Net beats Feds in hurricane response

News.com's Declan McCullagh says individuals from ham radio operators to bloggers were more coordinated after Katrina than officials.

Declan McCullagh
Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
3 min read
As floodwaters were leaching the life from New Orleans last Tuesday, President Bush delivered an impassioned speech calling for the continued occupation of Iraq.

"We will defeat the terrorists," Bush informed a crowd of World War II veterans. Then he played a guitar backstage with country singer Mark Wills.

Other federal agencies were equally oblivious. The Department of Homeland Security was sending out press releases that day about slapping Americans with passport requirements to travel to Canada, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, was announcing "disaster preparedness" seminars at a Home Depot in Florida scheduled for the next day.

But bloggers were paying attention to the actual catastrophe. By 12:40 p.m. PDT Tuesday, Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit.com was already reporting on what would become the Great Flood of 2005.

It was the Internet, ham radio networks and other forums that let individuals spontaneously join together in the last week to help flood victims.

By the end of the day, an online aid network was forming. Craigslist.org's lost and found forum for New Orleans was adopted to find missing people, a "Katrina Help" Wiki had launched, and other ad hoc forums emerged.

Bloggers were not alone. Ham radio operators quickly organized and began to pass along messages from stranded flood victims. One led to the rescue of 81-year-old Helen Elzy who was stuck on a roof in New Orleans, according to the American Radio Relay League. Many others were rescued thanks to ham radio operators' rapid response, which by Wednesday even included a speedily created database of volunteers.

In some New Orleans neighborhoods, residents abandoned by police organized themselves and stood guard against looters. USA Today reported that on Thursday, "residents prepared to continue their stand in a beloved neighborhood of stately old homes near the Tulane and Loyola university campuses."

Spontaneous order
All of these efforts have something in common: They were quick, voluntarily organized and reasonably effective. That is, sadly, almost exactly the opposite of the government efforts that were slow, disorganized and ineffective--or at least seemed to be until political pressure mounted and National Guard troops finally entered the waterlogged city in force on Friday. No wonder New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was telling the Feds to "get off your asses."

The point is not to slam President Bush. (Others, including the New York Times' editorial page will devote years to lambasting his administration.)

Rather, it's to recognize the inefficiency of top-down systems such as the federal government compared with the rapid, efficient and effective organizing that individuals can accomplish on their own.

This is what the late Austrian economist F.A. Hayek called "spontaneous order," referring to the marvel that happens every day when people work together and agree on transactions, voluntarily, without a central authority dictating what happens.

If this mechanism were created intentionally by human design, it "would have been acclaimed as one of the greatest triumphs of the human mind," Hayek wrote in a 1943 book called "The Use of Knowledge in Society."

The Internet is a modern-day example of spontaneous order--not centrally planned but arising impulsively, effectively built site-by-site, protocol-by-protocol by its own users.

And it was the Internet, ham radio networks and other forums that let individuals spontaneously join together in the last week to help flood victims.

By Thursday evening, bloggers had compiled an exhaustive list of charitable organizations accepting donations, and members of the "interdictor" Internet Relay Chat channel were planning to help one Internet service provider that had been posting from a New Orleans office building and running low on generator fuel.

Spontaneous order? Definitely. President Bush and other top officials, who were busy sending out press releases about passports and Iraq last week, should take note.