September 22, 2005

September 22, 2005 | Commentary on Political Thought

Viewpoint: Pulling Together

A few years ago, sociology professor Robert Putnam warned that Americans were "bowling alone," losing touch with their families, communities and civic organisations.

The New Republic magazine's recent cover story announced that, "Four Years after 9/11, We're Still Bowling Alone."

Then came Hurricane Katrina. In the weeks since the storm swamped New Orleans, Americans have opened their wallets and poured out their hearts to help those in need.

It is difficult to name a business that has not contributed. Local radio stations held fundraisers. Big-name recording stars performed concerts. Local "mom-and-pop" restaurants donated portions of their sales.

Coca-Cola contributed $1 million to the Salvation Army. Children of all ages set up lemonade stands. All told, individuals have donated hundreds of millions of dollars. And it is more than money. Americans across the country opened their homes to hurricane victims.

Helping hands

Houston went first, of course, setting up the Astrodome for evacuees soon after the storm passed. But open any newspaper, from Boston to San Diego, and you are likely to read about hurricane survivors being welcomed by a new community.

"Magic Johnson promised jobs to some Hurricane Katrina victims living at a shelter in Los Angeles, in addition to helping provide them with shoes, food and entertainment," the Associated Press news agency reported on September 9.

"Hurricane Victims Overwhelmed By Generosity," said WCCO-TV in Minneapolis on 13 September. "Somebody gave me a jewellery box with jewellery in it," evacuee Troilynn Baxter told the station. She and her fiancee also received a car and $1,600 in donations.

Private organisations also are pulling together to send help to those who remain in storm-ravaged areas. The group Feeding Children International, based in Aberdeen, SD, has sent more than 700,000 meals to Mississippi and Louisiana. Quilters in Walworth, Wisconsin, plan to make 1,000 blankets.

Government response

The Northern Kentucky Water District donated 180 cases of bottled water. All that makes it difficult to believe anyone could write, "When it comes to caring for our fellow countrymen, we all know that America has never ranked very high," as Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson did on 7 September.

What Meyerson meant, of course, is that we do not have a government-run health care system for everyone. But consider the difference between the private response to this crisis and the government's response.

The president of the American Red Cross told Fox News that her organisation was eager to send relief to the beleaguered New Orleans Convention Center and the Superdome in the days after Katrina, but was blocked by the state's Department of Homeland Security.

A Salvation Army official said the same thing. The state insisted it would evacuate those people, and it did not want them to decide to stay where they were.

But they could not be evacuated until the National Guard arrived days later and thousands were left stranded with no food, water or medicine.

Elsewhere, "We can tell you stories of 60 to 70 ambulances being dispatched to areas and not being accessed to patients, because they didn't have the right hanging government ID," Dr Jeffrey Guy of the Vanderbilt Regional Burn Center told CNN on 8 September.

Communities bonding

Meanwhile, Ken Rusnak, executive director of Angel Flights, told the network the Louisiana governor's office would not allow his pilots to fly 80 survivors out of the state, possibly because of worries the state would lose its Fema reimbursement.

Both men said they think people died because of government red tape. After 9/11, the appropriate reaction was patriotic and national. The federal government was the right entity to respond to that attack because it was a question of national security that only Washington could deal with, and for which Washington is primarily responsible.

After Katrina, the best reaction has been from private citizens, philanthropic organisations and religious groups. Government, especially state and local, has a responsibility in such disasters.

But the governmental-centred response witnessed post-9/11 is not the answer, and cost at least some people their lives.

"Americans are right that the bonds of our communities have withered, and we are right to fear that this transformation has very real costs," Putnam wrote in "Bowling Alone."

If he decided to write a sequel in 2005, he might well find that his conclusion is changing. If nothing else, a horrible storm has shown us once again that, in the face of disaster, the American people remain able, and even eager, to pull together to help each other.


Spalding is director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation, a public policy research organization in Washington, D.C.

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First Appeared in BBC News online