Last week my hometown of Panama City was devastated by Hurricane Michael, the most powerful storm to make landfall in over 50 years. The aftermath on the ground is impossible to comprehend without seeing first hand: buildings destroyed, trees scattered, basic infrastructure like water and power remain down for most of the county. To the east, the city of Mexico Beach has few structures that remain standing after receiving the brunt of wind and storm surge. Residents of rural areas such as Chipley and Marianna are forced to navigate around roads still impassable due to the considerable debris that remains.
I was able to visit Bay County this past weekend to bring supplies to friends and family. For all the horror the storm brought, it’s also demonstrated the best of what society has to offer. In the face of incomprehensible hardship is a community that has rallied around each other for strength, comfort, and survival.
While Federal, state, and local governments have been quick to respond to the storm’s aftermath, much of this work has been the spontaneous action of residents both in and outside of the impacted areas. The aftermath of Hurricane Michael is the perfect illustration of the importance of civil society and voluntary action given the inherent limits of state action.
As soon as Michael made landfall, the first priority for anyone with loved ones in the path of the storm was trying to find a way to check on their wellbeing. Immediately the limitations of traditional emergency services to offer assistance help became clear. With 9-1-1 simply unable to handle the volume of requests coming in, social media became an invaluable tool for organizing rescue efforts. In many cases complete strangers stepped up to report on the wellbeing of residents thorough out the area, an immeasurable relief to friends and family who had no other option.
Of course social media requires internet access, and here too competition in cellular infrastructure has proved invaluable for recovery efforts. Damage done to Verizon’s network not only took away cell service for tens of thousands of customers, but took away the main service provider for Bay County emergency personnel. Access to AT&T’s network or other hot spots managed to provide semi-reliable means of communication, which became the backbone of continuing volunteer efforts.
Another vital means of communication has been commercial radio stations, particularly the network of stations under the umbrella of iHeartRadio. Not only did these stations provide a constant stream of information throughout the affected areas, but provided an outlet for requests far beyond anyone’s individual social network. Lives have literally been saved as callers have had requests for oxygen, medicine, water, and other necessities met within minutes after being shared on air. It’s also helped direct a legion of volunteers armed with chainsaws – now dubbed the Chainsaw Army – to help clear out parts of the city that are too isolated to be priorities for government-led rescue efforts.
Businesses, churches, and other organizations have also stepped up to feed, assist, and shelter thousands of those in severe need as well. Restaurants, bars, and even “illegal” Facebook food groups quickly emerged as pop-up soup kitchens, clearing out freezers to give hot meals to those that have lost anything. Food trucks and other groups from around the country have stepped up as well, truckloads of food, water, tarps, and other vital supplies making their way into the area for distribution.
Another way we’ve seen voluntary cooperation emerge is the reaction to the darker side of human nature that comes out in a time of crisis. Reports of looting began just hours after the hurricane hit, and quickly spread well beyond those “salvaging” resources from stores devastated by Michael. With law enforcement faced with higher priorities than property protection, it’s been up to citizens to protect themselves – with many banding together to help look after their neighborhoods.
It’s also worth re-emphasizing that this praise of voluntary coordination in the aftermath of crisis is not at the expense of what government officials have been able to accomplish in the area. All parties involved, from first responders to state organized shelters to power companies have done incredible work over the past week. What we see, however, is the basic limitations of what a government can do for the public in a time for crisis – even when motivated with the best of intentions – and the importance of community beyond the state. The fact the community has been, for the most part, freed of heavy handed government management is precisely what has allowed for such a quick and vibrant response to the storm.
This becomes all the more clear when contrasted to a very different sort of catastrophe that hit the gulf coast: the Deep Horizon Oil Spill. In that case, efforts made by outside entities to assist with clean up were frequently turned down by the Federal government which claimed total control over the situation. Labor to help deal with the fall out on land was tightly regulated by OSHA requirements. Road block after road block emerged to stall the very sort of spontaneous order that a civil society offers. If such a centralized and bureaucratic response to a disaster was replicated this past week, many more lives would have been lost and far more even worse off than they are today.
Hurricane Michael brought destruction that the Florida panhandle has never seen before, but it failed to break the community it impacted. Thanks to the incredible and voluntary actions of countless number of residents, lives have been saved and the steps to recovery have already begun.