot of fires in early american cities. here, forw pictured what it's worth, called an act for the relief of the sufferers by fire in the town of fort smith. and that law -- town of portsmouth. and that law is passed by congress a few months after the fire happened. some historians consider it the first american federal disaster relief legislation. they are totally wrong, by the
way. if you read the law -- that's it, right? that is the entire law. law, the law did nothing to help widows and orphans and other people left destitute and homeless as a result of the fire. it merely established a moratorium on the collection of debts merchants owed. president thomas jefferson sent for portsmouth's local relief committee a generous donation for humanitarian purposes after the fire, but he remainhat his gi anonymous.main jefferson does the same thing after a fire in fredericksburg, virginia. it is the exact same thing. here is the money. don't tell anyone i am giving it.
with one notable exception, humanitarian relief was not forthcoming from the federal government during the lifetimes of the founders. that exception was in 1826 when congress granted the city of alexandria $20,000 after a fire destroyed 53 buildings, leaving many people homeless. we all know that alexandria is now in virginia. but back then, it was part of the district of columbia. therefore, it was governed by congress. even so, federal disaster relief for alexandria was considered controversial. presidentn and future james k. polk spoke for a sizable minority of legislators when he condemned the measure and argued that it set a dangerous precedent. in reality, though, it did not. instead, it was congress' decision to protect the merchants and their business interests rather than to alleviate human suffering that set the precedent that endured
in the united states until the post-civil war era. merchants benefited from similar legislation after portsmouth's second big fire. so did commercial interests in norfolk and new york city after when major fires occurred there. congress took these steps to help merchants in the aftermath of urban fires because cities and airports as sites of trade and sources of tax dollars, i.e. customs duties, were essential to the republic's fiscal and economic health. hurricanes, earthquakes, and other so-called natural disasters were also common in the early republic. but relief, if it never happened at all, was totally locally organized and privately funded. like congress, state governments rarely allocated funds for disaster relief.
congress allowed settlers and speculators t whose landholders had been destroyed by the earthquakes -- come on. there we go. the new madrid earthquakes. no. there we go. 1812, they allowed these people to swap lands after the earthquakes destroyed the lands they had. that offer was to strengthen control over the recently acquired louisiana purchase territory by encouraging white settlement. they have gotten this territory. they wanted to settle that land to get away from indians. if you land got trashed by earthquakes, that was not going to happen. it is important to stop a bit and emphasize that congressional
action or inaction was actually in keeping with the vision of the men who drafted and implemented the constitution. who did not see disaster relief or any sort of assistance for suffering citizens as part of government's job. despite the fact that they gave the government under the constitution pretty impressive powers. those powers cheaply pertained to military and fiscal matters, and their main purpose was to fight wars, secure western territory, and protect u.s. trade commerce. there was no general federal disaster relief law until 1950. i am not screwing up that date. that is the right one. there are no laws to help prevent disasters or to minimize casualties that resulted from them. there does not seem to have been much public demand for public government intervention either.
but that began to change slowly. i would argue that the major factor behind that change was the steamboat. popular, new, fast and often very dangerous way of , moving people and goods. in antebellum america. between 1860 and 1848, many steamboats were destroyed in explosions or related catastrophes. , killing at least one in 5000 passengers and injuring many others. annual steamboat fatalities did not get better over time, they actually got worse. they peaked at roughly 200 per 0 andbetween 184 and 1851. we are not talking about those
that had third-degree burns. these numbers might not be staggering. the lisbon earthquake had killed 40,000 people in a few hours. from the earthquake, the fire, the tsunami. there were two important things about steamboat disasters that made them alarmingly compelling. to many americans. first, because steamboats were increasingly ubiquitous. they were kind of everywhere where there was water. most people had either been on one or knew somebody who had been on one, which made steamboat disasters more universally relatable than hurricanes or fires. second, the rise of the steamboat coincided with other important changes in american culture. specifically, the availability of cheap newspapers. that thrived by publishing sensational stories. notice the penny press. cheap penny press. advancements in printmaking.
people.nd of and then the growth of popular entertainment like theater, panorama exhibits, and so forth that could reenact or reconstruct disasters so people "ah"e them and go "ooh" or whatever. sensational words. there is my steamboat. sensational words and images of exploding steamboats and their victims were literally everywhere in antebellum america. this came as a total surprise to me. they are like everywhere. let me give you an indication. for an example of the kind of words i am talking about because you obviously cannot read that from your seat. steamboat exploded in new orleans, a widely reprinted eyewitness account described the
scene as follows. "the sight of the mangled bodies on every side, the clothes of the dying, and the shrieks of the agonized sufferers produced a general thrill of horror among the multitude. the body of a man was seen with the head and one leg pulled off and the entrails torn out." i love people who smile or laugh when i read this stuff. what is wrong with you? [laughter] a woman whose long hair lailay wet and matted by her side, her body was mangled. they like that word. a large man having had his skull matched in lay dead on the levee. his face looked as though it had been painted red, completely flayed by the scolding water.
