THE WORK OF RELIEF
Immediately after the storm, and before half of the population of Omaha was even aware of the fact that a tornado had visited the city, three companies of the United States Army signal corps from Fort Omaha, under the command of Major Hartmann, were called to patrol the wrecked district. Local police and firemen with reserves of both branches were called to the scene of the disaster. Telegraph and telephone service being prostrated, the first news of the catastrophes to the outside world was rushed by T. R. Porter, a newspaper correspondent at Omaha, from the wireless station at Fort Omaha to Fort Riley, where the news was telegraphed all over the United States. When, shortly after midnight Sunday night, communication was established with Lincoln, Governor Morehead called out the militia to aid in protecting the persons and property of the unfortunates in the storm belt, and came to Omaha at once on a special train. Military rule was established over the entire district.
Under the direction of Mayor James C. Dahlman, the storm zone through the city was divided into six relief districts, the work of directly supervising the work of aiding the sufferers being placed under a responsible business man in each instance. Headquarters of a Citizen Relief committee in charge of the active work was established in the council chamber at the city hall, where contributions of money, clothing, groceries, furniture, medicines, bandages, and offers to house storm sufferers were received. Hundreds of cots and blankets were sent to the Auditorium, where Capt. F. G. Stritzinger, of the United States Army, who aided at Frisco after the earthquake, was in charge, and throngs of people slept there nightly. Cooking stoves were erected there, and immense supplies of necessities were provided, so that the multitude of victims of the storm might be fed and sheltered in the days and nights of severe weather that followed the storm. Women taken there in hardly enough clothing to be respectable, went away with arms laden with underwear and bedding, not only for themselves but often for some unfortunate neighbor who was not even able to make the trip to the supply stations which were established in each relief district. The automobiles of society folk mingled with the wagons of poor expressmen who had volunteered to deliver aid to the needy, and a physician was kept at each of the six relief stations both day and night. The public schools were dismissed and teachers who were familiar with the different sections of the city were sent out by the school board to search out the homes of those who were in distress, but in many cases who were too proud to apply for public relief at the stations which were crowded during both day and night.
Immediately after the storm, with the streets strewn with the remnants of a thousand homes, several thousand telephone, telegraph and electric light poles, it was with difficulty that the little parties of searchers with axes and in many instances without lanterns, went from ruin to ruin, calling repeatedly, and in many instances getting but a faint reply from the victims buried feet below the wreckage of their homes. Danger from the live wires which spurted wicked streams of blue flame from time to time along the littered streets impeded the progress of the rescue parties, while the deadly fumes of escaping gas from thousands of bursted pipes hastened relief to the pinioned sufferers beneath the tons of masonry and wreckage. Into hundreds of basements water poured through the newly found openings of torn and wrenched plumbing, while from the inky darkness which covered the sky, from horizon to horizon, torrents of rain poured down on the blazing ruins of homes which strewed the pathway of the tornado, drenching the half-dressed wounded survivors of the catastrophe.
The Commercial Club of Omaha gave out a statement regarding loss of life and damage to property in the tornado. This was done in order to allay apprehension among the relatives and friends of the citizens of Omaha and to put before the country the actual facts, to take the place of the first meager reports that went out through various channels.
Telegrams of sympathy conveying offers of help poured in to the Commercial Club and to the mayor of the city. These were acknowledged and reply made that while the business men of Omaha appreciated the sympathy and generous offers of outside assistance, it was believed that Omaha could, for the time being, take care of the situation. The property loss, both real and personal, was first estimated at $5,000,000.
The statement by the Commercial Club was as follows:
"The tornado passed through the residential portion of the city from the southwest to northeast, traversing the wealthier section as well as that occupied by those in comfortable circumstances and the poorer classes. The path of the tornado was of a width averaging a quarter of a mile and five or six miles long. Fire broke out in the wreckage in twenty instances, and in spite of the difficulties confronting the fire department, especially in going from one fire to another through debris, all of these were put out within a couple of hours. All injured persons were taken from the ruins and attended to during the night. The number injured is 322. Those killed number 139. These have all been taken from the ruins with the possible exception of nine who are missing, and have been attended to. This includes Omaha suburbs, as well as Omaha proper.
"Immediately following the disaster, under the direction of Mayor James C. Dahlman and operating through the police and fire departments, assistance was given wherever needed. Before any disorder or any looting could be attempted the federal troops from Fort Omaha, under Major C. F. Hartmann, were in charge of the situation, which was completely under control before daybreak Monday morning. Adjutant General Phil L. Hall arrived on an early morning train and took charge of the local militia who patrolled the southern portion of the city, while the regulars covered the northern half. Governor J. H. Morehead arrived in Omaha Monday morning and reported back to the state legislature in session that the situation was admirably handled and under perfect control. Monday saw the leading citizens assembled to take immediate steps for the relief of those in need of financial or other help. An executive committee of seven was made up as follows: T. J. Mahoney, attorney, chairman; T. C. Byrne, wholesaler; C. C. Rosewater, newspaper editor; Robert Cowell, retailer; E. F. Denison, secretary Y. M. C. A.; Right Rev. A. L. Williams, and J. M. Guild, commissioner of the Commercial Club.
"The stricken territory was divided into districts and an absolute census taken of the entire situation, which was completed within twenty-four hours of the visitation. This has become the basis of all relief work, as everything has been card indexed, from the name, location, condition of house, names of occupants, their injuries, financial condition, where they are being sheltered, etc. This census shows a total of 1,669 houses damaged, of which 642 were totally destroyed, making 2,179 people homeless. These have been quartered in the homes of friends, in the Young Men’s Christian Association, in the various missions and in the Auditorium, and all have been temporarily taken care of. The issuance of food and clothing is proceeding in a systematic way. The territory has been subdivided into six districts for the issuance of supplies, each in charge of a prominent business man right on the ground. These distributing depots are served from the downtown main supply depot and are in charge of the following men, one to each district: George H. Kelly, president of the Commercial Club; J. A. Sunderland, wholesaler; T. P. Redmond, retailer; John L. McCague, real estate; F. I. Ellick, printer, and Joseph Kelley, wholesaler.
"The Commercial Club desires to make it known that the path of the tornado was through the residential district only and affected no business institutions whatever; that there is no impairment of Omaha’s business or its finances.
"A local finance committee, consisting of C. E. Yost, president of the Bell Telephone Company and vice-president of the Commercial Club, as chairman; J. L. Kennedy, attorney; C. M. Wilhelm, retailer; Sam Burns, Jr., stocks and bonds; W. D. Hosford, wholesaler; W. H. Bucholz, banker; H. A. Tukey, real estate, and C. C. Belden, retailer, was appointed at a largely attended meeting held today by the Commercial Club to finance the entire relief work, both immediate and for the future. The work of this committee involves the complete restoration of the buildings in the path of the storm.
"Commercial Club of Omaha,
Four days later, when the real work of relief was well under way, the Commercial Club was forced to retract its former statement, and publicly admitted that relief in the shape of funds and supplies would be welcome from any source whatever. The property loss was also verified and indications five days after the storm were that the property loss would exceed $8,000,000.
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© 2001, Lynn Waterman