The Army and Humanitarian Relief

The Army and Humanitarian Relief\r\n\r\nBy Brig. Gen. John S. Brown, U.S. Army retired\r\n\r\nThe federal response to Hurricane Katrina has been severely criticized, as has its Army subcomponent. Interestingly enough, the Army response was larger, faster and more comprehensive than ever before in a natural disaster. What is more, it progressed about as those who originally envisioned an Army role in disaster relief had imagined. Under our federal system, municipalities and states react to such crises first with local resources, including their militia or National Guard, and federal troops assist in due course as states request and circumstances require.\r\n\r\nIt would take imagination to establish a constitutional mandate for Army involvement in humanitarian relief. The founding fathers preferred a standing army that was small, far away on the frontiers and incapable of affecting civil governance much--whether for better or worse. The Army happened on to humanitarian relief. Throughout the 19th century, local commanders did what they could to help out in times of disaster as their consciences directed, but there was no particular system for doing so. Notable examples of relief included food, clothing, tents and medical care provided during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. \r\n\r\nThe 6,000 soldiers who eventually deployed to assist San Francisco represented 10 percent of the entire Regular Army at the time. After 1878 commanders had to be careful not to run afoul of Posse Comitatus, a law proscribing their involvement in law enforcement.\r\n\r\nIn the early 20th century, Corps of Engineer responsibilities concerning the hydrology of the Mississippi basin, expanding Army capabilities and the threat of disastrous floods in ever more developed river valleys, combined to force less ad hoc solutions. The Army had manpower, communications and robust interstate means to procure and transport food, water and other supplies. In 1917 War Department regulations specified an Army role in flood relief. During the 1920s and 1930s, soldiers rescued, fed and sheltered thousands displaced by floods and tornadoes. \r\n\r\nDuring and after World War II, Army involvement in humanitarian relief experienced yet another advance, largely by virtue of association with civil defense. The Cold War\'s 1950 Federal Civil Defense Act triggered an elaboration of procedures and infrastructure designed to remediate a nuclear strike. This collaterally benefitted natural disaster victims as well. The Army was heavily involved from the outset, and from 1964 through 1972 the Office of Civil Defense was directly assigned to the Army. During this period, relations with state and local officials became more precisely defined. The commanding general of the U.S. Army Continental Army Command provided planning guidance to state adjutants general, who in turn authored disaster plans for each state. Civil defense reinforcement training units (RTUs), drawn largely from the Individual Ready Reserve, polished these plans year after year. The adjutants general were prepared to lead their own Guardsmen in the immediate relief of their state and, if federalized, to assume operational control of units from outside their state as well. The Corps of Engineers identified emergency shelters throughout the United States, and municipalities undertook to prestock them with food and water sufficient to sustain their populations for several days. Those of a certain age can remember mountains of C-rations marked with the black and yellow civil defense logo in the basements of public buildings.\r\n\r\nThis division of labor translated itself into an appreciation of timelines as well. Citizens were encouraged to prestock several days\' supply of food and water and to carry them with them if forced to move. Local governments prestocked a few days more. Evacuation orders enforced by local authorities would move people out of the most threatened or least sustainable areas. Federal relief, less search and rescue, was envisioned as becoming reasonably available within about a week. It would probably take that long to identify the most stricken areas, muster the necessary resources and deploy them. Search and rescue assets would deploy more quickly. When helicopters became ubiquitous, the pace of their movements, first to escape destruction and then to redeploy into a stricken area, came to define the front lip of the relief effort.\r\n\r\nNuclear war never came, but the apparatus designed to cope with it reinforced relief efforts through countless hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, storms, droughts, earthquakes, volcanoes and fires. Nature never sleeps. The snows of winter melt into the floods of spring, which dry up to precipitate the droughts and fires of summer. Fall brings temperature imbalances that launch hurricanes on their destructive courses. It is a rare week that some National Guardsmember somewhere is not involved in disaster relief, and a rare month that he or she is not joined by federal brethren. A pre-Katrina high came in the last week of September 1992, when Hurricane Andrew in Florida, Hurricane Iniki in Hawaii, Typhoon Omar in Guam, fires in California and Idaho, tornadoes in Wisconsin, water table contamination in New Mexico and a sewage backup in Rhode Island forced the deployment of 16,500 active duty soldiers, 5,000 Guardsmembers, 550 members of the Reserve, 850 DA civilians, 3,400 civilians under contract and 3,400 members of services other than the Army. Humanitarian relief has taken on an international tenor as well, with American soldiers routinely deploying around the world to assist the victims of disaster. \r\n\r\nThe diminishment of attention to civil defense since the SALT Treaty of 1972 has led to a collateral diminishment of local preparedness for disasters other than nuclear war. In 1979 President Jimmy Carter moved all such responsibilities out of the Department of Defense and into the newly established Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Without the incentive of Cold War preparedness and the spur of state adjutants general attempting to make their mark, stockpiles diminished and plans gathered dust. Too many came to view FEMA as a first resort rather than as the last. If our Katrina postmortem focuses too exclusively on the federal level, it risks neglecting the local resilience we have depended upon in the past.\r\n\r\nRecommended Reading:\r\n\r\nHigham, Robin and Brandt, Carol, editors. The United States Army in Peacetime (Manhattan, Kansas: Military Affairs/Aerospace Historian Publishing, 1975)\r\n\r\nHogan, David W. Centuries of Service: The U.S. Army 1775-2005 (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 2005)\r\n\r\nFoster, Gaines M. The Demands of Humanity: Army Medical Disaster Relief (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 1983)\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n--------------------------------------------------------------------------------\r\n\r\nBRIG. GEN. JOHN S. BROWN, USA Ret., was chief of military history at the U.S. Army Center of Military History from December 1998 to October 2005. He commanded the 2nd Battalion, 66th Armor, in Iraq and Kuwait during the Gulf War and returned to Kuwait as commander of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, in 1995. He has a doctorate in history from Indiana University. \r\n


John Brown, “The Army and Humanitarian Relief,” Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, accessed June 15, 2019,