When my dad woke me up early one August morning in 2005, I only thought I was prepared for what came next. We had been watching the news the day before as Hurricane Katrina was barreling through the Gulf of Mexico, and it was time to take action. That day we worked with our church in Houston to organize a response as displaced families were being evacuated from New Orleans.
My dad drove down to the Houston Astrodome to pick up families who only needed a place to stay. I worked at the loading docks at our church, helping unload and organize donations coming in from around the city. My family helped organize an improvised shelter on our church's property, with cots, showers, and privacy for families coming from the Astrodome.
What I wasn't prepared for was the generosity of the people of Texas, who came together to donate what they had to those they had never met. There was an 18-wheel truck driver that backed his empty truck into his neighborhood's cul-de-sac, knocked on doors, and asked his neighbors to give whatever they could. People donated gladly for people who came to Houston with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
The next fall, I started school at Tulane University in New Orleans, where there was a public service requirement for every student to be able to graduate. While there, I worked with a student organization funded by donations from the local community to help rebuild houses. Armed with nothing but second-hand tools, old gloves, and cheap facemasks, we helped tear down and gut houses so they could be rebuilt. It was hard work, but at the end of the day, the reward was the very real feeling that we were making a difference. Even as poor college students, we were asked if we could donate in any way beyond our time – even the smallest difference could help someone with even less.
In the spring of 2008, Bill Clinton's Clinton Global Initiative University came to Tulane. The former president appeared, as well as celebrities and activists such as Lance Armstrong, Laurie David, and James Carville. Brad Pitt was even on hand for the community service part of the conference, where he shook hands as students took pictures and mobbed him. When the time came to work, we were given brand-new tools, gloves with the price tags still on them, and … brooms. Our job was to sweep some of the streets of dust and debris off of the middle of the street and towards the curb. There, it could be moved into trash bags or swept back onto the sidewalk.
A press release would later show the barely-distinguishable "before" and "after" photos of the street in the 9th ward we worked on. What was not shown was the "after" picture that would come after the next storm, where rain would bring the debris and mud back into the same streets. The sum total of the work of more than 700 college kids from around the country coming to New Orleans to "help rebuild" would be undone the next time it rained.
There were other commitments coming from the CGIU – Brad Pitt's "Make It Right" foundation pledged to build 150 new "sustainable houses" at the conference. Out of those 150 houses, only 100 had been built by 2015, costing way more than their initial budgets had provided. Additionally, many of the people who had lived in New Orleans were now living elsewhere, and these houses would have to be sold to people who hadn't even lived in the neighborhoods before Katrina. Untested building materials meant the nonprofit had to dish out $150,000 to replace wood that had begun rotting well before the 40-year guarantee.
My family still lives in the Houston area and, fortunately, avoided the full impact of Harvey. But there are countless friends and family of mine who have been personally affected. Hurricane Harvey will likely outdo the economic damage done by Hurricane Katrina, with estimates of up to $190 billion in damages, almost twice Katrina's $100 billion pricetag. Sadly, there are many people who were displaced by Katrina who are now being displaced again in Houston.
As Houston rebuilds, it's important to remember that the best intentions are worthless if they are not paired up with local knowledge and motivated workers. That's why centrally-planned efforts often do not pay off. Even the best-laid and well-funded plans often run into problems in the real world. Oftentimes, the best results come from individuals coming together to help out those who are in need.
Volunteers, church groups, and ordinary heroes who take the time to make a difference make the biggest impacts. When people outside the affected areas look to donate to these causes, they should focus on groups who already help at a local level and will continue to help their community beyond the immediate aftermath of Harvey and Irma. Empowering these groups will help Houston and Florida rebuild, better than ever.
Brad Tidwell is a digital developer for MediaDC, the parent company of the Washington Examiner.
If you would like to write an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, please read our guidelines on submissions here.