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.
Common Ground’s initial incarnation was a medical clinic in an Algiers mosque. Algiers is a decidedly poor and drab cousin to the rest of New Orleans; it’s hard to believe that its sprawl of nondescript homes and apartment buildings is just across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter. But unlike the city across the river, Algiers didn’t flood. And within a few days of the storm, several young men on bicycles started knocking on doors in this unremarkable place, asking if people needed medical help. They called themselves street medics.
“A street medic,” explains Iggy River, a Common Ground volunteer, “is a person with an indeterminate amount of knowledge, usually from mass gatherings or street protests, of acute need first aid”—treatment for dehydration, cuts, broken bones. With his dark disheveled hair and giant wooden ear spools, Iggy looked like he would be more at home at a World Trade Organization protest than coordinating supplies in the ruins of a poor black neighborhood. Indeed, it was for such protests that the street medics learned their craft. After Katrina, street medics provided first aid and basic medical services such as blood pressure and diabetes testing.
The renegade volunteers soon ran into Malik Rahim, a neighborhood activist and former Black Panther, and Common Ground was born. By the time I visited, the group’s clinic had moved into a permanent storefront location and was staffed by three motherly receptionists, two acupuncturists, and one overworked doctor. The acupuncturists hailed from Acupuncturists Without Borders, one of the more curious groups founded after Katrina. To accommodate medical volunteers from all over the country, the state of Louisiana allowed out-of-state practitioners to provide treatment without a Louisiana license. The acupuncturists fell under that umbrella.
In the clinic’s waiting room a man with diabetes waited for acupuncture with his wife. Since the hurricane, Dennis Waits had come back to his job as a furniture restorer. But because only two of his colleagues also returned to work, the company was cut from its health insurance program. Waits, a solidly-built, middle-aged white man in a work shirt, did not look like an adherent of alternative medicine. But his diabetes had led to a condition called nephrotic syndrome that caused painful swelling in his legs and feet. It wasn’t easy for him to swallow his pride and get care from a free clinic, but he was up to two shots of cortisone a day, and it was wearing off after a few hours. In any case, he wasn’t afraid to have needles put into his wrists.
‘You’re Seeing Life Here’
Waveland, Mississippi, is one of those small Gulf Coast towns that wasn’t covered much by the national media but suffered Katrina’s winds and storm surge as much as anyplace else. It’s also where a band of hippies from the Rainbow Gathering landed just after the storm. “Waveland was as far as you could go then,” said David Sayotovich, a tall, skinny 51-year-old who has been attending Rainbow Gatherings since the 1980s.
Every year, usually in July, a group of like-minded folks get together for a week or so in a national forest to honor the ideals of peace, love, and cooperation. Begun in 1972, the Rainbow Gathering is an institution of the American counterculture; it brought an estimated 15,000 participants to the Routt National Forest for its annual gathering this year, according to the Denver Post. Most people associate the group with drumming and smoking pot, but the group also manages to cook and serve meals for a large number of people with no running water and no electricity. To people like Sayotovich, it was a no-brainer to use those skills to help people hurt by Katrina.
With encouragement from a local church group, a Rainbow busload of volunteers decamped in Waveland, pitched tents across from the police station, and started serving hot meals to the displaced. “The FEMA people said, ‘You can’t do this—it’s not in the manual,’ but we got away with it,” Sayotovich said with a grin.
Dubbed the New Waveland Café, the operation didn’t just feed residents. It encouraged them to participate in cooking, cleaning, and other details that went into running the aid effort, transforming the helped into helpers. Tales of how the residents of this small Southern town took to a group of hippies reached as far as the Chicago Tribune, which reported that the group ran its kitchen so well that one Red Cross volunteer quit to join them instead. The Gambit, a New Orleans alt-weekly, described a police officer looking the other way when the smell of marijuana drifted out of the Rainbow camp.
