Role of Faith-Based and Community Organizations in Providing Relief and Recovery Services after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita: Research Brief. Characteristics of FBCOs and Catalysts for Response


The survey found a wide range of FBCOs provided assistance after the 2005 hurricanes. Some had operating budgets of less than $500; others more than $1 million. Faith-based organizations were considerably older (median age 55 years) than secular nonprofits (25 years). Roughly 20 percent of faith-based organizations in the survey are more than 100 years old. Although hurricanes are common in the region, two-thirds of survey respondents said this was the first time they provided relief services after a hurricane.

The case study organizations, with one exception, were new to disaster work, or newly created specifically to respond to the storms (Table 1). Half the organizations were secular and half were faith based, but because the cases selected involved relationships with other organizations, the case studies illustrate a complex network of public and private faith-based and secular organizations. While religious conviction may have provided personal motivations to respond to the disaster, the overall humanitarian response and specific catalyst for involvement is often indistinguishable between religious and secular organizations.

Table 1.
General Characteristics of the Eight Cases
Case Faith-based or secular Location Area of direct impact Outside area of impact Organizational
Created in response to storm Over $1 million for disaster response
Common Ground Health Clinic Secular New Orleans X   Emergency and primary health care for Algiers community X X
Community Initiatives Foundation Secular Baton Rouge   X Advocacy and services for displaced children X X
Greater New Orleans Disaster Relief Partnership Secular New Orleans X   Regional coordination of long-term recovery services X X
Partners in Prayer for Schools Faith-based Lake Charles X
Reduction of violence through prayer and volunteerism in schools    
St. Lukes Episcopal Church Faith-based Baton Rouge   X Lutheran church and day school    
Vermilion Faith Community of Care Faith-based Abbeville X
Unification of Vermilion Parish faith community for disaster-related services    
Community Care Network Faith-based Ocean Springs X   Reintegration of homeless women from adult detention centers or substance abuse programs    
Hope Haven Secular Waveland X   Licensed shelter for abused and neglected children    

The magnitude of the disaster was the primary reason that FBCOs in the case studies responded. The level of devastation, the influx of evacuees in communities along the exit routes, and the inundation of cash, material donations, and volunteers both inspired engagement and demanded management and coordination (e.g., to sort, store, and distribute goods and to house, feed, triage or supervise volunteers) on a level never before needed. The magnitude also focused attention on the personal and social dimensions of the disaster, including permanent loss of housing, widespread family dislocation and emotional trauma, and the particular vulnerabilities of low-income minority populations. While some FBCOs may respond in future disasters as they have in past disasters, the magnitude of the disaster in 2005 raises the question of who and how many would respond in future disasters.

Traditional models for disaster response were severely challenged. They did not have sufficient trained staff, resources, or protocols to provide more than limited and short-term assistance. The Red Cross and FEMA were perceived as overwhelmed by the magnitude of the storm and the duration and nature of need. The use of rotating teams as the emergency endured, using outside volunteers unfamiliar with the local area and unable to make meaningful referrals, was criticized. FEMA was also criticized for its slow, rigid bureaucracy and the absence of a strategy to provide appropriate social services along with emergency housing. This motivated newcomers to try to help and spawned new approaches to both relief and recovery. Some case study respondents chose to work outside the formal long-term recovery structures to avoid red tape and bureaucracy. Some had concerns about transparency and equitable treatment of cases.

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