Once you factor in the ferry ride, a round trip between the Triangle and Ocracoke takes about 22 hours.

The composer and keyboardist Jil Christensen has come to know this flat, quiet drive down I-64 well over the past two years.

Christensen is the executive director of Day One Disaster Relief, a nonprofit that she founded during Hurricane Florence to aid disaster-affected populations in North Carolina. During Florence, she quickly mobilized volunteer pilots and NGOs to transport supplies to the coast. 

Last week, though, the aid flowed in the other direction, as Eastern North Carolina funneled donations into the Triangle. 

On March 9, Christensen found herself driving to a potato factory on the coast to pick up supplies donated by a community partner. After unloading the contents of an old semi-trailer into her vehicle, she was back on the road to Durham, where Day One has organized a fundraising campaign for Durham’s critical needs, which include N95 masks and ventilators. Rebekah Miel, who has previously initiated rapid-response fundraisers in Durham—including the community fundraiser after last year’s Brightleaf explosion—is co-running efforts. 

“Now we’re faced with the whole reason why I started this, which is that I thought we were going to have a disaster in the Triangle,” Christensen says. “And now we do.”

In just a few days, the rapid spread of the coronavirus has changed the nature of disaster relief. Unlike a forest fire or an earthquake, the virus isn’t isolated to a clearly defined region. With the federal response coming so late, numerous mutual-aid groups—impromptu, volunteer-led resource-sharing organizations—are stepping in to fill the gap.

Some are more specific to organizing: The Facebook group “COVID19 / Coronavirus Mutual Aid in Durham, NC” contains a “Neighborhood Pods How-To” with information on how to become a neighborhood “point-person.” As contact between strangers becomes increasingly dangerous, it becomes more important for neighbors to have creative communication lines. 

A template for flyers posted in this group has detailed information about the virus, with hotlines and various neighbors’ contact information. A Google Doc collects brainstorming about how to keep different neighborhoods or streets in the loop: WhatsApp? Text chains? Phone buddies? It’s still early, but caretaking systems are forming. 

Mutual Aid Carrboro is partnering with NC Piedmont DSA to fundraise for workers who have been sent home without pay. A solidarity fund goes to the emergencies faced by these workers—evictions, utility shut-offs, missed payments, and the like. This mutual-aid is particularly far-reaching: Applications can be found in Spanish, English, and Chinese, and there are phone lines with interpreters available for Karen, Burmese, and Kinyarwanda speakers. 

On a Duke campus now mostly emptied of students, displaced students and contingent workers remain. The Duke Mutual Aid group was organized on March 13, following Duke’s announcement that it would finish the semester remotely. This group, which is led by first-year student Lily Levin and which has swelled to 1,438 members in four days, is modeled on a similar mutual-aid group in Chicago. 

Its need assessments are comprehensive: A detailed document provides information for those offering and in need of housing, travel assistance, food, or money. A fundraising initiative has raised more than $9,000 since Saturday, and Levin says that distribution is operating on a careful “honor system” basis. 

“I think it’s a pretty anti-capitalist mutual communal practice,” Levin says of organizing efforts. “The people who are the most involved in it are folks who are already pretty active on campus [with] anti-Palantir and anti-ICE organizing. It’s been interesting to see how the skills transferred over. It’s brought out the best in the Duke community.” 

Levin emphasizes that the group is not just targeting students: Organizers are actively reaching out to contract workers at Duke, many of whom don’t have health insurance and have not had paid work extended

Some mutual-aid groups in the Triangle are specific to vulnerable industries, such as the Durham Artist Relief Fund and the NC Artist Relief Fund. (Between the two, more than $17,000 has been raised for independent artists and organizations facing mass cancellations of their events.) 

Over the weekend, The Baxter bar and arcade owner Nick Stroud launched the GoFundMe “Creating Social Distance: SIWANC – The Triangle,” which is raising money for service industry workers who no longer have hours; for every $10,000 raised, 100 service workers can apply to receive $100 each. 

Wade into any of these group’s documents and you’ll find a hive humming with resources and a sense of community and hope. 

Churches and schools and food banks are also rapidly organizing aid. The efforts outlined here only represent some of the grassroots efforts from the first week of this crisis. Traveling is a danger; contact with other people is a danger. These things do not make for a friendly organizing climate. It’s not easy to process the collective grief and need hanging over our heads. 

Still, efforts forge on. They’re creative and straightforward and anarchic and generous. No one is counting on this administration to take the full measures required. But the animating premise of mutual aid work—that helping neighbors out helps everyone—holds fast. 

“In terms of where we are in the face of this disaster, we’re no longer in the prevention. We’re in the mitigation phase, transitioning into the response phase,” Christensen says. “This virus doesn’t understand what a town is. We have to respond as a state.”

Contact deputy arts and culture editor Sarah Edwards at sedwards@indyweek.com. 

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