“You’re not just seeing a truck driving around passing out Styrofoam containers of food,” said Mark Weiner, taking a dig at the Red Cross. “You’re seeing life here.” Behind him a 40-foot geodesic dome—a tent repurposed from the 35,000-person Burning Man art festival in Nevada—was beginning to fill with the day’s lunch crowd. The 23-year-old Weiner is a founder and executive director of the nonprofit Emergency Communities, which set up shop in the parking lot of what once was Finish Line Off-Track Betting in storm-ravaged St. Bernard Parish, just east of New Orleans. There it operated the Made With Love Café and other assorted services, including a clothing swap, Internet terminals, and a children’s play area.
Weiner had never run an aid organization before. He hadn’t really run anything before, which was at once obvious and hard to believe. His phone rang constantly. Young volunteers ran up with questions at a sustained clip. Weiner accommodated every request with answers that seemed to be pulled out of the air: “Sounds great.” “Whatever you think is best.” “Totally.” It sounds like a recipe for chaos, but behind him trays of coconut curry soup were being instantly replenished as the food line emptied into the cafeteria.
A fresh-faced graduate of Columbia University, Weiner was your typical young hipster living in Brooklyn and applying for law school when Katrina hit. Like nearly every volunteer I encountered, he tried to sign up with the Red Cross first. After he registered online, the Red Cross informed him he would have to wait weeks to attend a training session before he could see any action. “Basically,” he recalled, “I was impatient.”
Then he found out about the New Waveland Café. There he met Scott Ankeny, a 34-year-old magazine publisher who had been at Burning Man when Katrina hit. When the Rainbow kitchen organizers closed shop, the two decided to expand on the Waveland principles by opening a food kitchen in the denser New Orleans area.
They settled on St. Bernard Parish, where the devastation was so complete that some say there may have been only two homes in the area untouched by floodwaters. Weiner and Ankeny estimate that the food kitchen served around 1,400 meals a day to construction workers, relief workers, and residents who came back to rebuild. In February, there were still no restaurants or grocery stores open for miles. For most of the diners at the Made With Love Café, the only other option was eating packaged food brought in from elsewhere. Five months after Katrina, the few Red Cross trucks that had been seen early on weren’t coming around anymore.
Nearly all the ingredients at the café were donated directly from companies or individuals who were similarly frustrated with the bureaucracy of the traditional avenues for giving. The café’s roots in the Rainbow subculture were on vivid display. Twenty-six-year-old Lali, a slip of a woman in homemade clothes and a giant head wrap, was the “head kitchen mama”; she believed in using as many fresh organic ingredients as possible, which is not ordinarily a priority in the wake of a hurricane.
Lali began volunteering in Waveland with friends from the Rainbow Gathering, going on to set up the St. Bernard Parish operation with Weiner and around a dozen others. “We’re looked at as outsiders in the rest of the world,” she said. “This is a great opportunity for us to prove ourselves, to be seen in a better light, not to be judged as people who freeload”—a reputation that haunts the hippie Rainbows. The meals at the café were delicious: curried vegetables, roasted organic chicken, homemade apple pie. I tried to eat there whenever possible, as did every resident I talked to.
One of the first principles of Emergency Communities was that anyone was invited to come down and help. “If you’re a volunteer and want to come down for two days, we say come on down,” Weiner said. “You don’t need ‘training.’ We’ll give you two hours of orientation right here.” And so behind the tents for eating, cooking, picking up free supplies, and checking email were a hodgepodge of more ramshackle tents connected by a makeshift boardwalk of moving pallets. Volunteers, who ran the gamut from homeschooled high school students to a father-son duo on a bonding weekend, just had to get as far as the New Orleans airport. Emergency Communities housed them, fed them, and put them to work. According to Weiner, 1,400 volunteers came through the camp, and the café served about 160,000 meals to 15,000 residents and workers in the six months it was open. (It’s impossible to verify his numbers independently. For that matter, it’s impossible to verify the Red Cross’ numbers independently.)
Disaster Relief As Civil Disobedience
“The most important thing to remember is that this was a catastrophe rather than a disaster,” says E.L. Quarantelli, co-founder of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware. The Red Cross tried to operate as it has in most American disasters—and that usually works just fine. But this wasn’t a typical situation. The relief groups’ own headquarters were destroyed, as were local trained workers’ homes. You couldn’t reliably reach people by phone or email. And when the Red Cross was prevented from going into some areas, by physical hazards or by local authorities, it didn’t react like the Rainbows, a group used to operating without the law on its side. It simply turned back.
