We Could Use a Man like Herbert Hoover Again

Herbert Hoover, where are you now that we need you?

Hurricane Katrina has underscored the importance of unified command and control in response to national disasters. Unfortunately, no one has stepped forward to take on this responsibility. For that job, we need a person in the mold of Herbert Hoover again.

Herbert Hoover? He’s an unlikely role model. After all, many Americans still blame him for the Great Depression, and he’s generally considered below average among our presidents. Before he was president, however, Hoover had a reputation as a master of emergencies, and that’s what we need today.

There’s no question that Hoover’s leadership made a big difference in 1927 when the Mississippi River jumped its banks and flooded 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 bad as the aftermath of Katrina.

As with Katrina, state and local governments seemed helpless, and there was no federal agency to offer support or assistance. In this particular crisis, however, Herbert Hoover turned out to be the one man who had the experience and the determination to get the job done.

He was secretary of commerce from 1921 to 1928 under presidents Harding and Coolidge. More important, he had led the famine relief effort in Europe during and after World War I and may well have been the one man in the federal government who understood how to respond to a crisis of the flood’s magnitude.

With Coolidge’s concurrence, Hoover assumed control of all relief resources of the federal government. He directed 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 the resources of the American Red Cross by establishing a common supply network.

Hoover’s success was a direct result of the right combination of skills and temperament that made him the perfect person for what seemed to be an impossible job. Most important, he had cabinet rank and direct access to the president, which gave him the authority needed to lead the relief effort. He convinced local leaders to follow his plan and used the media to raise funds and public awareness. He applied what he had learned in Europe to feed and shelter large numbers of victims and tapped a personal network of experts who were loyal to him.

Unfortunately, no one has shown any of Hoover’s skills or abilities in responding to Katrina. It’s not that there are no potential candidates for the job. How about former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani or former Secretary of State Colin Powell? President Bush needs to find someone of the caliber of these two men to lead a national relief campaign.

The consequence of poor crisis management was evident in recent congressional hearings. Members of Congress mocked poor Michael Brown, former head of the Federal Emergency Management Administration, and lashed out at him for his poor performance. At one point, Brown retorted that Congress expected him to be some sort of superhero and that was impossible. Maybe so, but Brown was a far cry from Herbert Hoover.

In fact, the poor response to Katrina has revealed that we need to do more to train government officials to respond to a wide range of disasters. In addition to finding a national leader for relief efforts, we also need leadership programs to better prepare state and local leaders for future crises. These programs should be run by the National Governor’s Association and the National League of Cities, organizations that provide guidance to newly elected officials.

The country was fortunate that Hoover was available to respond to the 1927 flood. If we are to deal effectively with future hurricanes, earthquakes, forest fires and mudslides, we’ll need to train a cadre of Herbert Hoovers. With more storms brewing in the Gulf and fires sweeping across the west, it’s not too soon to start such programs.

Timothy Walch is director emeritus of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa, and the editor of "At the President's Side: The Vice Presidency in the Twentieth Century" (1997).