Radio

Hayek in Tuscaloosa

How talk radio, local churches, and concerned citizens spontaneously organized to help tornado victims

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The tornados of April 2011 cut a destructive swath through Tuscaloosa, Alabama and surrounding areas. Whole neighborhoods now resemble bombed out post-war Tokyo or Berlin.   

But this devastation was only part of the story. Tuscaloosa also became the scene of an inspiring, highly decentralized outpouring of volunteers and donations. Many of these arrangements could best be described examples of what Nobel prize-winning economist F.A. Hayek called "spontaneous order." As Hayek put it, spontaneous orders result from the countless actions of individuals, who coordinate their actions through extended systems of voluntary cooperation, rather than the design of a single planner.  

Instead of going home for break, for example, students in the Greek system at the University of Alabama and at historically black Stillman College stayed to cook more than 7,000 meals per day. Local churches assembled armies of volunteers and vast stores of goods, ranging from dog food to child car seats, and dispersed them with no questions asked at large "free department stores." Everyone in the devastated areas knows from personal experience how neighbors, often without homes themselves, traveled from house to house to clear downed trees, offer food, and give shelter.  

Much of the strength of Tuscaloosa's extensive mutual aid came from an unlikely source: right wing talk radio. For more than two weeks after the tornado, the four Tuscaloosa Clear Channel stations preempted their normal fare of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and top 40 songs to serve as a clearing house for relief efforts. Gigi South, the local market manager for Tuscaloosa Clear Channel, says that it was her decision to begin, and continue, the relief-oriented simulcasts.

It would have been hard to do otherwise. Employees saw demolished neighborhoods outside their windows and the desperate calls for help were coming in almost immediately. Because many residents lost power and were unable to charge cell phones, car and battery-operated radios often became their only form of communication with the outside world.

Although these stations have only 12 full-time employees between them they still had a vast impact. The on-air jocks took on grueling shifts, sometimes working 10 hours straight, but this did not dampen their enthusiasm.

The goal of the simulcasts was deceptively simple: Bring together givers and victims and allow them to exchange information. According to South, "this whole thing has been about connecting listener to listener. They are the ones doing this. We're just the conduit." South is being modest. In many cases, people dropped off goods, sometimes dozens or more cooked meals, at the station's door and the on-air jocks, instead of taking a break rushed those goods to those in need. The higher-ups at Clear Channel fully supported the local initiative to preempt normal programming and provided generators and engineers to keep the stations on the air.

In a typical pattern, someone would call in to express a need for a particular area or group. Ten minutes later, the same listener related that 10 people showed up and offered their services. Churches and other groups often called in to specify a shortage of particular goods, such as bug spray and suntan lotion for volunteers, and an excess of others, such as diapers. This allowed givers to tailor their donations. Walmart and other businesses called in to offer free prescriptions, charging stations for cell phones, and trucks to remove debris upon request.

In one particularly moving case, a worn-out relief coordinator for an outlying trailer park broadcast a desperate appeal. She had been cooking meals for several undocumented Hispanics living in tents who were afraid to go to the authorities. She was heartbroken because she wanted to see her mother in Mississippi who had suffered a stroke but feared leaving her neighbors unaided. Within minutes, two nurses, translators, and other volunteers were on the scene. The simulcasts began to include brief Spanish language announcements and the talk radio listeners, even if they are normally angered about illegal immigration, showed no hesitation in lending a hand in such cases.

Callers unable to get through because of tied-up phone lines could make use of associated Facebook pages and other social media. Tuscaloosa Clear Channel's tweets reappeared, along with announcements from the local government, on outdoor electronic message boards throughout the city; the university television station carried live feeds of the simulcast.

Although Tuscaloosa Clear Channel generally caters to a white, conservative audience, grateful listeners often made tearful calls from the black and Hispanic neighborhoods which bore the brunt of the tornado. No other radio or television stations in the community, public or private, have come close to matching this effort. "The bottom line," South declares, "is that here the people that we are talking to on air are the people that have no homes. They have no home, they have no phone service. They have no television. Nothing except the radio."

David T. Beito is professor of history at the University of Alabama and author of Black Maverick: T.R.M. Howard's Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power and From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services. A version of this article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

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  1. This sounds like something Glenn Beck would say. PWND

    1. Dude, link me to the source of this meme. I’ve been working far too much lately and am out of the loop.

        1. You just gave Episiarch some recent-history-pwnage.

  2. But I thought society would devolve into chaos and anarchic violence in the face of natural disasters. It happened in New Orleans.

