Hurricane Katrina: It's Put Up or Shut Up Time

I realized something yesterday after a week of watching news coverage and reading the anymore list: it’s very comfortable to look for someone to blame when a catastrophe of this magnitude occurs. We feel powerless in the face of this much destruction and misery, but we feel that someone should have the power to make it better or, better yet, should have kept it from happening in the first place. So we blame the government, we blame the people who stayed in harm’s way, we blame God. It doesn’t change what happened, but we feel better because now we know whose fault it is. More importantly, we know it isn’t our fault, so we can look at those sad faces on TV and safely get mad about the whole thing. It’s a natural response, and we’ve all seen it happen several times in the past four years.

Here’s the deal, though: no matter whose fault it is, the reality is that we are facing the biggest human catastrophe in our nation’s history, and our fellow Americans need our help. The scope of the destruction, in terms of property, infrastructure, economic impact, and human life, is beyond the capacity of our government and the major relief organizations to handle, and people continue to suffer. Clearly, this requires a grassroots response at the local, regional, and national level.

Rather than asking, “Who’s to blame?” I would love to see this country focus our efforts on asking, “What can we do to make it better?” There’s a lot of brain power here, not to mention some small amount of resources. Let’s put it to use and show these people that someone cares about their plight.

Jesse Jackson said that the response to this tragedy will have to move in stages: Rescue, Relief, Recovery, and Rebuilding. The rescue effort is (finally) well under way, and there is little that we can do to accelerate it. Right now, the focus is on relief:

  • We can give money. I have already given as much as I can afford right now, and will figure out how much more I can give in the coming months. Logistically speaking, that is probably the best way to help right now. It’s a lot easier for organizations to leverage the existing distribution networks of the major store chains and buy what they need locally than it is to ship used goods from here. Maybe they’ll run out later, but for now, money moves faster. If you don’t trust the Red Cross or the Salvation Army with your money, then find one of the local organizations that are housing people or trying to set up long-term shelters. It seems that just about every church and synagogue in Louisiana and Mississippi is doing something. Maybe we can get a list of those local organizations so that we know our money is making a direct impact.

  • We can offer space. There are a lot of landlords out there. Does anyone have some extra space where they could house someone? I know that several churches in the Boston area are coordinating efforts to house evacuees here, complete with background checks on both the landlords and the evacuees to try to keep people safe.

  • We can offer prayers. I don’t care what your religious leanings are and, frankly, I don’t care to hear them right now. If you are on speaking terms with a higher power, start asking for relief, for some miraculous rescues, and for people’s hearts to open up to help. It costs you nothing more than a few moments of your time, and if there’s a remote chance it can help then it’s better than sitting in front of the TV and stewing.

  • We can ask others to help. I asked my company to help, and even though we don’t have a formal contribution matching program, they have now offered to match every employee donation to the relief effort. You can ask your HR department if the company will make a special contribution, too.

  • We can keep thinking. There are all kinds of other relief efforts springing up and looking for donations beyond money. We can keep watching for opportunities to help in the weeks and months to come.

It will take years for the region to recover from this and for people to put their lives back together. Right now, the needs are dramatic and immediate. As time goes on, the stories will fade from the headlines, but the needs will remain. How can we help in the long term? Can we help them rebuild? If we care enough about these poor people to get angry that the government failed them, do we care enough to help them get their lives back? If so, then we need to look beyond today and think about the long term:

  • I’ll bet that Habitat for Humanity will be down there rebuilding houses. Can you take a week off from work to go help?

  • Do you belong to an organization that could coordinate a rebuilding effort in a Gulf Coast community? A lot of the people who lost homes were uninsured, so the only way a lot of houses will be rebuilt is if someone volunteers to do it.

  • Can you budget money for the long term to keep supporting the organizations that will keep helping people? The economy will take a while to recover, and the housing market even longer, so it’s unrealistic to expect people to just go get a job and find a new place to live next month.

Let’s leave the smug finger-pointing to the politicians and the newspaper columnists. Instead, let’s see what we can do to make the situation better for our fellow citizens have seen their lives destroyed and who desperately need to know that someone cares.

PS - Here are some sites I have found where we can give money and goods now. If anyone else comes across more organizations, please post them.
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