Katrina, the coronavirus, and the idea of American community (Part 2 of 2): “We take care of our own”

Mar 17, 2020

Surveying crisis-caused civic involvement—and appreciating, and supporting, it.

William A. Schambra began preparing this article on the American idea of community in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In the midst of the current coronavirus pandemic—to the aftermath of which we’re all looking forward, of course—we convinced him to complete it for publication in two parts now. Part 1 is here.


The leading indicator of civic involvement in the recovery from Hurricane Katrina, of course, was the record-setting level of funding donated by foundations, corporations, and citizens—some $2.2 billion within the first nine weeks after the event. Most of it went to the two largest nonprofits engaged in disaster relief, with some $1.3 billion to the Red Cross and $275 million to The Salvation Army. But what is most significant about this amount is the way much of it was raised. Katrina triggered a new sense of civic engagement and community involvement within thousands of small organizations of across the nation.

Anne Applebaum listed the civic energy poured into charitable activity just within her daily ambit—her son’s elementary school, her employer, a local bookstore, her favorite radio station, all were collecting contributions, while  “every church or synagogue attended by anyone I know is, of course, raising money, housing evacuees, or delivering clothes to victims.” My hometown paper the Midland [Mich.] Daily News noted that within a month of the storm, the local Red Cross had collected its then-largest totals ever for Katrina relief, much of it through classic Tocquevillian modes of community engagement: six Woodcrest Elementary students selling lemonade and brownies collected $400; Midland Christian School raised $550 at a car wash; Gladwin Boy Scout Troop No. 799 collected more than $3,000, and so forth. Applebaum contrasted the government failures after Katrina with the “biggest successes,” which “have come out of this country’s incredibly vibrant, amazingly diverse and fantastically generous civil society.”

Beyond the solid performances put in by The Salvation Army and the American Red Cross, the most-significant and far-reaching rescue and relief efforts came from America’s faith communities. Some of the nation’s best-known megachurches were in the immediate vicinity of Katrina, and performed heroically.

Working with city government and local businesses, Bishop T. D. Jakes’ Potter’s House in Dallas launched “Project Exodus” to empty the city’s convention center of its hurricane survivors as quickly as possible. Shelter residents were relocated to apartment and homes close to public transportation, and received free rent for two months, a parcel of essential household supplies, and a host family to accompany them on the first steps of their new lives.

In Houston, Martin Morse Wooster reported, the local churches launched “Operation Compassion.” Each week, volunteers from coalitions of different faith communities provided assistance and comfort to residents in the Astrodome and convention center. Second Baptist Church trained some 4,700 volunteers for the effort over Labor Day weekend; the Fellowship of the Woodlands donated 21,000 relief kits to Katrina victims; and Pastor Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church committed his church to raise $5 million for relief.

At the Baton Rouge convention center, The Wall Street Journal reported, about six buses a day were arriving every day from churches in South Carolina, Florida, Nevada, and Texas to carry hurricane evacuees to new lives. “Passengers who hop aboard are promised a new start in a new city, with tidy, dry houses, good schools, and an array of job prospects.”

But churches far from the storm, as well, felt the summons to respond to Katrina. In Milwaukee, where I used to live, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Rev. Nate Stampley’s Least of These International Ministries headed to Mississippi with a semitrailer truck and two vans with supplies, and the Islamic Society of Milwaukee sent a physician, four volunteers, and medical supplies on a bus to Baton Rouge. Semitrailers and teams of volunteers likewise headed south from Hales Corner Lutheran Church, Oak Creek Assembly of God, and Elmbrook Church, whose pastor Scott Arbeiter noted that “I have a feeling we’ll be sending teams down for months to come to build homes and churches.” No doubt virtually every American city’s paper carried similar accounts of immediate and sustained response from local churches, synagogues, and mosques.