    1. About 3/4 of the stories about New Orleans were bogus. Lazy news reporters took turns repeating and one-upping each others hysterical reports.

      I remember seeing Geraldo talking about a “toxic” soup and showing some water with a few leaves floating in it. In the background you could see kids playing in the water.

      In New Orleans, the city was almost completely cut off since it already has a lot of water around it and then large swaths were covered with water.

      There were instances of looting and a few small fires set. But there were also some teams of professional thieves that came in from out of town and knocked over jewelry stores since the city was deserted.

      There was a fake story in People that said Charmaine Neville had seen an alligator pull an old man in a walker under on Canal street. That is completely ludicrous. She said she was assaulted and if so, maybe she had a break with reality or something but there were no alligators anywhere near the middle of the city. I also remember seeing the news footage that seemed to go on for hours where supposedly someone was shooting at helicoptors. Turns out the dumbass was just trying to attract their attention. But that part was not really reported.

      The worst abuses and stories were as usual due to government action (or inaction). The government planning at nursing homes had been non-existent but it “looked” like there was a plan since the govt. was in charge of it. Then once the disaster happens, turns out they hadn’t done crap. Many stories are coming out now about police abuses during the storm and there were cases of police/mayors from nearby areas blockading bridges so tired, hungry, thirsty people could not escape. This was due in large part to the exaggerated news stories they had been seeing for days.

      And of course, FEMA did a horrible job before and after the storm and it was the Army Corp of Engineers who had done a shoddy job designing and building the entire levee/drainage system in the first place and the lazy levee boards each with their own police departments that spent more time chasing kids smoking weed off the levee than actually inspecting them properly each year.

      There were plenty of people in N.O. that came together and helped each other out and rebuilt their own houses with their insurance money as opposed to handouts. The media just was too lazy to cover these stories.

      Just as the national depiction of Mardi Gras is mostly off-base. The media only shows the last few blocks of the parade route which is where all the tourists and college kids go and by that time it is late and everyone has been drinking for hours and these are young people who went there expressly to flash some skin.

      But the first 95% of the parade routes are mostly locals and families and people will just have a few beers and catch beads for their kids.

      1. farakhan said booosch blew-up the levees

        1. I don’t recall Farakhan saying this, although he may have. I DO remember that many New Orleans residents believed it, but seeing that in the last flood disaster (1925) the (white) government DID dynamite the levees to protect White neighborhoods at the expense of Black, I couldn’t get all that mad at them.

      2. The Army Corps of Engineers gets it in the neck every time the Mississippi floods, which isn’t fair. When the government (read; Congress) decided that “controlling” the river was a great idea, the ACE testified that it was a lousy idea and would not work. They were told to shut up and do what they were told. My father remembers this from the 1950’s and it STILL makes him angry.

        More recently, a lot of people bitched that the Army Corps of Engineers had had money for reinforcing the Levees and hadn’t distributed it. That’s true. They hadn’t distributed it because the previous large chunk of federal money sent for that purpose had been pissed away on everything BUT the levees. The ACE was holding the money pending an audit, and the local politicians were going to allow that audit precisely one day AFTER it had been determined that Hell had frozen over.

  3. Great story but, I don’t know that I would call a 10 hour shift, “grueling”.

    1. 10 hours on the air is probably pretty exhausting.

  4. course the mayors & governors activated the nat guard, asked for FEMA assistance AND federal disaster designation AND thanked the corps of engineers for diverting historic flood waters so as to NOT worsen the destruction.

    1. “…thanked the corps of engineers for diverting historic flood waters..”

      Well, the corps was responsible for all the levee construction upstream that concentrated the “historic flood waters” in the first place, therefore it was the least they could do.

      1. best review the flood of 37.

        1. In other words, the hundreds of billions of dollars the government spent to continue to allow people to build in historic floodplains was basically a waste since it didn’t prevent the flooding. It’s the same as rebuilding New Orleans with federal money parts of which are below sea level. WTF? Get out now.

        2. Best review the unending string of malfeasance, incompetence, corruption, and hubris that is the entire history of the CECW (Corps of Engineers Directorate of Civil Works). They are directly responsible for the flooding of New Orleans; Hurricane Katrina did not flood NOLA, the CECW did.

      2. When that Levee construction was mandated by Congress the Army Corps of Engineers told Congress that is would cause worse flooding, and Congress told them “Shut up and do what you’re told”. My father remembers, and it STILL steams him.

        1. doesnt fit the libtoid meme

          1. That Congress is filled with arrogant morons who think that by passing a law they can overrule nature? No, we don’t think anything of the sort.