others crushed scalded, burned, , mutilated, and dismembered. and there were pictures! courier and ives are well known today even for prints celebrating american industry , prosperity and growth by , portraying orderly cities, western vistas powerful , machines. they also depicted the destruction of those very things. so nathaniel currier published these lithographs. many of them showed steamboats otherwise colliding and basically wrecking. the first of those exploding steamboat lithographs is this one here of the lexington. interestingly and importantly, this is an image that appeared on the front page of the new
"new york sun" newspaper just three days after it happened in 1840, which was really quick. you could buy it and hang it in your living room or do whatever it is you wanted to do with it. the other thing interesting about this print is it is the first kind of big above the fold image in american newspaper history. it is an exploding steamboat. exploding steamboats generated popular demands for government intervention to impose and enforce safety standards. the first law passed by congress in 1838 was totally ineffectual. the second one passed in saved 1852 lives. these laws represented the first federal regulation of private industries. the entry of government into the disaster business, they also represented an important step in the emergence of modern american culture of disaster.
to be sure, there would be some changes and additions in the coming years, especially in the area of humanitarian relief from the role of the federal government expanded on an ad hoc basis to express the challenges for example of reconstruction in the southern states in ways that set important precedents, which made disaster relief far more common than it had been before the war, though obviously not nearly as frequent or expansive. as it would become a century later. in 1867, the federal government allocated a half million dollars for famine relief in places in the south that were affected by crop failures, floods, insect infestations, and yellow fever. in the 1870's and 1880's, congress also provided funds and provisions for other parts of the country, mostly in the midwest and on the great plains, that had been devastated by
floods, tornadoes, and other disasters. meanwhile, after the civil war, the american red cross transitioned from helping sick and wounded soldiers to providing disaster relief. barton and her people went to ohio and texas for floods, to south carolina for an earthquake much illinois for a tornado, and to florida for yellow fever all , in the 1880's. the johnstown flood, and we are anding near the end, pennsylvania in may of 1889 was clara barton's greatest challenge and the red cross' major relief effort. much as they did today, red cross workers came and set up tents and hospitals. you can see some of them here. they established temporary shelters for the homeless and distribute it much needed relief and supplies. one other change obviously besides photography, which is
kind of getting to be a thing by the 1880's, one other change was the speed with which information was able to travel about the disaster mainly due to the use of the telegraph, which had been invented in the 1840's, but which have not been used by journalists until the civil war. in johnstown, the flood began on a friday morning. by that evening, some reporters were already there and sending words and pictures to audiences across america. of course, the advent of radio in the 1920's and of television and social media later made disaster coverage even more immediate and compelling. but i think i would argue that our modern culture of calamity was essentially established by the time clara barton received a hero's welcome in washington when she returned from johnstown that november. thank you. [applause]
i think i am allowed to do questions for a while. so i would be happy to do that if anybody has anything they would like to ask. no? i wanted a loop of an exploding volcano that would just keep going to keep moving things along. was there a cultural divide or a cultural difference in terms of the way government assistance for natural disasters was handled between the races? between the white culture and the african-american culture? prof. kierner: internally within communities or are you talking about government? >> was it perceived as non-desirable to receive government assistance in the white community, whereas it was not quite perceived in the same
way in the african-american community? prof. kierner: oh. i think everyone was pretty much happy to get relief when they needed it. what is really interesting, and this is kind of beyond my purview because most of the studies on the late 19th and early 20th century relief studies, you are able to get the granular analysis on who got what and why. what is interesting is very the relief committees who tended to be local upper-class people would give out relief based on what they believe people's need was. and whether you were a man or woman, rich or poor, black or white often kind of helps determine that need. so one example, there is a really good book on the chicago fire in 1871.
they left really good records behind. the author proved without a shadow of the doubt that if you were white, nativeborn, and female, and middle-class or wealthy, you had the best chance of getting relief. because the people who were giving out the relief assumed women needed more help than men. people, they-class will suffer more because they are not used to suffering. it is this weird kind of thing. there are examples. whether you are talking about the earthquake in south carolina charlestontever in or whether you are talking about hurricane betsy in new orleans in the 1960's, even if the federal government is overseeing relief and the assumption is well, you know, of course everybody's needs should be , taking care of.
