Headlines in the wake of Hurricane Harvey have declared one disaster after another. News about the rising death toll, massive flooding, chemical plant explosions, lost power, and the cost of recovery have proliferated. Amidst these headlines, however, are stories of heroism, generosity, and community spirit. Leading the way are individuals and members of the private sector who embraced the call to help their fellow man.
Take the Cajun Navy for example. The Cajun Navy was formed in reaction to the slow federal response after Hurricane Katrina. This rag-tag team of private citizens specializes in flood recovery. They are not highly organized, nor do they function as part of a government bureaucracy, but they were some of the first volunteers rushing to provide assistance to the victims of Hurricane Harvey.
Similar stories can be told about other groups and individuals acting to help their “neighbor” – even from across the country.
Several non-government agencies, such as charities and major corporations, also came to the rescue. Budweiser halted its beer production to send truckloads of clean drinking water. Walmart was one of the first organizations offering assistance, first by sending supplies and then by pledging $20 million in relief aid.
As government agencies dealt with strained and limited resources, as well as waiting for decisions from Washington, private citizens and organizations were able to come together to support disaster victims in the immediate aftermath. Congressional delays, partly fueled by national politics, bog down the aid process. It has been almost two week since Hurricane Harvey, and the federal government has yet to approve disaster aid for the affected areas. Fortunately, the private sector and common citizenry operate outside the political process, allowing them to respond more immediately.
Order out of chaos
Despite the seemingly perfect recipe for chaos after a natural disaster, the opposite often happens as order emerges spontaneously. Economists refer to this as the emergent order, or spontaneous order. People behave in an orderly fashion despite having no central directing authority.
Spontaneous order comes from the combination of experience and social norms. Over time, people develop bonds with their community, which gives them an advantage over government. Immediately following a disaster, citizens are usually the first on the ground (because they never left).
For example, citizens who didn’t evacuate before the storm are most likely to know which of their neighbors need assistance. They can inform government and non-government recovery teams about who left, who stayed, and what special needs their neighbors may have. This dispersed knowledge helps develop the post-storm emergent order. Rescue teams can spend less time checking empty houses and more time checking the homes of known elderly and disabled citizens. By using the knowledge of local people to direct resources, more lives can be saved.
Emergent order also manifests during clean-up efforts. People have an incentive to aid community recovery so that social relationships are maintained, property values are restored, and quality of life is improved. There is a natural inclination toward stability so that even without government intervention, people are motivated to lend assistance after a major disaster.
Virgil Storr has detailed the important role of entrepreneurs in helping communities recover after a natural disaster. According to his research, entrepreneurs provide needed goods and services; restore or replace disrupted social networks; and signal that community rebound is likely and, in fact, under way.
These examples of emerging order also highlight the elevated role of local citizens, businesses, and governments. As much decision-making power as possible (while still being effective) should be left to the people and organizations closest to the situation, because these people have the clearest knowledge and incentives to manage resources and address the problem.
This principle applies to post-disaster recovery and many other issues of government aid, but it hinges on people’s acceptance of the moral and ethical obligation we all have to the communities we call home.
There are two major takeaways from the private sector’s response to Harvey:
It is in times of darkness that light shines the brightest.
And in times of chaos, order can emerge.