Saturday, America's emergency relief effort went into high gear and is likely to stay there for weeks, as all across the country citizens open their wallets to help out their fellow countrymen.
Before long, however, the extreme needs will be met and the long-term rebuilding will get underway. At that point it will become much less obvious how ordinary Americans can help. When terrorists struck on Sept. 11, the carnage was huge and the loss of life staggering, but an entire community was not wiped out. With this disaster, America confronts for the first time the daunting reconstruction of complex social and political organizations.
It is a task which may be beyond the ability of the local, state, and federal governments to manage. How, for example, does a government—at any level—presume to assist a shattered church in the reconstruction of its walls and its Sunday School programs, an Alcoholics Anonymous chapter in the care of its members, a community theater in the reconstruction of its playhouse, or scores and scores of high school athletes in the completion of their senior year schedules so that colleges and universities can offer talented kids a chance at a free education?
The only way such a multitude of specialized needs can be met is for the vast, vast numbers of their counterparts across the United States to act—independently of government—to come to their aid in a reconstruction effort.
N.Z. Bear, one of the most innovative entrepreneurs in the blogosphere, has agreed to help organize the launch of such an effort. If a particular organization in the devastated region—a PTA, a youth soccer league, a Presbyterian Church, a garden club, a cooking school, a literary magazine—decides it wants to ask for help, that appeal will be listed on a special page, which will get quite a lot of traffic as the country's bloggers publicize opportunities for people to help.
Sometimes the requests will be for cash. Other times they will be for the sort of specialized help that only similarly situated people can provide. The fact is, the needs will be so different and so voluminous that it is impossible to predict what will come up. The second fact is that there are millions of Americans who would like nothing more than to help. Connecting the need with the volunteer at the level of specificity required is a solution that the web allows.
There's a New Orleans Chess Club, for example. If it got smashed up, it will have needs. There's no way that 99.999 percent of America knows what those would be, but there hundreds of other chess clubs that do. Certainly scores of them will want to help.
In many instances there is no need to wait to find a partner in need of help in rebuilding. Mark D. Roberts, a pastor, theologian, and blogger, went online and discovered that an old acquaintance of his led the Canal Street Presbyterian Church in the middle of the city of New Orleans. Roberts tracked down his old friend, Mike Hogg, in Houston and promised church-to-church assistance, from one Presbyterian congregation to another.
A police officer from Phoenix emailed me to relay that he was certain his Officer's Benevolent Association would be searching out their counterparts in the Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama communities to offer rebuilding aid. A Scout master assured me that the troops of the region would find themselves overwhelmed with donated equipment to make up for what was blown or washed away. No doubt libraries, hospitals, galleries, restaurants, and specialized businesses like florists, jewelers, and auto repair shops will find willing partners as well. The way to rebuild an entire set of communities is to call upon America's thousands of communities to send aid of the sort they know is needed.
This sort of system is common in small-scale disasters where neighbors know what needs to be done and simply do it. Using the internet, that same generous impulse can be channeled on a large scale. The most important thing will be for local governments and national organizations to be as flexible as they can be in allowing innovation.
Right now, for example, the NCAA should be figuring out how to allow athletes of great promise who are about to be sidelined to transfer for the season to a team which can absorb and train that talent. Museum boards of directors should be directing their staffs to be prepared to bend the collection rules to get some exhibits to the Big Easy ASAP if the city's galleries have restoration and recovery programs ahead. And some large organizations will have to be willing to loan talent.
It will be awhile before the staggered survivors of the Gulf coast are stable enough to contemplate how to rebuild. When they get to that point, though, it will be wonderful if platoons of help are standing by at the ready. And if the folks in need can find the folks who want to help, with ease.
Hugh Hewitt is the host of a nationally syndicated radio show, and author most recently of Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation That is Changing Your World. His daily blog can be found at HughHewitt.com.