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The American Red Cross--From the Johnstown Flood to Hurricane Katrina


The American Red Cross--From the Johnstown Flood to Hurricane Katrina

"The Spirit of America." More American Red Cross Posters.

The History

The American Red Cross is perhaps the most iconic of our nonprofit organizations. Its symbol, the red cross, is emblematic worldwide of help and relief in time of war and during catastrophes. It is also the rare American who hasn't given blood during a Red Cross blood drive or donated to the Red Cross during a disaster.

Helping to imprint images of the Red Cross in our collective imaginations were artists such as Howard Chandler Christy, James Montgomery Flagg, Norman Rockwell, and N.C. Wyeth who created works that became Red Cross posters that were displayed from coast to coast and from country to city. It is no wonder that we continue to respond with great generosity whenever the American Red Cross asks for our help.

The American Red Cross celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2006. In a country so young, that kind of history is invaluable and helps to make the American Red Cross a cherished American institution.

The American Red Cross is part of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The latter organization was founded in Europe in 1876 primarily because of the tireless efforts of a Swiss businessman, Henry Dunant, and Frederic Passy, an international pacifist. Dunant and Passy won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1901 for their efforts.

Today, National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies exist in nearly every country in the world. They are independent but exist under the umbrella of the ICRC.

Clara Barton, an American teacher and federal bureaucrat during the Civil War era, brought the idea of an American Red Cross to the United States in the 1880s after seeing the International organization in action. She and a group of friends established the organization in Washington D.C. in 1882.

Officially known as the American National Red Cross, the organization was supported by John D. Rockefeller, who donated money for a national headquarters in Washington, DC, only one block from the White House.

After the Civil War, many people in the US were convinced that the nation would never see such a crisis again. Barton sold the Red Cross concept by expanding the idea from just war relief to include other types of crises.

Barton led one of the organization's first major relief efforts when it responded to the Great Fire of 1881 in the thumb region of Michigan where 5000 people were left homeless. In 1889, the Red Cross came to the aid of victims of the Johnstown Flood where more than 2200 people died.

Barton left the Red Cross in 1904 after successfully proving that it was needed and could rise to any need. In 1905, the American Red Cross authority to provide disaster relief was formalized by Congress to "carry on a system of national and international relief in time of peace and apply the same in mitigating sufferings caused by pestilence, famine, fire, floods, and other great nation calamities, and to devise and carry on measures for preventing the same."

The Mission

Disaster response is the most well-known activity for the Red Cross. Its nearly 1,000 chapters are devoted to saving lives and helping people prevent, prepare for and respond to emergencies. More than a million Red Cross volunteers and some 30,000 employees annually mobilize relief to people affected by more than 67,000 disasters. In addition, nearly 12 million people are trained in lifesaving skills such as CPR.

The other activity associated with The American Red Cross is its blood programs. The organization supplies nearly 50 percent of the blood and blood products in this country.

The Red Cross has expanded its role in biomedical research and entered the new field of human tissue banking and distribution. During the 1990s, it engineered a modernization of its blood services operations to improve safety.

Financial Support

A 50-member, all volunteer Board of Governors leads The Red Cross. The president of the United States, who is honorary chairman of the Red Cross, appoints eight governors, including the chairman of the board. The organization is supported primarily through public contributions.

In the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina, Wilma and Rita in 2005, the organization raised some $2.1 billion. In fact, it stopped taking donations for that effort in February, 2006, and urged the public to help other charities engaged in hurricane relief work.

The American Red Cross has been criticized for its handling of donations post 9/11. As a consequence, it has instituted many safeguards and has been praised for its low overhead costs. During Hurricane Katrina, the organization said that 91 cents of every dollar donated specifically for that disaster would go directly to disaster relief. That is a remarkably low overhead for a large nonprofit.

International Outreach

The American Red Cross is involved with several international projects, including the African Measles Initiative, the relief effort for the 2004 South Asia Tsunami disaster, and the 2005 Pakistan/South Asia Earthquakes response.

The Red Cross also helps reunite families separated by war or disaster. At any given time the American Red Cross tracing program may be handling the aftermath of 20-30 wars or conflicts.

The American Red Cross works closely with the International Committee of the Red Cross and more than 175 other national societies to address international conflicts and crises.

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