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Disaster Relief Experiences of the American Red Cross

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The American Red Cross

News Service

Annual Convention, Chicago May 11-14, 1936

Headquarters – Stevens Hotel


Release to Tuesday Morning Newspapers, May 12, 1936.


            Address by Robert E. Bondy, Director, Disaster Relief Service, at the Monday evening, May 11, general session of the

American Red Cross Convention in Chicago, Illinois.

 Portrait of Robert Bondy[View Image]
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Robert Bondy

In the space of a few minutes, I should like to have you glimpse with me some of the scenes, the experiences, the thrills and heart throbs of these recent troubled days – days during which I have visited seventeen disaster-torn states, some several times.

You should understand first that Nature’s thrusts – although in preparation throughout the winter in the flood areas – came with lighting-like speed – the floods almost over night, the tornadoes with no warning whatever. Twenty states were affected, yet strangely in urban areas almost exclusively. Relatively little rural territory was touched. The rivers were most destructive near the headwaters and in the more northern areas where the grade was steeper, ice more menacing and less time was given for protection of life and property. On a bend in the Merrimack River near Manchester, New Hampshire, the waters scoured out a business and residence area covering several city blocks so completely that now that part of town forms a new bed for the river. At Johnstown, Pennsylvania, water rose in several hours to a fifteen-foot depth throughout the entire business section and in one half the homes. At Tupelo, Mississippi, and Gainesville, Georgia, the tornadoes were as devastating as war itself. Only a respectable pile of kindling wood remained in block after block of residential sections. One negro community was completely swept from a knoll into a pond from which many bodies were later taken. Homeless, hungry, injured people everywhere. Over 649 thousand persons suffered losses – more than the population of all of Washington City and its suburbs.

In the bitterness of their loss and their suffering, these thousands came with an undefined almost blind faith that the Red Cross would see them through. They didn’t know how; but, as though lost in a storm, they instinctively recognized the guide who would pilot them to safety. Their dependence and faith were profound – from the colored sufferer who gloried in “bein on de Cross,” to the middle class family that had lost all and saw in the Red Cross worker a real friend in time of need.

But let us see how well prepared our Chapters were when the emergency came. Generally speaking, they were splendidly prepared. At Wheeling, West Virginia, but two days before the flood the Chapter had appointed the top personnel of its disaster preparedness committee. These three men, and the Chapter Treasurer and Chapter Chairman proved a veritable Rock of Gibraltar when thousands of homes were flooded. At Memphis one of our best organized preparedness committees – one with which I had met a few months before – snapped into action at Tupelo immediately and brought relief to the injured and care to the homeless. It knew the ropes. In another hard hit city, the Chapter had no preparedness committee. The National representative began from the ground up. People had to be found for the various assignments. Time was lost. Fortunately the needs were met, but with great strain and turmoil, largely because the Chapter was not prepared. Once again experience has demonstrated the value and necessity of strong disaster preparedness committees in Chapters.

Everywhere emergency care was promptly and effectively given. At Pittsburgh the Chapter performed an admirable service of caring for sixty thousand refugees – feeding, sheltering, clothing and giving medical and nursing attention at over 150 centers. At Greensboro, North Carolina, one of the many recorded acts of unselfishness and devotion to duty by a Chapter officer was reported when the Chairman of the disaster committee hardly paused at his own tornado-wrecked business to take charge of Red Cross relief at great personal sacrifice. At Gainesville, Georgia, so completely devastated by the storm, the Atlanta and other nearby Chapters virtually took charge of emergency aid. At Wilkes-Barre, as at many other points, the Chapter gave a wonderful service of rescue to thousands from flooded homes without a single casualty – aided by the courageous and skilled men of the U.S. Coast Guard to whom my hat is always off in tribute for an endless procession of service of rescue. And so it went in Chapter after Chapter.

No less thrilling is the story of universal cooperation of governmental organizations. Through proclamation of the President, and of Governors and Mayors, the Red Cross was established as usual as the central agency for the care and restoration of families, the government caring for streets, bridges, school houses and making its facilities available to the Red Cross. Everywhere the spirit of team play was repeated – surplus foodstuffs, cots, blankets, service of trucks and personnel were provided. Specialized services were made available. I stand in high tribute at these governmental services given without hope of credit, and always in full cooperation with the Red Cross.

And what praise should be given the local organizations and individuals who similarly submerged themselves in the common cause. I think of the Salvation Army Captain in a Southern city who reported at Red Cross Headquarters to help, and who walked off down the street with a Red Cross flag flying over his shoulder to erect it at his building where refugees were fed. I think of the wholesale grocer – with thousands of dollars of loss in his own warehouse – working night and day to keep a steady flow of food coming in to one beleaguered city. I think of the dozens of organizations in Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre and Birmingham and elsewhere that loaned their workers to the Red Cross. Never in my seventeen years of Red Cross service have I seen such generous self effacement of organization and individual interest.

And who can ever measure the good done by Chapters in forwarding foodstuffs and clothing by express, by the truckload, by the freight car load. Who could have dreamed that the attics and closets of America kept so many garments. In one city a high school auditorium seating several thousand and a large loft building were overflowing. At other points there was a shortage, for not all shipments were held for our instructions. And at times some supplies came in such bad condition that the local health officer condemned them and ordered that they be burned. But most shipments were useful and in order, although a smaller quantity would have well met the need.

At every point in those twenty states, the National Organization placed its experienced workers. Our small national disaster staff and others with disaster relief experience formed the nucleus; and around them were placed members of our other service staffs, several hundred from our disaster reserve staff and still more loaned by other organizations. One of the largest staffs of any disaster operation has been required. I take this occasion to thank all who have aided in building up this staff; particularly do I thank the workers themselves who at headquarters, in the disaster area, in the Chapters, have labored day and night – some on 24 and 36 hour shifts – yet all with an eagerness and admiration of the community leaders and disaster affected families alike.