  5. Much of the strength of Tuscaloosa’s extensive mutual aid came from an unlikely source: right wing talk radio.

    Other “unlikely” sources included fraternities, Churches, and Walmart.

    < KULTUR WAR!!1! />

  6. Anyone who thinks “right wing talk radio” is unlikely source for up-to-date local information (“talk radio”, get it?) supporting voluntary charity (“right-wing”, get it?) doesn’t understand what those words mean.

    1. ^THIS^
      Hell, one of the talk-radio stations in North Florida has (or did when I lived there in the 1990s) a community barter program. Listeners call in with items they want to get rid of, then others call in with offers of goods and services to exchange for them. I once picked up a nice outboard motor in exchange for a couple of gallons of my home-brewed beer and 2 fresh pies. Community radio is great.

    2. Beito was writing for his audience (WSJ), who would find it “unlikely” that right wing talk radio, particularly in such a backward environ as Alabama, would take time out from spewing racism and inciting violence against public servants to displace the government’s proper role of providing disaster aid.

      1. Silly of them, cause Tuscaloosa is the only part of Alabama outside Birmingham which occasionally trends bluish.

        Anyway.

        It took the wife and I five days to make contact with the old neighbors. Everyone made the basements in time (in some cases just, one group had to cross the yard to get to a house with a basement), but all the houses on our old block are gone or damaged beyond economical repair.

        Three of those families landed there after they were flooded out of New Orleans. Talk about can’t win for losing.

        And here I am in Kansas thinking “Boy am I glad I got out of Alabama before the tornados hit!” WTF?

  7. I wish we’d have a flood in Southern California. I have lots of crap in my garage that I could get rid of. Some really nice crap too. Whenever we have a community garage sale, I end up basically giving a bunch of it away anyway. Come to think of it, this might get me rethinking Bastiat’s broken window theory. If there’s a surplus of windows in people’s garages, he might be wrong.

    1. You don’t need an emergency to give away your old crap. Give it to the Salvation Army or Goodwill store.

      1. Hell, he could even go a little crazy and commit capitalism or something selling the stuff on Craigslist. Madness, pure madness, that.

  8. I remember how FEMA kept turning back private supply convoys to New Orleans, one of the biggest (if I recall correctly) being a Wal-Mart truck line with water and some medical supplies. I would have fucking shot the cock-sucking, mother-fucking statist piece of dog shit that forbade entry. Fucking animals.

    A lot of people I know drove over to Louisiana, too.

    I swear to God, I hope DC fucking burns to the ground.

    1. Years earlier during the aftermath of Andrew, the Nasty Guard tried to prevent me from bringing plywood and a generator to my grandmother in Homestead. Thankfully I was there on emergency leave and in a roadside pissing contest, a pissed off active duty E-6 trumps the weekend warriors.

    2. The convoy drivers probably hadn’t been through their mandatory three day sexual harrassment training. Did you really want the citizens of N.O. subjected to sexual harrassment?

      1. No, their headlights were damaged. NATIONAL GUARD PROTECTED OUR LIBERTY TO BE FREE OF BROKEN LIGHTS

    3. Stop being coy, and tell us what you really think, dammit.

  9. Community outreach? Or the Klan?

  10. You know, and I’m not exaggerating here, if I was on my way to help friends or family in a disaster zone with a private convoy, I’d literally shoot any state-sponsored thug that got in my way. I just wish everybody else was resolved to act the same way

    1. I didn’t have a lot of trouble crossing checkpoints in Tuscaloosa in the days after April 27th. When I drove up to the checkpoint with a truck full of water, bug spray and sunscreen and matter-of-factly told them I was going to the Forest Lake command center, I got what I wanted.

      However, several friends in affected areas had problems with the national guard allowing them back into their neighborhood after they left to get plywood, tarps, and other supplies that couldn’t exactly be hoofed in on foot. The nominal reasoning was to prevent looting, but those national guard guys were all show and no go; in the event of problems, the victims would probably have had to protect them…and God knows that the victims were armed!

      1. Oh…as to the point of the article, I saw a great quote in our local newspaper from a FEMA rep. Something to the effect of “We’ve never gone anywhere and had nothing to do when we got there.”

  11. Im from SW MO, just outside of Joplin MO.

    Faith based, local talk radio, and the local population has done 50x more then FEMA and the fed thought about doing. You can pretty much replace tuscaloosa in this article and change it to Joplin and the article wouldnt be much different.

