Hayek in Tuscaloosa

How talk radio, local churches, and concerned citizens spontaneously organized to help tornado victims

The tornados of April 2011 cut a destructive swath through Tuscaloosa, Alabama and surrounding areas. Whole neighborhoods now resemble bombed out post-war Tokyo or Berlin.

But this devastation was only part of the story. Tuscaloosa also became the scene of an inspiring, highly decentralized outpouring of volunteers and donations. Many of these arrangements could best be described examples of what Nobel prize-winning economist F.A. Hayek called “spontaneous order.” As Hayek put it, spontaneous orders result from the countless actions of individuals, who coordinate their actions through extended systems of voluntary cooperation, rather than the design of a single planner.

Instead of going home for break, for example, students in the Greek system at the University of Alabama and at historically black Stillman College stayed to cook more than 7,000 meals per day. Local churches assembled armies of volunteers and vast stores of goods, ranging from dog food to child car seats, and dispersed them with no questions asked at large “free department stores.” Everyone in the devastated areas knows from personal experience how neighbors, often without homes themselves, traveled from house to house to clear downed trees, offer food, and give shelter.

Much of the strength of Tuscaloosa’s extensive mutual aid came from an unlikely source: right wing talk radio. For more than two weeks after the tornado, the four Tuscaloosa Clear Channel stations preempted their normal fare of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and top 40 songs to serve as a clearing house for relief efforts. Gigi South, the local market manager for Tuscaloosa Clear Channel, says that it was her decision to begin, and continue, the relief-oriented simulcasts.

It would have been hard to do otherwise. Employees saw demolished neighborhoods outside their windows and the desperate calls for help were coming in almost immediately. Because many residents lost power and were unable to charge cell phones, car and battery-operated radios often became their only form of communication with the outside world.

Although these stations have only 12 full-time employees between them they still had a vast impact. The on-air jocks took on grueling shifts, sometimes working 10 hours straight, but this did not dampen their enthusiasm.

The goal of the simulcasts was deceptively simple: Bring together givers and victims and allow them to exchange information. According to South, “this whole thing has been about connecting listener to listener. They are the ones doing this. We’re just the conduit.” South is being modest. In many cases, people dropped off goods, sometimes dozens or more cooked meals, at the station’s door and the on-air jocks, instead of taking a break rushed those goods to those in need. The higher-ups at Clear Channel fully supported the local initiative to preempt normal programming and provided generators and engineers to keep the stations on the air.

In a typical pattern, someone would call in to express a need for a particular area or group. Ten minutes later, the same listener related that 10 people showed up and offered their services. Churches and other groups often called in to specify a shortage of particular goods, such as bug spray and suntan lotion for volunteers, and an excess of others, such as diapers. This allowed givers to tailor their donations. Walmart and other businesses called in to offer free prescriptions, charging stations for cell phones, and trucks to remove debris upon request.

In one particularly moving case, a worn-out relief coordinator for an outlying trailer park broadcast a desperate appeal. She had been cooking meals for several undocumented Hispanics living in tents who were afraid to go to the authorities. She was heartbroken because she wanted to see her mother in Mississippi who had suffered a stroke but feared leaving her neighbors unaided. Within minutes, two nurses, translators, and other volunteers were on the scene. The simulcasts began to include brief Spanish language announcements and the talk radio listeners, even if they are normally angered about illegal immigration, showed no hesitation in lending a hand in such cases.

Callers unable to get through because of tied-up phone lines could make use of associated Facebook pages and other social media. Tuscaloosa Clear Channel’s tweets reappeared, along with announcements from the local government, on outdoor electronic message boards throughout the city; the university television station carried live feeds of the simulcast.

Although Tuscaloosa Clear Channel generally caters to a white, conservative audience, grateful listeners often made tearful calls from the black and Hispanic neighborhoods which bore the brunt of the tornado. No other radio or television stations in the community, public or private, have come close to matching this effort. “The bottom line,” South declares, “is that here the people that we are talking to on air are the people that have no homes. They have no home, they have no phone service. They have no television. Nothing except the radio.”

David T. Beito is professor of history at the University of Alabama and author of Black Maverick: T.R.M. Howard’s Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power and From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services. A version of this article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.