Common bonds

Beyond faith-based groups, however, communities organized around other kinds of common bonds also sprang into action. The strong ties of ethnicity among smaller minority populations summoned up powerful currents of civic energy. In Los Angeles, an Associated Press story noted, The Korea Times dedicated “much of its coverage to motivating Korean-Americans to help their own.” As the editor put it, the thousands of Koreans in New Orleans “have their own stories, and we’re focusing on the Korean victims.” (One story in the paper, however, reported that a Korean shopkeeper was entrusted with $12,000 by his African-American customers and dutifully returned it after the storm, saying “I am so thankful to have been trusted in that way by my neighbors.”)   

The New York Times’ Christine Hauser noted that the local Vietnamese community, numbering about 10,000, had been hit particularly hard by Katrina, but was discovering new resilience in their ethnic heritage and faith. “They say the preservation of their traditions explains why their ties, stretched during the hurricane, did not break,” she wrote. Using their church as a headquarters, they organized into teams assigned to repairs, clean-up, medical care, and cooking. 

Officials from the United Houma Nation and the National Congress of American Indians surveyed the particularly severe damage done to the homes of several thousand Houma tribal members along the Gulf Coast, while local Houma leaders worked to locate and secure assistance for widely scattered tribal members. Indian Congress officials voiced conviction that the storm’s impact on the Houma would not “destroy their sense of community as they are reaching out to each other to share homes, food, and inner strength.” Furthermore, they noted, the hurricane had served to “remind us that all Native Americans have a responsibility to care for each other.” 

One of the most-invisible ethnic groups affected by Katrina was the population of undocumented workers among the 300,000 Mexicans, Hondurans, and Guatemalans living in the path of the storm. As The Wall Street Journal’s Miriam Jordan noted, they had to draw “on family, friends, and the Latino community to help them rebuild their lives,” since federal assistance was unavailable. She wrote of the ordeal of 27 undocumented Guatemalans who drove to Nashville, where one of them had friends.

They arrived in time for a fundraiser sponsored by the local Spanish-language radio station. Some 2,000 local Hispanics, many of them believed to be undocumented, had shown up with “everything from lampshades and dinner plates to disposable diapers and cases of drinking water.” As the radio-station owner put it, “these were poor people answering a call to help other poor people.” Received as heroes at the fundraiser, the Guatemalans were taken in hand by Santa Perez, a Mexican restaurateur who recalled the help she had once been given by the Hispanic community. She supplied rent for four apartments and new beds for the sojourners, with other furniture coming from the fund-raiser. Within weeks, the local Latino community had plugged them into jobs.

Shared interests

Beyond faith and ethnicity, a bewilderingly eclectic variety of bonds formed around all sorts of shared interests and affiliations galvanized groups into action. Though these communities were often built around the most sophisticated 21st Century communications technology, their activities would have been familiar to the 19th Century’s Alexis de Tocqueville.

Alexis de Tocqueville, by Théodore Chassériau (1850)

The National Association of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Centers posted a list of relief efforts by their member centers around the country, with comments like this one from the National Youth Advocacy Coalition:  “NYAC promises to ensure that your financial investment gets into the hands of LGBTQ young people and LGBTQ families who need it most.” The president of the Down Syndrome Association of Greater New Orleans reported on the national organization’s website that she was “trying to assist our families in connecting with what they might need,” and that she had received “so many offers of assistance, support, and prayers for families and those in our area I can’t begin to tell you how overwhelming it is.”

The Council of Independent Restaurants of America launched a website with openings for chefs and waiters in more than 30 states, and its president worked with airlines and hotel chains to get hurricane victims to their new jobs. The Associated Press reported on efforts by farmers and ranchers around the country to get hay and other critical supplies to their fellows in the storm zone. One farmer in Nebraska launched Farmers Helping Hands, with a staging area in Abilene for hay and supplies. “I’m just a simple farmer,” said the founder, who would only identify himself as Rusty. “Farmers are in trouble down there, and we take care of our own,” he said, before Bruce Springsteen so inspirationally sang it later. “You can go back to the beginning of agriculture,” Rusty continued, “and farmers always worked side by side—the old barn-raising parties.”