    1. You’re clearly a redneck and hate black people and children and elderly people. FEDERAL GOVERNMENT KNOWS WHAT IT’S DOING — AND IT’S ALL FOR YOUR OWN GOOD. STEP ASIDE, LIE DOWN, CURL INTO A BALL, AND WAIT FOR US TO FIX THE PROBLEM.

    1. Those are the sort of cops that deserve to be mowed down mercilessly by the next Jared Loughner, and he’d be doing us a service.

      Why didn’t the residents just tell the inspector and the cops to fuck off? Numerical advantage, no arrests. Oh, wait. SWAT. Indiscriminate fire. I remember now.

  12. Dear Reason People: Thanks for posting this. Please post more stuff like this, particularly from David Beito.

    Freedom allows people to voluntarily cooperate, as well as compete. Unfortunately, most in the modern U.S. libertarian movement seem to focus on only the latter part of that.

    1. I generally agree. I am not a right wing bible thumper by any stretch of the imagination, in fact, I am not particularly religious, but I have argued for religion on this site in the past and those arguments have not been well received.

      The reason I have argued in favor of religions is because for most part, they provide infrastructure to local communities in the form of church groups etc . . . where cooperation is encouraged and facilitated by members and the resources of the group and it is all voluntary, not forced by a central govt authority.

      Some view religion as an ignorant mans answer to the unknown, and in some respects they are right, however, religion, done right, allows people to communicate and promote values that support the long term interests of the individual. The values taught concerning greed and charity are critical to a truly free market, because greed is not helpful to the individual in the log term and charity is.

      I don’t want to argue about god or creation, but whether religious people see it or not, what they are actually worshiping, in my opinion, is the “invisible hand” of free markets and the “spontaneous order” of life. Life itself was at one point a spontaneous order event and continues to be so today. And it all keeps perpetuating throughout the invisible hand of evolution.

      Okay so I may have offended some religious people, but just know that I think you are only as righteous as your actions and your actions are only righteous if they are based in truth. If your dogma conflicts with truth, go with the truth.

  13. Those stations were only able to operate because we have effective allocation of the airwaves courtesy of the FCC. In libertopia, they would have had to fight with a thousand Wolfman Jacks for bandwidth. But you teabaggers don’t care if thousands of people die, only that they’re ‘free’ when they do.

    1. AAAAAAHHH

      KILL IT WITH FIRE

    2. Just like my website IsTony4Real.com has to compete with other sites such as this one.

    3. Most people are reasonable and if there were no FCC, what makes you think people would not cooperate with each other through contracts, radio operator organizations and other such groups to manage a scarce resource.

      Also, the future of the radio spectrum will follow the cellular broadcast method. Technology itself can now easily allocate the same wavelength to multiple broadcasters. Your cellphone is broadcasting at the same frequency as thousands of others like it on your network, yet there is no interference to your Internet radio broadcast… That is because of code division multiple access (CDMA) technology.

      Spread spectrum technology began in WWII with patents filed by individuals for a radio communication device intended to control guided torpedoes to be used to fight the Nazis. The US military adopted spread spectrum because it is so difficult for an enemy to intercept a signal without knowing the spectrum pattern. Once it was declassified, companies adapted it into CDMA and it’s cousin TDMA. The FCC had nothing to do with this innovation because they had no reason to invent it, which is the problem with government, they have no motivation to innovate. Arguably, the only government entity that seems to have any motivation to innovate is the military, but one should keep in mind that their motivation is to kill the enemy before the enemy kills them, which replaces he profit motive of the private sector. I’m glad the military was sufficiently motivated to survive that it helped develop this tech, but if those resources hadn’t been used by the military, then they could have been available for the private sector much sooner and the people behind spread spectrum could have come up with CDMA earlier as the market for the tech has always existed.

  14. Tony, You are quite clueless about how things work. If the FCC was not dividing up the frequencies, some private body such as Ham Radio associations would divise a system and make it work.

    1. http://www.arrl.org/news/sater…..operations

      Spontaneous order at work with ham radio in Joplin.

      The ARRL would probably fill the FCC role without such a heavy hand if the FCC was not there.

  15. Everything that you right-wing Libertarians get right, you stole (uncredited, natch) from Anarchists. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M….._Evolution

    1. Yes, of course, because heaven knows no one had ever heard of the idea of people aiding each other before Peter Kropotkin chose to grace us with his presence.

  16. *Although Tuscaloosa Clear Channel generally caters to a white, conservative audience, grateful listeners often made tearful calls from the black and Hispanic neighborhoods which bore the brunt of the tornado.*

    Stupid, racist tornado.

  17. ty rights, etc. seem like a more accurate measure of freedom than democracy.

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