The Difference Between a Fire and a Flood

What are the differences between these two natural disasters: the North Dakota flood of April 1997 and the Michigan fire of September 1881?

The first difference is that, bad as the flood on the Red River was, the Michigan fire exacted a much greater toll. Raging flames swept through the Thumb area, killing almost 200 people and destroying over one million acres of timberland. "The flames ran faster than a horse could gallop," said one survivor of this devastating blaze. Its hurricane-like fury uprooted trees, blew away buildings, and destroyed millions of dollars of property in the Michigan counties of Huron, Tuscola, Sanilac, and Lapeer.

A second difference may be seen in prevailing attitudes toward private charity and the role of government. In the North Dakota flood, an anonymous California woman did donate $2,000 to every flooded household and countless others pitched in, but much of the spotlight focused on high-profile politicians and other people’s tax money they were generously offering to the victims. President Clinton and four cabinet secretaries flew to Grand Forks to announce a policy rarely adopted in federal relief efforts: Washington would pay 100 percent of the immediate emergency work, not the "mere" 75 percent it paid in the past.

At the time of the Michigan fire, Americans looked inward to themselves, not outward to the federal government, to assist the victims. They became the most generous people on earth, partly because they knew government had nothing to give except what it taxed away in the first place, and partly because they saw it as a personal responsibility to help their fellow citizens in need.

For Michiganians in 1881, this meant an outpouring of help freely given from fellow Americans everywhere. In fact, the Michigan fire became the first disaster relief effort of Clara Barton and the newly formed American Red Cross. As the smoke billowed eastward across the nation, Barton’s home town of Dansville, New York, became a focal point of relief. According to the officers of the Dansville Red Cross, a call from Clara Barton "rallied us to our work."

"Instantly," they said, "we felt the help and strength of our organization [the Red Cross], young and untried as it was." Men, women, and children throughout western New York brought food, clothing, and other gifts. Before the Red Cross would send them to Michigan, a committee of ladies inspected each item and restitched garments or replaced food when necessary.

Speed was important, not only because many were hungry but also because winter was approaching. Bedding and heavy clothing were in demand. Railroads provided the shipping. People left jobs and homes and trekked to Michigan to get personally involved in the rebuilding. Soon the Red Cross in New York and the local relief committees in Michigan were working together to distribute supplies until "no more were needed," according to the final report from the Red Cross. No presidential summit on voluntarism was needed because the volunteers simply showed up.

Michigan leaders, of course, were grateful for the friendship and help that came from the Red Cross. It made disaster relief faster, more efficient, and national in scope. But even if such help had not come, Michiganians were prepared to organize all relief voluntarily within the state. In a previous fire in 1871, nearly 3,000 Michigan families were left homeless; Governor Henry Baldwin personally organized the relief efforts and gave out of his own pockets about $150,000 (over $3 million in today’s dollars). Few if any thought it necessary to create a federal relief bureaucracy.

Henry Baldwin in 1871 and the Red Cross a decade later fulfilled the true definition of compassion. They suffered together with the fire victims and worked personally to reduce their pain. Perhaps Baldwin, the Red Cross, and the fire victims themselves understood that aid from Washington would dampen the enthusiasm of volunteers who gave their energy and resources out of a sense of brotherly love and duty. And this was in a year when the federal budget had a $100 million surplus, not the $100 billion deficit of today!

Why did so many Americans one hundred years ago reject federal aid and insist on personal charity during natural disasters? Horatio Bunce, a farmer/philosopher of the 1800s spoke for most citizens when he argued that federal aid to disaster victims was not only unconstitutional, but also uncharitable. "If . . . you are at liberty to give to any and everything which you may believe, or profess to believe, is a charity, and to any amount you may think proper," he told his congressman, "you will very easily perceive what a wide door this would open for fraud and corruption and favoritism, on the one hand, and for robbing the people on the other."

The heroes of the 1881 Michigan fire were thousands of private citizens, whose names rarely made headlines and whose selfless devotion has since been forgotten. Likewise, the heroes of the North Dakota flood today are those who are helping with their own resources, not the politicians who come to distribute other people’s money.