Prospects for Decentralized Help

by Kieran Healy on September 2, 2005

Here’s a thought-provoking piece sent to me by Tim McGovern. Centralized assistance (properly organized) has its advantages, decentralized assistance has at least as much potential. I wonder whether this or some similar idea would be workable.

*The Catastrophe the Suburbs Were Invented For*
Timothy McGovern

More than half the US population lives in the suburbs, and I’d be willing to bet (though I don’t have the numbers to back it up) that more than half the US population lives within a day and half drive of New Orleans or Houston (New York City is 1300 miles from New Orleans, Chicago 925 miles, Denver 1200 from Houston)

There’s a long weekend coming up. You’ve got a day and a half to drive to a refugee shelter, pick up a family and bring them home to be your guest for a few weeks or a month.

There is a perfect match here between needs — shelter and food for hundreds of thousands — and supplies — big houses in the ‘burbs, and those SUV’s do have a purpose: carrying people and their stuff from place to place. A friend or relative at home can work out the details, and tell you by cell phone who to pick up and where to meet them.

I read a quote from a woman who spent days after September 11th (if I recall correctly) feeding firefighters and rescue crews. It went something like, “The ineffective person asks, ‘How can I help?’; the effective person bakes a casserole and asks, ‘Where can I take it?'”

This is the perfect opportunity for decentralized help.



Matt Weiner 09.02.05 at 5:08 pm

1300 miles is not a day and a half drive unless you’re taking shifts and driving through the night. When I’ve moved that distance (switching off driving with my dad during the day) it takes two days of pretty tiring driving. And if you’re trying to clear one of those big cities you hit traffic.

That’s is just quibbling, aside from the main point of the essay. I think even this sort of decentralized help requires centralized coordination. (Let’s restrict it to picking refugees up in Houston–which I could do, I’m about 8 hours drive away; New Orleans is closed. No decentralized rescue operation there would have any hope; pity there hasn’t been a centralized one.)

How do you figure out who to pick up? Do you just head to the Astrodome and ask someone to hop in? That sounds chaotic…. And once you’ve got your refugees, how does anyone know where they are? How do you figure out when the few weeks to a month are over? When they can go back to their former homes? That’ll be longer than a few weeks to a month. When the government finds a permanent place for them? If the government’s trying to think of permanent or semi-permanent housing, as I fucking well hope it is, then it’ll need to be able to get in touch with the refugees to let them know when to move on. Maybe a clearinghouse like MoveOn’s hurricane housing site is the best option.

I don’t want to seem like I’m disparaging this–even if I poke the odd hole in this idea, it still could be much better than the alternative. Apparently Lubbock is taking at least 250 refugees; hopefully our community will be able to do more for them than leave them in the Reese Center. My house is within walking distance of a grocery store, at least.


bob mcmanus 09.02.05 at 5:28 pm

“In Biloxi, Miss., Bush encountered two weeping women on a street where a house had collapsed and towering trees were stripped of their branches. “My son needs clothes,” said Bronwynne Bassier, 23, clutching several trash bags. “I don’t have anything.”

“I understand that,” Bush said. He kissed both women on their heads and walked with his arms around them, telling them they could get help from the Salvation Army. “Hang in there,” he said”

This should help in predicting what to expect from the Bush administration. The $10 billion will be needed to rebuild Trent Lott’s fine new porch.


Xavier 09.02.05 at 5:39 pm

The biggest problem with this plan is that it would waste a lot of gasoline at a time when it’s in short supply. If you’re within a few hundred miles, this might be a good idea. Otherwise I think you’re better off sending supplies.


Chuchundra 09.02.05 at 6:30 pm

That’s exactly my thought. The last thing we need right now is thousands of people driving an extra thousand miles or more.


a different chris 09.02.05 at 6:34 pm

Uh, this idea would fall apart at the first major highway intersection. Trust me on this.

Hey(hey) cool(cool) new(new) live(live) preview(preview)!(!)


Dylan 09.02.05 at 6:44 pm

I’m in Houston and already had decided to do this. The best use of individual efforts is to focus on small towns, not Baton Rouge/New Orleans, with the exception of an armed run into New Orleans to snatch out individuals trapped away from the focal points, a far too risky endevour with ever diminishing returns.

I’ve identified Marksville and Abbeville, LA as smaller towns with large numbers of evacuees. The most common need is baby items (diapers, wipes, food, formula), paper plates/cups/plastic utensils, bedding, personal hygiene, beds (cots/airmattresses), clothing (underwear, shirts, flipflops as size flexible shoe substitutes), and entertainment (games, magazines, coloring books/toys for children). Food and water are apparently NOT in high demand except east of Baton Rouge, where you can’t get without being clever, audacious, or by risking a shooting or carjacking. Any food/water shortages in Baton Rouge are not that bad, and that’s where most of the big aid will head.

If you’re doing this: 1) be close, to avoid wasting gas 2) pack your car full, to make the most of it 3) focus on smaller cities that might be neglected 4) talk to someone coordinating relief there to locate big needs. All of the above will be needed most places, but somethings might not be obvious, like the Abbeville request for cots (preferred) or air mattresses for the elderly sleeping on the floor. Those are things they can no longer buy locally, and need to be shipped in.

I’m also planning to offer rides to people with somewhere permanent to go, like a friend or family members house. Such people, however, appear few and far between. I’ve posted an ad on Baton Rouge craigslist, but am not expecting any responses. Those heading to Baton Rouge might try the Greyhound bus station, which I understand was recently still closed.

For most people, you are far better sending money to a charity you trust to spend efficiently and act with speed. They can achieve better mass, will (hopefully) invest in better information on what is needed where, can spend less on gas and other transportation costs, and should get bulk/compassion discounts that you can’t get from your retailer.

