All Commentary
Monday, May 1, 2000

Disaster Relief Then and Now

Early Americans Were Self-Reliant

Janet Sharp Hermann is an American historian and author living in Berkeley, California.

The earthquake of October 17, 1989, had no sooner struck the San Francisco Bay Area than politicians began vying for television time to offer government assistance. Within a few hours, as reports of the damage were still coming in, the Lieutenant Governor of California publicly pledged the state’s financial assistance to the victims. The next morning the President of the United States declared the affected region a disaster area, opening the way for federal assistance. At the same time the Vice President, touring the quake site, personally assured local officials of prompt implementation of the government relief program. Two days later the President himself appeared on the scene with similar promises. Soon volunteer lawyers were offering to assist victims in filling out complex forms that would bring immediate cash benefits. When disaster strikes, Americans automatically turn to government for relief.

This was not always the case. When the most severe earthquake in its recorded history struck the North American continent in 1811, victims living near the epicenter at New Madrid, Missouri, waited two years before even petitioning the government for assistance. The fledgling new nation that was the United States was expanding rapidly. By 1811 the flow of new settlers had penetrated beyond the Mississippi River well into Missouri Territory, which, as part of the Louisiana Purchase, had been opened to Yankee settlement just eight years earlier. However settlements were still sparse in the earthquake zone centered in the Mississippi Valley, where scattered small farms clustered around tiny villages such as New Madrid and Little Prairie in Missouri Territory.

At 2 a.m. on December 16, people up and down the mid-continent were jolted awake by the first shock of the great earthquake. Shaken from their beds, most fled their cabins as crockery crashed to the floor, precious glass windows shattered, and ridgepoles collapsed. In the village of Little Prairie, near the epicenter of the quake, screams of birds, animals, and people mingled with the rumble of the earth and the crashing of trees. Now and then there was a sharp crack as a crater suddenly opened in the earth spewing dust, rocks, and bits of coal shale mixed with sulphurous-smelling gas. Repeated shocks threw the frightened settlers to the ground, where in the dim glow they watched the earth undulate in waves two or three feet high, the largest of which broke open as fissures. In some places the ground was thrust upward in large domes while other areas sank several feet.

The most densely populated place in the quake zone that night was the Mississippi River, where clumsy flatboats and sleek keel-boats anchored beside banks or islands. When the big quake came these small boats were tossed about like toys on the huge swells churned up by the moving earth. In some places large chunks of the river bank including tall trees crumbled into the water with a crash, crushing hapless boats anchored beneath and capsizing others nearby. Soon the river was thick with trees and debris from the shore mingled with old logs, brush, and mud thrown up from the bottom. From time to time a loud hiss signaled the eruption of an underwater crater that projected refuse 30 feet into the air. By morning light, survivors noted barrels of flour, tobacco, and whiskey floating along beside boat fragments and stray garments among the tangle of trees and brush. In some places entire islands had disappeared, and the course of the river was drastically altered.

Church Bells Rang

The December 16 shock was only the first of a seemingly endless series that eventually leveled manmade structures in the New Madrid vicinity and were felt over perhaps one million square miles. The quakes rang church bells, stopped pendulum clocks, moved furniture, and cracked pavements and plaster as far east as Charleston, South Carolina, and Richmond in Virginia. Residents in Detroit some 600 miles from the epicenter counted nine sharp shocks in the next three months, while an engineer in Louisville less than 200 miles from Little Prairie recorded 1,874 tremors of varying intensity in that time. One householder in Cincinnati who had rigged a pendulum in his front window claimed that it swung constantly through the winter and into the spring of 1812. Although there were fallen chimneys and cracked brick or stone walls from St. Louis in the north to Savannah and New Orleans in the south, the most severe damage was sustained in New Madrid County in southeastern Missouri Territory.

Modern scientists believe that the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12 probably had the highest magnitude and covered the widest area of any that have struck the North American continent in historic times. After an exhaustive examination of all available evidence, Otto W. Nuttli, a St. Louis University seismologist, estimated that the December 16 shock probably had a magnitude of 8.6 on the Richter scale, that of January 23 was nearer 8.4, and the final major quake of February 7 reached 8.7. By comparison the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, so costly in lives and property, was weaker than any of these with a Richter magnitude of 8.3, and the recent one was measured at only 6.9 or 7.