once that gets put into local hands, it tended to be white, middle-class. they could clearly take care of their people before anyone else. but i think the assumption is that basically most people want help if they in fact are suffering. >> i am interested in what happens after disasters occur. you mentioned at the beginning what happened in new york. you are looking at this dramatic picture of the johnstown flood and you think about the flooding of houston. i mean, just the -- when saddam hussein left kuwait and blew up all of those oil rigs. and flooded the persian gulf with oil. when we get past a number of
news cycles, then we are off to the next issue. what do we know going back to this about how long it took to recover, and why is it that news organizations or folks don't seem to really hang in there for long? prof. kierner: wow. i think the how long it takes to recover part probably varies on a case-by-case basis. one of the things i have not mentioned at all is insurance. the first kind is insurance invented is maritime insurance. for shipping. it really goes back to the italian renaissance and all of that. the next type is fire insurance. and so all of these fires that
we are talking about in the early republic and later, what is happening after the fire is that the people who have fire insurance are getting their money and they are rebuilding. the people who don't are not. back in the period i am mostly interested in, i have not traced what happened to them. but i would imagine that at least in cities you can look at city directories and see where people are living and where they move over time. so i mean, i think it varies according to resources. increasingly, it also varies according to what experts say in terms of environmental impact. does it makeof, sense to rebuild on the spot if this happens again? which is a discussion they have after lisbon. a lot of people are like, no, we should not rebuild here. but the government is adamant
that they should. your question about what we call the news cycle, it is a much i think in some ways a much more complicated one. first of all, there is a difference between local and national news, even back then. stories about rebuilding in new orleans might appear in new orleans newspapers for a whole lot longer than they do on cnn. or whatever. that --an, i also think and certainly this is true even in the 19th century, newspapers , television newscasts, whatever, are businesses. they are looking to get an audience. this is the way they make money. there is something about the destructiveness of a disaster. i mean, it's riveting. i am reading about the lease we
en i can see you guys are more louisiana and i can see you guys are more awake. they are mangled? this is exciting. rebuilding in the aftermath of disaster is exciting and important to the people involved in it, but it is less exciting for audiences. that is probably not a great answer. i'm telling you i am really an , early americanist. the epilogue of the book is about johnstown and it goes up to the 21st century. i felt like an undergraduate researching on the internet. i have to know something about the 1950 flood. my feeling is that if you like the book, the end is not going to matter that much. and if you don't like the book, you're never going to get to the end. so there you have it. [laughter] >> we have time for one last question. prof. kierner: let him. asdid your research carry far in time forward as the
galveston flood of 1901? prof. kierner: not really. i mention it in passing in the epilogue. from jamestown to johnstown, so really i end in 1889. but galveston is super important. it as johnstown is the deadliest american disaster on record up to that point. galveston surpasses johnstown. unless you are from galveston, i am sure it would be important to you for other reasons. but galveston's real claim to fame is it is the deadliest disaster in american history. still, as far as i know. so i mention it but i do not really write a lot about it. i would argue that a lot of the things i'm talking about in the epilogue in reference to johnstown are going to be played out again in galveston.
they are going to be played out again. there is a new book on the great flood of 1926 of the mississippi river. and i think it is just called the great flood. it is a horrible, horrible flood. one of the things that is interesting is the author is making an argument that this is a totally different thing so . so many things happening are unprecedented. the only thing unprecedented in 1926 is people are hearing about things on the radio. i think it really is galveston looks a lot like johnstown except it is in texas. what is different about johnstown is that race plays an really important part in what is going on there. there is a good article on johnstown where the author makes a compelling case that the kind
of white leaders of the city use the disaster and its aftermath as evidence that, in their view, the government needs to be changed from an elected mayor and city council to what was called a city manager form of government. the upside of all of that was disenfranchising a lot of people, most of whom were african-american. this is not to say that in johnstown, everyone was one big happy family. there were european immigrants in johnstown who were scapegoated in the same way. david mccullough, before he became super famous, wrote his first book on the johnstown flood. he talked about how the kind of native stock americans in johnstown referred to all the immigrant types as hungarians. i don't know why. they weren't. but the hungarians were
kind of scapegoated in the same way african-americans are going to be scapegoated in galveston later. that is probably not the answer you want to come but that is my answer. wanted, but that is my answer. thank you. [applause] [captions copyright national cable satellite corp. 2020] [captioning performed by the national captioning institute, which is responsible for its caption content and accuracy. visit ncicap.org] of our stories are archived on c-span.org. you can watch archival films and see our schedule of upcoming programs that is c-span.org/history. ♪