Quarantelli says it’s not unusual to see informal community groups stepping in during a crisis. But traditionally it’s religious groups that engage in this sort of decentralized relief. The Mennonites, for example, have been at it so long they’ve developed a formal organization, the Mennonite Central Committee, which sends workers to disaster areas all over the world. Grassroots relief organizations like Common Ground and Emergency Communities, with no religious affiliation and with members and organizers who are overwhelmingly from outside the community, do not fit the Disaster Research Center’s model of what kinds of groups emerge to deal with disasters. Their emergence, Quarantelli allows, can be attributed in part to the Internet, where people who wanted to volunteer could be matched with groups that needed them instantly, without an existing social network such as a church.
Relying extensively on Internet communities like Craigslist and Tribe.net, the volunteer groups are technically savvy; all had wireless networks in their headquarters. Perhaps more significant, they have a do-it-yourself culture and a concept they call mutual aid. “We take your house, we help you in repairing it. You help us by putting up our volunteers,” explained Sundjata Koné, a spokesperson for Common Ground.
In dealing with the disaster’s victims, this approach seemed not only natural but also necessary. Most were not used to standing in food lines or asking strangers to come work on their homes for free. They wanted to pitch in.
Take Amie Roberts. She used to cut hair at a St. Bernard salon before it flooded. When she started coming to eat at the Made With Love Café, it didn’t take long for her to realize that what was left of the parish citizenry needed somewhere to get their hair cut. She mentioned the idea to the volunteers at the café, and they provided her with a tent and some chairs. She brought her own scissors and a donation can. “I wanted to do it for the residents,” she told me while snipping away at the head of a Red Cross worker from Arkansas. By all accounts hers was the only functioning hair salon in the entire parish, attracting dozens of residents, contractors, and relief workers a day.
The term “mutual aid” isn’t as touchy-feely as it might initially sound. The Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin advanced the concept in the early 20th century as an argument against the idea that people are naturally inclined to compete against one another. The concept remains popular among radicals today, and some of the relief workers in the area espouse anarchist politics.
When locals trying to rebuild asked Common Ground for help getting the proper permits, the group’s policy was to help rebuild, building permits or not. “We’re essentially breaking the law,” Koné told me, pausing for emphasis. “That’s civil disobedience.” If it keeps people from living in mold-filled houses, he said, then Common Ground will do it. The logic of the approach became clear to me after I spent weeks trying to get in touch with anyone at the New Orleans Department of Safety and Permits. I was hoping to get the department’s reaction to Koné and other critics who called it inefficient and unresponsive to ordinary residents. No one ever returned my calls.
Common Ground’s call to action is “Solidarity Not Charity.” Its logo features a fist holding a hammer on one side and a medical cross on the other, á la Bolshevik-era posters. Volunteers argue online about whether the group is too authoritarian or not authoritarian enough, whether there are too many anti-oppression workshops or too few. As Owen Thompson, a college student and Common Ground volunteer, has pointed out in the webzine Toward Freedom, it makes sense for New Orleans to be attractive to anarchists right now: Here is a place where government failed absolutely, and as such it could be the perfect place to argue that government itself is a failure.
Koné was happy to do just that. “They [FEMA and the Red Cross] come in, and they have all the money,” he said. “They do much less than we do. And they put their volunteers up at hotels, or on cruise liners. And that’s our tax money that FEMA’s using for that.” Like other organizers, and many locals, he marveled at the money donated to the Red Cross—$2.1 billion at last count—and how little he’s seen them do with it. “They pay themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars in salaries,” he said. “And they claim they’re broke!”
Is It Enough?
The smaller groups’ nimbleness deserves a lot of credit for their successes. Allowing residents and victims to shape the services they receive is a necessary part of disaster relief and is done best by small local groups, says Joseph Trainer, projects coordinator at the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center. The sheer exuberance of creatively organizing to help others is also an important factor. The same naive eagerness that inspires skepticism in some of us is an asset when none of the traditional avenues for getting things done works.
