Herbert Hoover is a disaster response model we need today
Herbert Hoover, where are you now that we need you?
Fires in the west, hurricanes in the southeast and flooding in the east have underscored the importance of unified command and control in response to natural disasters.
Unfortunately, recent responses to these crises have been far from perfect. What we need is a national leader who can take control. We need someone who fits Herbert Hoover.
Vacuum cleaner? It is an improbable model. After all, many Americans still blame him for the Great Depression, and he’s generally considered below average among our presidents. Prior to being president, however, Hoover had a reputation as an “emergency master,” and that’s what we need today.
There is no doubt that Hoover’s leadership made a big difference in 1927 when the Mississippi River blew over its banks and inundated an area the size of New England. More than a million people in Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana were left homeless and in desperate need of food and shelter. The devastation was just as serious as the consequences of the recent calamities.
In 1927, state and local governments seemed powerless to respond to the devastation, and there was no federal agency to offer support or assistance. Fortunately, Herbert Hoover turned out to be the only man who had the experience and determination to get the job done.
He was Secretary of Commerce from 1921 to 1928 under Presidents Harding and Coolidge. More importantly, he had led the famine relief effort in Europe during and after World War I and may well have been the only man in the federal government who understood how to respond to a crisis of the magnitude of the flood.
With Coolidge’s agreement, Hoover took control of all federal government relief resources. He led the flood control work of the Army Corps of Engineers and commanded other divisions of the War Department as needed. In fact, Hoover even had effective control of American Red Cross resources by establishing a common supply network.
Hoover’s success was the result of the right combination of skill and temperament that made him the perfect fit for what seemed like an impossible job. More importantly, he had a ministerial rank and direct access to the president, which gave him the authority to lead relief efforts.
He convinced local leaders to follow his plan and used the media to raise funds and raise awareness. He applied what he had learned in Europe to feed and house large numbers of victims and called on a personal network of experts who were loyal to him.
Unfortunately, no one has recently shown Hoover’s skills or abilities to respond to wildfires and hurricanes. It’s not that there aren’t any potential candidates for the job. There are retired military leaders who have the skills, if not the visibility, to lead a national response. And the bipartisan infrastructure bill winding through Congress will provide the funds needed to deal with these multiple crises.
Climate change has revealed our need to train government officials to respond to a wide range of disasters. In addition to finding a national leader for the relief efforts, we also need leadership programs to better prepare state and local leaders for future crises. These programs should be managed by the National Governors Association and the National League of Cities, organizations that provide advice to newly elected officials.
The country was fortunate that Hoover was available to respond to the 1927 floods. If we are to deal effectively with future hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires and mudslides, we will need to train a Herbert Hoovers cadre. With more storms brewing in the Gulf and fires sweeping west, it is not too early to launch such programs.
Timothy Walch is Director Emeritus of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa, and author or editor of two dozen books on a variety of American historical subjects. Contact: [email protected]