Every such situation carries its tense moments, and, therefore, its never failing air of expectancy and stimulation. There is no monotony in disaster work. Rather, what’s going to happen next, is the uppermost though, met with a spirit of taking each problem as it comes and being ready for the next one. For example, the mayor of an important city after hours of constant, fatiguing labor receives rumors that the Red Cross refugee center at Blank School has food shortage when the central warehouse is bulging with supplies. He literally bursts through the front door spouting words to the effect that he’ll kick this Red Cross outfit out of town. He visits the school with the Red Cross men. He finds foodstuffs on hand in quantity; no shortage. He then shows he’s a real fellow and says, “I’m delighted; anything the Red Cross wants it can have.”

Or, isolated Renovo, Pennsylvania, getting a wireless message out to our National Headquarters that food and medicine are urgently needed – the wireless operator standing waist deep in water to send his message. The dispatch of messages to the Army follows. Army bombing planes are loaded with the needed supplies – and zoom low over the stricken town dropping food and medicine which, as I learned a few days later when visiting Renovo, came just in time.

What a thrill these tense moments carry when the Red Cross through Chapter workers, through disaster men or women dissolves the tenseness and meets the need.

And so often the tenseness, the suffering and loss find relief in good cheer and humor. A false alarm was issued that the dam had burst at Johnstown and thousands fled to the hills. Later I was told of those who, in their haste, carried pillows, lamp shades, and bird cages – and of one splendid elderly woman who ran up the sheer face of one hill rather than taking the winding, easier road, and who later was alleged in her presence by her children with being in training for the Olympics at Berlin this summer.

You may have heard of the open-mouthed wonder with which several of our workers at Wheeling heard the first-hand story from the man himself who seeing the house floating down the Ohio and hearing above the roar of the flood the cries of a small babe, secured a rope, lassoed the house, brought it to shore, rescued the motherless child and now desired to adopt it – our workers to learn on check-up locally that the man was the champion liar of the town and probably had not had his feet wet in the flood.

One evening in the midst of the early emergency, I received a phone call from Altoona. A sister of a young National Guardsman on duty in Johnstown asked in behalf of her brother who had not been away from home before, whether the Red Cross would go to a local store – all of which happened to be flooded and closed to business – and buy several new handkerchiefs. She had forgotten to pack for him and was worried, she said.

Well, those and many other incidents served admirably to relieve the stress and strain.

If you ask what aid is being given these families, my answer is that after careful inquiry of each family we determine the need that the family itself can not meet, and then fill that gap through Red Cross aid. The form of the aid depends on the need of each family. For example: An emergency hospital for seriously injured colored patients is organized in Cordele – a maternity hospital for colored patients in Gainesville. Established hospitals will care for serious fracture cases for months in Memphis, Atlanta and other points. The best medical skill is given without charge. In over 125 families at Tupelo and Gainesville where the family head and breadwinner was killed, a long time trust fund for maintenance and education of the children is provided. The mother may be trained in a trade that will provide new income. In other families affected by flood or tornado, the home is repaired or rebuilt, furniture is provided, new clothing is furnished. Farm lands in the Connecticut River Valley badly eroded and otherwise covered by sand and silt are now being reestablished through Red Cross cooperation. Deep plows were brought to turn in the poor deposits and make possible early planting on what was very productive onion, tobacco and asparagus land. The small watch repairer in Wheeling who lost everything, is furnished minimum equipment and tools with which to start again. Children in the box-car camp at Tupelo are given play opportunities through Junior Red Cross Children’s Fund aid until their homes are rebuilt. And so, Red Cross disaster aid runs the gamut of family need.

Now, may I close with three points.

First, this great system of relief and service does not just happen. It has grown through the years. Chapter Disaster Preparedness Committees have been built up. Disaster Institutes for Chapter officers and conferences for the national staff have been conducted. The good understanding on the relationships of the Red Cross and the government in time of disaster has evolved through the last several years. We in the Red Cross must persist in this preparation and go forward into matters of prevention.

Second, your magnificent success in raising a relief fund of between seven and eight million dollars is tribute to your own zeal and ability, and is evidence of the confidence of America in our organization. But even more significant is this confirmation of voluntary giving to the Red Cross to make relief in disasters possible. You know that our annual national disaster appropriation made possible largely from Roll Call receipts has met only one third of the cost of providing disaster relief in recent years, not including the four national disaster appeals made during that time. The other two thirds must be contributed when disasters come – and, in big disasters like this springs, all is generally contributed at the time. So let us make clear to all in future times when our own communities are affected by disaster, the Red Cross care of those in need will only be possible if contributions are asked for and secured to the extent of the communities ability to give.

And, finally, the sheer preeminence of the Red Cross as America’s disaster relief agency has been strikingly confirmed and testified to again. The symbol of the Red Cross has been the banner around which all may rally, it has been that password sign. I recall the U.S. Post Office Department Inspector who called on me on the third day of the flood – troubled and concerned because his five trucks of U.S. mail would not be admitted to Johnstown without Red Cross stickers on the wind shields. I gave him the stickers and the mail came through. The Red Cross was there – as we hope it always will be – the preeminent symbol of service in emergency, with the full support of its 3700 Chapters and the good will of the whole American people.

Source: University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Social Welfare History Archives. Minneapolis, MN:

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Bondy, R.E. (1936, May). Disaster relief experiences of the American Red Cross. Presented at the Annual Conference of the American Red Cross, Chicago, IL. Retrieved [date accessed] from /?p=14150.

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