That said, I’m going anyway, since getting into New Orleans now looks too dangerous, difficult, and (hopefully!) less necessary than it did 48 hours ago when I first decided to do it, and I still need to physically go there and do something.


nadezhda 09.02.05 at 7:40 pm

Housing people in your spare rooms in the burbs is an excellent idea. But before you get in the car and start looking for refugees, it might be useful to use some of the webservices that are springing up to connect people in need with people who want to help. has a site. Craigslist’s New Orleans housing page is full of offers for everything from free rooms to condominiums for sale. And a dedicated site has been set up by a couple of young webdesigners called

Sure, someone has to have access to the internet to be able to take advantage of these offers. But they don’t have to be hooked up directly – e.g. a relative who lives in your area and has internet access could be hunting for a place for them and could link you up. The people looking via the internet are also unlikely to be the ones who are in absolutely dire straits. But if volunteers who open their homes can take some of the pressure off, it will make it easier for the Red Cross or the Houston Astrodome to do their jobs.

The webservices aren’t intermediaries. You’re on your own to work out the details with anyone who responds to your offer. And no guarantees on who you’re dealing with. So use common sense.

Anyway, the internet can help make distributed solutions a good deal more powerful.


Stephen M (Ethesis) 09.02.05 at 10:19 pm

Our congregation already got started and we have at least one family already moved in. Of course we are in Plano, Texas, one of the red areas in a red state …


CKR 09.03.05 at 8:47 am

We all have the urge to hug these people and give them some food. But the best way to help is to send money to an organization that can mobilize on a large scale. Money flows to Louisiana a lot faster than those canned goods that you’ve pulled from your back shelves. Money can buy a semi already loaded with bottled water.

I heard a rep (Red Cross, I think) this morning on the news saying, PLEASE DO NOT JUMP IN YOUR SUV TO PICK UP A FAMILY. As has been noted here, there are webserves you can check with.

It’s bad enough down there. Let’s not make it worse.

And a more philosophical question: is this individual initiative thing part of how we’ve been brainwashed by the extreme free-enterprisers? A thousand points of light, a thousand SUVs.


CKR 09.03.05 at 8:50 am

A second thought inspired by stephen m’s post. There are many, many small and decentralized organizations working the problem. I saw an example yesterday of a higher-education organization I’m associated with, but it’s a bit too early to trumpet that. Work with them and stay at home this expensive-and-scarce-gas weekend.


Matt Daws 09.03.05 at 9:51 am

I can see the point about lots of individuals helping to house people who are now de-facto homeless (although the long-term effects of this are a bit tricky: do you want another family living with your for 3-6 months?) I guess this is de-centralised.

However, the idea of hoping in your SUV and driving a 1000 miles is nuts. It makes much, much more sense for people to be put on buses, driven to a metropolis, and *then* for people to drive a few 10s of miles in their SUVs to pick them up. That’s a much better us of resources, and a much easier task to co-ordinate.

What also really needs to happen if for the government to come up with a serious plan about what to do in the next 6 months. On the news (here in the UK) it said that it would take 60 days to pump NO dry, assuming all the pumps were working (none are at the moment). Frankly, I can see lots of people being homeless for a long time, and there really needs to be a plan.


Sam Hutcheson 09.03.05 at 10:48 am

It’s not even necessary to house a family in your McMansion, is it? I live in Atlanta. The housing market here is massively overbuilt. Not just the suburban and exurban housing developments, but the APARTMENT COMPLEXES. I’d gander a guess that there isn’t a single apartment complex in the area that is 100% full. One bedrooms, two bedrooms, whatever. They have electriciity and water. If one of the primary owners of these complexes (Holder Properties, etc.) would open up one unit per complex, you could very likely house 500 families. If you do that per city, you’re getting thousands of families housed for short term solutions. Just waive rent for X months, assist the displaced family in finding work or somewhere else to go, and right off the costs as a tax break next spring.


arthur 09.03.05 at 2:06 pm

This is also the ideal time of year to donate the use of a Summer home, ordinarily not it use after Labor Day, to someone who needs some walls an a roof.


Leila A. 09.04.05 at 1:13 am

Interesting idea about apartment owners renting out empty apartments. My local paper, the Oakland Tribune, reported Saturday 9/3 on the many people in Oakland with close ties to New Orleans. Also reported that 20 families of refugees have arrived so far, and they are expected to be “the tip of the iceberg”. Meanwhile, the town is full of “for rent” signs. Despite our crazy real estate sales market, the rental market is overbuilt. There are plenty of apartments around – but they’re mostly overpriced, lower quality units.

A local college has offered non-matriculated status to displaced Gulf Coast students, and the NY Times reports many higher education institutions nationwide are doing the same.


Amanda 09.04.05 at 8:12 am

If you are interested in housing refugees, please, contact your local Red Cross chapter. The Red Cross in the National Chapter area is compiling a list of people who are offering shelter, and will call people from this list to coordinate arrangements. A large group of refugees will arrive to the DC Armory roughly today, and these offers of private shelter will be one of the means by which refugees are moved out to living situations that are slightly more permanent or homelike than convention centers. The Red Cross is quite interested in tracking and coordinating crisis care plans, so going through the Red Cross ensures that people are within the Red Cross’s continuum of care.

Yes, this process is probably going to be slowed down a bit as the Red Cross worries likely about liability for both the hosts and the hosted, and protecting both parties. It’s how the balancing test of ensuring everyone is in a safe living arrangement comes down against the need to act quickly. Or so I guess, based on how much emphasis the Red Cross places on ensuring that its volunteers are trained before they begin work.

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