Why have FEMA? Alabama citizens show us spontaneous charity in action

Natural disasters can literally destroy communities. We’ve seen this from Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Japan, the recent tornadoes in the South, and the current flooding of the Mississippi in Memphis. (Pray for my relatives in North Dakota; sandbags are keeping water from flooding their house on all four sides. They have to travel by boat instead of car because of the flooding of the Red River of the North.)

Because there is so much need of shelter, clothing and water for so many displaced families, it is thought that only the federal government can effectively rise to the occasion and meet these needs of all these people.

But Katrina changed all that. It opened our eyes to the incompetence of bureaucracy from the federal level (“Brownie”) down to the municipal level (remember all the school buses that went unused?).

In contrast, Walmart and Home Depot mobilized immediately and performed some amazing acts of corporate citizenship, while FEMA was spinning their wheels:

“Between August 29 [when Katrina made landfall] and September 16,” [Economist Steve Horwitz] reports, “Wal-Mart shipped almost 2,500 truckloads of merchandise to the affected areas and had drivers and trucks in place to ship relief supplies to community members and organizations wishing to help.

“Home Depot provided more than 800 truckloads worth of supplies to the hard-hit areas and also used buses to transport 1,000 employees from other areas into the region. Wal-Mart also provided a large amount of free merchandise, including prescription drugs, to those in the worst-hit areas of the Gulf Coast….

“Most importantly, Wal-Mart and Home Depot were able to get this assistance to the disaster areas almost immediately after the storm had passed, in comparison to the days—in some cases weeks—that residents waited for government agencies to provide relief.”

And it’s not just corporations who have responded to the call.

When tornadoes recently ravaged the city of Tuscaloosa (home of the University of Alabama), they found help from an unlikely source. Their chief rival: fans of Auburn University.

It all started with just a Facebook page called Toomers for Tuscaloosa. It’s goal was simple: Get food, water and supplies to the people in need. Within 24 hours, their first shipment arrived. Someone needs diapers or baby food? They would coordinate donors and recipients with drop-off points via Facebook and Twitter.

Here’s a typical message, posted just minutes ago:

“WE NEED TENTS IN HACKLEBURG!! Just got off the phone with my War Eagle Angel Marcy..COACH DON JONES FROM GUIN, AL needs tents for families in Hackleburg, AL. We need about 15-20 tents for families there before it rains. WHO CAN HELP THESE PEOPLE BEFORE THE RAIN COMES DOWN? PLEASE HELP.”

No filling out federal forms. No waiting for FEMA trucks. Just real help, real fast.

Watch this segment from ESPN:

Contrast this inspiring and spontaneous call to action with the inept response of FEMA, which had to show they were doing something during Katrina so they just handed out $2,000 gift cards. Gee, how could that go wrong? Well, people were using them to buy liquor or to visit strip clubs.

If my town is in need, please don’t send me FEMA. Send me some Toomers.



  • susanna

    I lived in Alabama. The people are very gracious.

    • thereserita

      yup, we’ve lived all over the country & eventually moved back to the South for that very reason. The response in Alabama was what I expected.


    Dear Joshua: Not to be partisan about this, but the failures in Katrina were 1) Bush’s appointee “Brownie” and 2) Low quality public safety agencies. The salvation was the National Guard units from other states, one of our parishoners spent a month there with his Cal Guard Unit, the 82nd Airborne Division and the virtual takeover of rescue, recovery and relief operations by a regular army general. ~ Best regards, Greg

  • Everett

    This is what Catholic Social Teaching and the principle of subsidiarity are really all about.



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