The publisher of Trucker News headed to Mississippi after the storm to check up on “truckers, trucking companies, and trucking families.” At one Truckstops of America site, he reported, employees were serving free hot meals to all comers, with “an inspiring sense of community gathered around the gas-powered grill.” Shanna Murray, who noted that she had been “blessed to be part of a vast crafting community on the web,” launched an online group called “Quilters for Katrina.” Members created and mailed squares to Murray, who assembled them into quilts and auctioned them to raise relief funds. “Making the squares has been therapeutic for all of us,” she noted. “The sense of community living and growing in our little neck of the web is a beautiful thing.” Even the displaced prison population of New Orleans found a community rallying to help them.  As Jennifer Roback Morse pointed out, Prison Fellowship Ministries volunteers brought toiletries, socks, and blankets from North Carolina to evacuated prisoners housed near Baton Rouge.

Quantity and quality

Given the widely dispersed and often unrecorded acts of generosity by thousands of religious, ethnic, and voluntary communities in America, we will never know all that was done to respond to Katrina by our still-vibrant civil society. But one thing is certain: the widely publicized dollar total by which we measure civil society’s charitable response is a woefully inadequate gauge of that response’s vast outpouring of improvisational genius, organizational energy and voluntary enthusiasm. It was not only in quantity, however, but also in quality that civil society’s contributions by all accounts surpassed those of government. 

The strong religious, ethnic, and other associational affinities between volunteers and those they were serving kept levels of determination and commitment far higher than when services are simply being supplied in exchange for a government paycheck. As the Independent Institute’s Mary Theroux noted, The Salvation Army’s efforts were particularly effective because its officers “are in the Army as a calling—their way of ministering to the poorest of the poor in the name of Christ, with love and without discrimination, and for very little pay.”

Because private civic efforts are often quite small, they can move quickly to the point of need without a lot of bureaucratic fuss. “We have not had to worry about any red tape so we have been able to be quick,” maintained Eula Smith of Baton Rouge’s Shiloh Baptist Church. And because responding civic associations are either rooted in the communities effected or linked by affinity to groups that are, they can react flexibly to the needs of a particular neighborhood, based on local knowledge of its peculiar qualities and needs. They are also likely to stick with a community beyond the immediate period of disaster, through the phase of redevelopment. As Pepperdine University’s James Wilburn noted,

The web of connections that pervade such civic and religious organizations combined with their more intimate knowledge of the region’s geography and sociology, equip them better for many challenges posed by disaster. … They efficiently arranged to adopt one family here and a hundred families there without a memo from a supervisor.

True believers in the idea of national community, of course, are troubled by the suggestion that Americans may apply themselves to civic tasks with more energy and skill when looking after “their own,” defined by some religious, ethnic, or vocational bond. They prefer to think that Americans, if only asked, would respond even more vigorously out of a national or universal sense of human brotherhood and solidarity, and that they would come to regard a strong national government as the legitimate instrument of community, were they not tragically in the thrall of narrow-minded advocates of selfish individualism. For Tocqueville, such grandiose, abstract utopian wishes are only to be expected in a democratic, egalitarian age. They are also profoundly dangerous, since they prepare the way for a national community and government so encompassing that citizens lose the ability to govern their own affairs. 

However utopian and dangerous this view is in theory, however, it makes for even worse practice. Trying to meet the national communitarian ideal that all are to be treated exactly alike, large, national bureaucracies hesitate to act until they have a complete picture of the situation, have drawn up comprehensive plans for all contingencies, and are prepared to fulfill countless administrative regulations designed to insure equity and uniformity. We may say that we value decisive, aggressive action by government in times of crisis, but every bureaucrat knows that once the emergency has passed, every action taken or authorized in the heat of the moment will be scrutinized at leisure by supervisors, departmental inspectors general, Congressional committees, and the press. A regulation courageously waived during the storm readily turns into a serious black mark on a bureaucratic career. In short, protracted delay, excessive caution, and petty self-protection are built into the very system of national bureaucracy.

