What the Internet, and government, still does best.
Josh Culley, a writer who blogs at newprotest.org, had to decide whether to sell his aging recreational vehicle (RV) and put the money toward a down payment on a house or give it to an elderly couple who were left homeless by a windstorm in winter 2006.
It was a choice Josh and his wife didn't see coming.
The couple posted the Dodge motor home on craigslist, a free, centralized network of local classifieds and forums. After receiving a few offers for trade, as goes the barter-friendly culture of craigslist, the Culleys received an e-mail from the Washington state Emergency Management Division. The note asked whether the Culleys would consider donating their RV to one of 14 families whose primary residence had been RVs until the wicked windstorm felled the trees that destroyed them.
"When it came down to it, it wasn't really a choice at all," wrote Culley in a blog entry about forgoing the $3,500 RV asking price for a tax receipt and the knowledge that they'd done the right thing for strangers who needed the RV.
"We found three RVs through craigslist," recalled Toney Raines, the division's human services manager, who says online trolling for the RVs was born of creativity and necessity. The extra RVs were necessary because the windstorm wasn't declared a national emergency, meaning none of the families got a trailer from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Though emergency managers are known for their scrappy resourcefulness, Raines conceded that he would've never thought of asking for RVs online, even five years ago. During a brainstorming session, a division staffer mentioned that Oregon officials did something similar. Point. Click. Type. They were on their way.
"It doesn't take anything to write three lines about what you need," Raines said, "and sometimes you get more than you could have hoped for." The new craigslist regulars at the division also furnished the RVs with washers and dryers, and furniture through freecycle.org, a site started four years ago to help keep stuff out of landfills.
Raines said the Freecycle Network has also helped to find things that can be helpful in the recovery process. "We have found everything from dog food to a guitar."
Counting the three from Craigslist, the division has now provided all 14 families with cleverly furnished and resourcefully procured RVs with the help of good-hearted folks. It echoes craigslist's founding ethic of helping one another in a friendly, social and trusting community way.
It also helps break government from conventional practices in which public agencies figure they must do everything themselves. Raines said online communities - along with civic and faith-based groups - have become an integral part of the division's outreach and recovery strategies.
In the perennial debate about whether the Internet isolates people in their basements or connects them, this proves that people can unite in meaningful ways that couldn't have been anticipated until somebody decided to try something new.