When I walked into Rose and Gary Singletary’s house in the black, middle-class Gentilly section of New Orleans in February, I saw the shell of a building. The floors, the walls, and all the fixtures—toilets, sinks, doors—had been removed. Floodwater from Hurricane Katrina had reached higher than the Singletarys’ front door, and their home had to be stripped down to the frame to bleach out the mold. After months of on-again, off-again work, the house was finally ready to be rebuilt.
The couple had all but given up on getting any more than the $2,000 they had received from their insurance company. They had been insured under a state initiative called the Louisiana Citizens Fair Plan, administered by the American International Group. According to Americans for Insurance Reform and other watchdog groups—not to mention several class action suits—the group paid out $2,000 “advances” to its policy holders and then effectively disappeared through tactics such as not answering calls, constantly changing adjusters, and conflating wind/storm damage (covered) with flooding (not covered).
But the Singletarys were beaming. Nearly six months after the hurricane hit, their house was miles ahead of any others in the neighborhood. It got that way not with conventional charity or insurance, nor with government aid, but with a ragtag crew of amateurs. Were it not for a rotating group of young volunteers, the house probably would have been in the same state as those surrounding it: empty, only superficially cleaned, and growing more mold by the day.
“They’re a godsend,” Rose gushed. “You’ll find everybody down at Common Ground. They’ve got lawyers, child care, computers with Internet.”
Two giant spray-painted signs point to the Common Ground Collective’s headquarters in a church parking lot in the now infamous Ninth Ward, where the group houses its volunteers, takes names for house gutting, and gives away bleach, buckets, respirators, canned food, and other supplies. The collective was founded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina by a former Black Panther and some street medics trained at mass protests.
Like most residents I talked to, the Singletarys had seen little of the Red Cross aside from an occasional food truck, and they evinced nothing but frustration when I mentioned the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It was a major coup that seven men from the city had actually arrived to pick up debris from their house on the day I visited. Of the seven, four were dedicated solely to detouring nonexistent traffic.
The Red Cross and FEMA are under serious scrutiny for their mishandling of Katrina’s aftermath. In addition to a very public failure to manage the immediate flooding crisis, FEMA has been skewered in a recent Department of Homeland Security inspector general’s report, in its own internal audit, and in private and public conversations along the Gulf Coast. The inspector general’s report faulted the agency for poor communication, lack of preparedness, and inadequate staffing. FEMA’s emergency housing program, which includes expensive cruise ships and trailers that cost $30,000 apiece, is fraught with inefficiency and waste.
The Red Cross is widely thought to have performed better than FEMA, but it’s on the ropes too. At the request of the aid organization, the FBI recently took charge of an investigation involving volunteers who misappropriated millions meant for victims of Hurricane Katrina. A March New York Times report revealed major gaps in the organization’s system of accountability. Red Cross officials have acknowledged that their reaction in the storm’s aftermath was inadequate, and that tensions, possibly race-based, have sometimes emerged between its volunteers and the residents.
Against this backdrop of failure, successes stand out starkly. Perhaps the most obvious mistake made in the institutional response to Katrina was a failure to innovate, to ignore the old rules and procedures when they stood in the way of helping residents in need. Individual citizens, church groups, and a new brand of grassroots relief organizations stepped in to fill the gaps. These grassroots groups dispense with bureaucracy and government aid. They rely instead on small donations of money and supplies, and the commitment of on-the-ground volunteers and the communities they serve. In addition to Common Ground, secular organizations such as Emergency Communities, the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, and Four Directions have joined a multitude of small church groups in the region to provide services where government and big aid organizations fell short. When necessary, they simply ignored the authorities’ wrongheaded decisions: pushing supplies through closed checkpoints, setting up in unapproved areas, breaking the rules when it made more sense than following them.
Their organizers, as well as their volunteers, have little experience with relief work. They live in tents or sleep on cots in repurposed churches and community centers. Volunteers run the gamut from hippie dropouts to middle-class students on spring break, and the outposts they’ve built are filled with things you’d never expect to see anywhere near a relief effort: free acupuncture, vegetarian cooking, cross-dressing volunteers, a giant geodesic dome. Despite their inexperience and occasional outlandishness, they are organizing and delivering some of the most effective relief work in the area.
They aren’t a complete solution to the problem. But they have complemented and sometimes superseded other efforts, and the old-time charities are starting to take respectful notice of their unusual new colleagues.
Acupuncturists Without Borders
I first heard about Common Ground in an email from my friend Jeff, a New York bohemian who frequented underground art parties and halfway legal street events. It’s fair to say that many of the people who organized and attended those events were of a type. They had odd jobs and even odder side projects; they made their own clothes, and it showed. And they threw really good parties.
So when I learned some of the same people were helping organize a relief project in New Orleans, I was both fascinated and skeptical. When I poked around further and learned that many were alumni of Burning Man and the Rainbow Gathering, two of the nation’s biggest, strangest counterculture festivals, I was even more fascinated and even more skeptical. Could a bunch of middle- and upper-middle-class kids, many of them fresh from “alternative” experiences, connect with poor, churchgoing residents of the South? And if they could, would the experiment affect more than a handful of residents?
To my surprise, the answers were yes and yes. As I watched these groups in action, it became clear that they were connecting with the locals and that their services were invaluable. Residents used words like “heaven-sent” and “angels” when describing the volunteers, even the guy serving food in a cowboy hat and a dress.