But national government is not only a flawed instrument of national community—it even hampers the efforts of local community. Surely we learned as much during the Great Society, when the federal government hamstrung our ethnic and religious neighborhoods, but we relearn it during each national disaster, and we may have to relearn it after the coronavirus pandemic. Large bureaucracies are easily flustered by and even actively hostile to private-sector efforts trying to accelerate impatiently around the lumbering, lethargic master plan in order to reach problems or communities of particular interest.  Hence complaints about the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) during Katrina not only that it was itself too slow, but that it also deliberately delayed or even prevented private sector initiatives, as well. 

“First Responders Urged Not to Respond to Hurricane Impact Areas,” FEMA’s press release read the day Katrina came ashore, because, as the Cato Institute’s David Boaz suggested, “FEMA wanted all the responders to be coordinated to come only when called.” Firefighters eager to help were held for days in Atlanta so that FEMA could provide sexual harassment and community relations training. Medical personnel sent by Acadian Ambulance to the New Orleans airport were turned back by FEMA, The New York Times’ John Tierney reported, “because the doctors and nurses weren’t certified members of a National Disaster Medical Team.” Volunteers ready with more than 90 boats to lift people off New Orleans rooftops were blocked by FEMA because they didn’t have life-preservers. Five hundred airboats from Florida were blocked by FEMA’s security-pass system. 

These obstructions and so many others may appear maddeningly illogical or even malign.  But in fact they simply mark the collision between an official bureaucracy proceeding scrupulously according to master plans, checklists, and rulebooks (and haunted by recollections of former officials who failed to “go by the book”), on the one hand, and an aggressive, pragmatic, flexible civil society, gripped by a sense of urgency to “take care of our own,” on the other. However more elevated the ideal of national community may appear next to the petty, parochial, humble notion of local community, the actual fruits of local community are vastly to be preferred.

Bearing on giving

The two American ideas of community that came to light in the wake of Katrina have an immediate bearing on our practice of philanthropy, of course. For philanthropists who are persuaded that America should aspire to be one great national community, Katrina’s unmistakable lesson was that we have a long way to go. Grantmaking should therefore go well beyond gifts for immediate relief, and rather try to sway the larger climate of public policy in such a way that the federal government embraces once again its broad responsibilities for reflecting and reinforcing a unified, coherent national community.

As Warren Goldstein put it in a Chronicle of Philanthropy op-ed after Katrina, donors should “think twice before they write checks to the Red Cross,” because they “could contribute far more to America’s most vulnerable citizens by laying the groundwork for a more just society.” That means, for instance, supporting environmental groups fighting global warming, or groups seeking “to build a tax system that is fair, not one that just benefits the wealthy.”  Indeed, he adds, simply supporting immediate relief “will be aiding, however unintentionally” conservative goals of getting government “down to the size where [they] can drown it in a bathtub.” Philanthropy, in other words, should aim private funds not at effective private-sector efforts, but rather at “leveraging” ever more public dollars for ineffective public-sector efforts. This will again be urged after coronavirus.

For donors who think of America as a nation of communities, the response to Katrina was far more heartening. In the farthest corners of the nation, an electrifying impulse of civic energy shot through associations of all sorts—ethnic, religious, vocational—triggering an immediate and massive outpouring of funds, material relief, and spiritual solace.  Moreover, the assistance was more likely to be targeted flexibly and precisely to the specific needs of particular communities, extending beyond immediate relief to long-term recovery. More than the succor it brought to Katrina victims, though, this burst of community energy also served to remind Americans that we still know how to come together within the vast and diverse associations of civil society to “take care of our own.” This should, and will, happen after the pandemic.

In this perspective, donors need feel no reservation about their impulse to give to the charitable relief efforts of smaller associations to whom they are tied by faith, ethnicity, or vocation. These gifts may not build a sense of national community. But then, building national community is a utopian enterprise, which disappointingly translates into a federal bureaucracy that is inevitably remote, cumbersome, and unresponsive. Gifts to smaller civic associations do contribute, however, to the community-building enterprise as Americans have always understood and practiced it. As Tocqueville reminds us, that is also the idea of community most in accord with the preservation of our free and democratic institutions.