Despite the severity of the New Madrid quakes, no more than a dozen deaths were recorded and most of these were from drowning. The debris on the river that passed Natchez in subsequent weeks indicated that there were undoubtedly many unrecorded deaths on the Mississippi, but on land there was greater loss of property than of life. Settlers’ cabins could be rebuilt, but many of their painstakingly cleared fields were badly fissured or covered with erupted rocks and shale. In a few cases bodies of water had been formed preventing cultivation of the affected land. Often the wells were dry and useless as a result of a shift in the water table, and the pond or stream that a farmer had counted on to supply his cattle might now be located on his neighbor’s land. In the village of New Madrid, homeowners suffered most severely when the February shock caused the town to sink some 15 feet, resulting in severe flooding in the spring.

No Government Relief

There was no organized effort to assist these hard-pressed disaster victims either in their immediate needs for food and shelter or the long-term restoration of their property. As with any crisis on the frontier, those who were able aided their neighbors in a cooperative effort to rebuild. Psychiatric counseling, either government or private, was unknown in the early nineteenth century, but the psychological trauma of repeated quakes drove many who had spent little time in church to suddenly embrace religion. From informal prayer meetings as the ground shook to well-organized camp meetings the next spring and summer, these “earthquake Christians” joined in pious practices in unprecedented numbers.

With no mass media to publicize it, the plight of these frontiersmen was little known in the rest of the nation. The idea of seeking material aid from the government seems to have occurred to the victims only gradually. On Holy Thursday, March 26, 1812, while the Mississippi Valley still shook, an earthquake struck the city of Caracas in Venezuela, killing some 20,000 people, many of whom were crushed in churches as they worshipped. In an unusual gesture, the Congress of the United States appropriated $50,000 for Venezuelan relief. Some months later when delegates to the Missouri territorial assembly learned of this charitable gift, they decided that a similar gesture would be in order for their own people. So in January 1814, two years after the disaster, the assembly petitioned the U.S. Congress on behalf of “our unfortunate fellow citizens” of New Madrid County who were now “wandering around without a home to go to or a roof to shelter them from the pitiless storms.” Noting congressional generosity to the Venezuelans, the Missourians felt sure that Congress would be “equally ready to extend relief to a portion of its own Citizens under similar circumstances,” because “we ought never forget that what was their fate Yesterday, may be ours tomorrow.” After another year’s delay Congress approved a request that the New Madrid earthquake victims be compensated from public lands. Those whose property had been damaged could take their titles to the land office in St. Louis and receive in exchange certificates allowing them “to locate the like quantity of land on any of the public lands in said territory, the sale of which is authorized by law.” No claimant was to receive less than 160 or more than 640 acres.

Even this tardy compensation proved to be ill conceived. Before the real victims learned of the passage of the bill, speculators swarmed into New Madrid County and bought up their ruined lands for a pittance. When these sharp dealers then exchanged the titles for valuable land around St. Louis or in the highly prized Boon’s Lick region of central Missouri, some of the original owners filed suit for fraud. Over the next 20 years Congress passed three more acts, and various attorneys general supplied ten opinions all seeking unsuccessfully to clarify the relief law for the benefit of the earthquake victims. In 1845 the U.S. Supreme Court was still working on the legal tangle and the term “New Madrid claim” had become a synonym for fraud.

In nineteenth-century America even a feeble attempt by government to assist victims of a major disaster proved ineffective. However, the citizens of New Madrid County never expected any compensation. On the frontier in that era, failure, whether from personal inadequacy or natural calamity, was a risk each settler took with no prospect of outside assistance. The people who built America lacked the security of a government cushion against failure whatever its cause. Neighborly assistance might mitigate an immediate crisis, but in the long run each person knew that his well-being depended solely on his own efforts. Although this self-reliance entailed some real suffering, there were compensations; for example, these men were free to enjoy all the fruits of their own success unimpeded by restrictive government regulation or crippling taxation. While removing the valleys of despair from failure, the government has also leveled the peaks of joy from success.