Here’s a story about a flashpoint in the central control versus distributed self-organization drama that’s been playing out in many ways throughout society in recent years, enabled at least in part by the Internet.
There are many websites where people are offering private housing, free, to people displaced by Katrina. We’ve been creating an aggregator site for those various websites (katrinahousing.net). This led us to learn that the U.S. Government and professional relief organizations like the Red Cross are not completely comfortable with this person-to-person aid from strangers idea (hosts don’t know what they’re getting into and may not be prepared to do it well; some hosts or guests might be unsavory). We learned about this concern in an abstract way on Thursday from talking to an Ann Arbor Red Cross official, but now we have a very concrete example.
Bruce Vinkemulder, a minister from Battle Creek, MI arranged to send a bus to a shelter in Mississippi, where displaced people had signed up to go on the bus. Apparently, he wanted to get official approval and kept getting bumped up the chain, until a regional Red Cross director gave a more direct “no”, and said they wouldn’t be letting people go until they’d been processed, which would probably take a week. He also got a similar answer from the National Guard in Battle Creek, which already has upwards up 1,000 people temporarily housed there, though they are letting him in to do Bible study tomorrow. [Note: turns out those people weren’t there yet, but some did arrive later. –PR 9/9/05]
It’s not obvious to me whether the take-it-slow, do-it-the-professional-way approach is better than the people-to-people approach in this situation. Certainly, the human costs to people in the shelters of staying there a long time can be pretty high (even if they get access to professional counselors they wouldn’t get access to if they dispersed). On the other hand, if masses of people rely on the kindness of individual strangers, there are bound to be some bad outcomes that result. My assessment is that, on balance, given the numbers of people displaced in the current situation, it would be better to encourage person-to-person aid rather than try to put the brakes on it.
What’s new in the current situation is that our ability to coordinate that kind of person-to-person aid is far greater now, with the Internet, than it’s ever been in the past. We’ve been able to jump the boundaries of social networks, in order to connect resources that were socially distant. Consider, for example, how we hooked up with the Battle Creek minister. Someone we knew had posted an offer on an Internet site. Someone working with Bruce used the Internet to contact our friend. My wife, Caroline, ran into her on the street and put us in touch with Battle Creek group. My wife then agreed to try to find housing for six families in Ann Arbor who weren’t spoken for in Battle Creek. We are using both our social networks, Internet postings, and the newspaper, to try to recruit those additional hosts.
Anyway, I think it would be interesting to investigate how widespread the resistance of the Red Cross and National Guard is to private home placements, and what impact that is having on the overall situation.