Wednesday, April 30, 2014

New Deal Response to Natural Disasters

(WPA laborers in Rhode Island, during the New England Hurricane of 1938, being transported to areas in need of help. Photo by the WPA.)

Recently, America has seen many natural disasters in the form of mudslides, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, and wildfires. During the New Deal, policymakers utilized the skills and labor of unemployed Americans to assist in natural disaster response. These unemployed Americans helped search for survivors, repaired utilities, put out fires, built levees & flood walls, made clothes for those who lost their homes, and much more.

During the New England Hurricane of 1938, the governors of affected areas requested help from the WPA. WPA director Harry Hopkins stated, "There are sufficient funds to meet this emergency. We will do whatever needs to be done." And Robert Fechner, director of the Civilian Conservation Corps responded to calls for help with 10,000 men. (Federal Writers' Project, New England Hurricane: A Factual, Pictorial Record, p. 188, Boston: Hale, Cushman & Flint, 1938) 

This type of action--utilizing unemployed labor to assist during natural disasters (and with lightning speed)--is unheard of today. Too many of our political "leaders" are way too busy catering to the super-wealthy, and labeling the unemployed "lazy" and "moochers" (to score political points), to be bothered with connecting the dots of unemployment and natural disaster response. Indeed, many of our congressional "leaders" question whether the federal government has any business helping victims of natural disasters at all (unless, of course, the disaster happens in their state; see, e.g., "31 Senate Republicans Opposed Sandy Relief After Supporting Disaster Aid For Home States"). Yes, this is how ruthless our political situation is today. Our "leaders" will deny disaster aid to their fellow citizens, and not lose a wink of sleep over it.

Today, we have too many politicians and policymakers whose primary (or exclusive) concern is, "How can I make rich people happy?" With a few exceptions, leaders like Harry Hopkins are absent from our federal political and bureaucratic systems. This is probably why Winston Churchill wrote, "We shall not see his like again," when Harry Hopkins passed away in 1946 (Henry H. Adams, Harry Hopkins: A Biography, p. 26, New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons, 1977, citing New York Times, January 30, 1946).

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