The first time I met Iggy River, the young man who told me what a street medic is, I was sitting in a coffee shop in the Bywater section of New Orleans. He was one of two men in their early 20s whom I overheard talking authoritatively, maybe a little self-importantly, about supplies for a health clinic in Algiers. They spoke with a pride that bordered on giddiness.
That conversation was a sharp contrast with the measured words of the director of the New Orleans chapter of Habitat for Humanity, or the director of the Red Cross chapter, or any representatives of the large, traditional relief and post-disaster recovery organizations that normally claim the authority to perform this type of work. Those people had decades of experience managing crises. They had staffs of volunteers who expected leadership. They reported to national hierarchies and had a brand name to protect. “It’s not always wise to accept someone coming through the front door,” Quarantelli notes. And with all that money coming through the pipe, it’s not hard to see why. But these big groups end up turning away the Young Turks who are ready to ride their bikes around a deserted city with nothing but a hunch that they will find people in need.
In an April interview with NPR, acting Red Cross Director Jack McGuire admitted the organization had made major mistakes after Katrina, including not reaching out to community groups that were doing some of the best work in the area. The organization promises to implement a “cultural shift” that includes working more closely with grassroots organizations, a tack the institution has historically shied away from. Kay Wilkins, CEO of Red Cross’ Southeast Louisiana chapter, called Katrina “the great equalizer” of relief organizations. After its blunders with supplies and volunteers, the Red Cross’ reputation as the charity that could do no wrong has been squashed.
“I’ll go to any meeting now,” Wilkins says. “I work with groups I had never really worked with.” While the grassroots groups will gladly take help from the behemoth Red Cross, they emphasize that their lack of hierarchy and take-anyone approach were not merely born of necessity. They worked that way by design.
But couldn’t that design have flaws as well? It’s one thing to tear down Sheetrock on a house, but the liability issues involved in allowing amateurs to build a house are a lawyer’s nightmare—or dream. I asked organizers at both Common Ground and Emergency Communities what protections they had in place to avoid lawsuits from either residents or volunteers. They all answered with the same shrug.
And during hurricane season it’s not safe to have volunteers sleeping in Kelty tents in parking lots. In fact, the Made With Love Café closed its makeshift kitchen on June 15, leaving a permanent community center called Camp Hope in its wake. The United Way and the local government asked the café’s organizers to start a new food kitchen in neighboring Plaquemines Parish. They served their first meal there on June 1.
Common Ground scaled back its house gutting significantly during the hot summer months and housed more volunteers in more stable structures. The group is turning its attention to more permanent aspects of rebuilding, such as job training for returning residents in the construction and mechanics trades, and workshops on “rebuilding green”—that is, using environmentally sensitive tactics and materials in reconstruction. It’s too soon to tell if these grassroots organizations will grow into permanent institutions resembling the big groups they once railed against, or if the spontaneous network of activists will dissipate until the next big disaster. Iggy River, for one, was on his way back home to Maine when we last spoke in June.
For Rose and Gary Singletary, the help Common Ground provided has been invaluable, but in the end it wasn’t nearly enough. When I spoke to them again in May, their house looked much like it did when Common Ground volunteers picked up their tools and moved on. “Everything is at a standstill,” Rose said. They are still trying to get more help from their homeowner’s insurance; more important, the neighborhood’s residents aren’t sure the levee on the London Avenue Canal will protect their homes from another serious hurricane. Mardi Gras and JazzFest may go on, but a single drive through New Orleans remains breathtaking. The devastation is relentless. “It’s a struggle,” Rose told me. “You’re trying to do something in a year that it took your whole life to do.”
The ad hoc efforts of amateurs haven’t fixed the devastated Gulf Coast. But neither have the centrally organized efforts of government authorities and traditional aid groups. The large agencies trusted with caring for citizens in their time of greatest need have something to learn from the idealists in New Orleans: Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures. Rules made when there was electricity don’t always work when all the lights are out.
Neille Ilel is a writer and reporter living in Los Angeles, California.