Obscured by the sheer number of stories of personal and community tragedy and the recriminations against the Bush administration and federal agencies, there is an important story of grassroots organising, human solidarity and direct action in response to the hurricanes which battered the US Gulf states in recent weeks.
While law enforcement agencies and the military concentrated on wielding their hardware against their own citizens, small groups of ordinary people were gathering and delivering aid, and providing healthcare and food to the sick and dispossessed.
Disasters on this scale require a massive and co-ordinated response, but that does not diminish the very direct and effective, small-scale efforts initiated by anarchist, peace and labour groups from across the US and beyond - particularly when the government relief effort was so slow and misdirected.
From across the US networks, groups and individuals - such as Veterans for Peace, Pastors for Peace, Michael Moore, the "Camp Caseys", Food Not Bombs, and activist housing groups like Mayday DC - have sprung into action, raising money, delivering supplies and support to many more. And sometimes short-term grassroots relief turns into a longer-term positive community project.
For example, the Common Ground Wellness Clinic - organised by volunteer medics, working out of the Algiers district of New Orleans and which has provided medical care and supplies to hundreds - is now working to "make the transition to a permanent primary-care community-controlled health clinic". In a country with such poor healthcare provision for the most vulnerable in society this is surely a positive outcome.
Crossorads of conscience
However, the challenge to the broader movement for positive change in the US should not be underestimated. Commenting in September on the lack of a larger direct action response, one woman activist involved with the Common Ground relief effort wrote "The progressive community has reached a crossroads of conscience. To ignore both the human calamity and human courage that is occurring on the Gulf coast in favour of a political protest, would be a moral failure of historic proportions".
The simple message being - don't expend your energy fulminating outside the distant symbols of political power when you could get involved in helping people directly. Actions speak louder than words.
From the flames
As with other areas thrown into disaster or conflict, the disruption to "normal life" creates opportunities for redrafting the boundaries for how communities and groups can operate. This is something which, for example, was notable across Former Yugoslavia during the wars of the 1990s, as both women and some men (drawn from the minority not engaged in soldiering) were able to create their own structures - in health, peace, community-building etc - in the absence of male power and the normal conventions.
While the circumstances which create these opportunities can be disastrous, the fact that they can also push people to come together and take control, to support each other and to move communities in new and more empowered directions is something to celebrate.