Still Learning: On Flooding and Volunteerism


It has taken some time for the flooding of Louisiana to hit me. I was out of state at an organizational retreat when news of the flooding began. Not only was I busy in meetings but the space I was in had super limited internet and cell phone service making it difficult to have a sense of what was going on in the wider world. Finally, I had a chance to check my email and found a barrage of messages telling me about the 40,000 homes impacted by the flood. I slowly began to realize the scale of the flooding and tried to explain to a few of the people around me[i] that this was more akin to the 1927 or 1993 floods versus Betsy or Katrina.

Still, it was not until I was back in New Orleans and found myself in conversation after conversation about what was happening in Baton Rouge and the more rural parishes inundated by flood waters that a feeling of familiarity began to creep over me. I am no stranger to the devastation flooding can bring. Even before choosing to come to New Orleans in support of a just reconstruction, floods were not new to me. One of the strongest memories of my childhood in suburban St. Louis is the 1993 flooding of the Mississippi River – including my organizing a lemonade stand with the neighborhood kids to raise money for the Red Cross[ii] and writing a story (that can still be found at my parents’ house) titled “The Flood” accompanied by illustrations of people seeking safety on roofs.

Yet, this feeling of familiarity continued to extend out in discussions with people about their various attempts to find out who they should donate to on the ground in Baton Rouge as well as their attempts to link up with locally-based organizations. Multiple people remembered how overwhelmed and busy they had been in the days, weeks, and months after the levees broke in New Orleans and how it wasn’t always easy to know how to best direct or navigate eager out-of-town volunteers.[iii] Towards the end of one of these conversations, someone stated that given our experiences after Katrina it should be easier for us to figure out what to do.

Over the last few days, that statement has echoed in my head–especially as I began hearing of people going to Baton Rouge to volunteer to gut and clean out homes. We should know what to do. But, I have begun to grow concerned that we have still not integrated the lessons about volunteerism and solidarity learned following Katrina as widely or as deeply as I would have hoped.[iv]

People’s ethos of caring for strangers and impulse to support unknown communities is powerful and important. To me these are important building blocks for a committed politics of solidarity. Yet, at the same time I cannot help but be wary of the reflex that our political response to natural disasters is to be one of individual volunteerism. The assumption that volunteer labor is the answer to mass natural disasters lets the state off the hook (again) for its obligations to thousands of people in immediate need, particularly those who can’t afford to pay for help. This move is deeply embedded in the logics of neoliberalism that narrow the scope of the state’s commitment to people’s well-being, displace this responsibility onto private individuals, and in doing so reifies the notion that the state is unable to do any thing of value for communities. It is this very form of state contraction and organized abandonment that exacerbates the devastations of so-called natural disasters to begin with.

This assumption that we must rely on unpaid, largely unprotected[v] volunteer labor keeps us from making the political demands that are necessary for attaining the level of resources and support needed to adequately respond to disasters. This point is not new. Numerous organizations such as People’s Hurricane Relief Fund and Advocates for Environmental Human Rights organized for state accountability following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In fact, even the original call to have people gut homes as part of the work of Common Ground Relief in the fall of 2005 was not to build up the organization’s gutting capacity but to demonstrate that the state was choosing not to fund clean up crews and to shame the federal government into taking action.[vi] What’s more, as numerous New Orleanians have named over the last 11 years, the influx of volunteer labor and later volunteer-based organizations undercut attempts by New Orleans and Gulf Coast residents to do gutting and construction work as a source of income following the storm.[vii]

This is not to say that people should not show up and help out where they can. But part of this showing up must be scaling up our actions to meet the demands of climate change. We need to both keep focused on a systematic analysis of how the dispossessions, exploitations, and abandonments of neoliberal racial capitalism keeps bringing us back to this point and to recognize the importance of building people powered movements that have the capacity to hold the state accountable to communities and to fundamentally transform the conditions we are struggling against.

There is much work to be done.


End Notes

[i] Those that realized this was happening at all.

[ii] It would be over a decade before I learned there’s always someone better to donate to than the Red Cross.

[iii] I am one of those former, eager, bright-eyed, bushy tailed volunteers who believed with all my heart that supporting New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of the storm was a critical and strategic political move against white supremacy and neoliberal racial capitalism. And that supporting New Orleans had to be a long-term commitment that went beyond rebuilding a house if we hoped to dismantle and transform the very structures that gave rise to the disaster that was Katrina in the first place. I am also still awed by how generous locals were with me and cannot fathom how exhausting orienting me must have been.

[iv] I am afraid I might just be perennially naive on this front as I had a similar yet more intense version of these feelings in the days following Superstorm Sandy which can be read all about here:

[v] I am already hearing way too many stories of people gutting homes without being provided with proper safety gear to protect their health.

[vi] However, this strategy did not work as many people who came down to gut homes chose to stay and continue to do such labor on a volunteer basis and the federal government (to my knowledge) never appropriated funds to create such gutting or rebuilding crews.

[vii] This was further exacerbated by a range of policy actions by the Department of Labor that lifted affirmative action hiring practices in early September 2005.