Role of Faith-Based and Community Organizations in Providing Relief and Recovery Services after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita: Research Brief. Lessons Learned


The same humanitarian instinct that motivated FBCOs to respond after hurricanes Katrina and Rita may apply again in a disaster of similar magnitude, but there is little evidence to suggest that FBCOs will be better prepared. The survey found that less than a quarter of the respondents had created new emergency plans, new partnerships, or lists of local services, and more than a third had taken no steps to prepare for a future emergency. Some officials charged with emergency preparedness who were interviewed in the case studies were aware that FBCOs could be an important component of emergency planning, but the details of how they might be included in future disasters were unclear. Yet, several case study organizations were not interested in formally committing themselves or their resources to a role in a future disaster such as being credentialed as an official Red Cross shelter, which would require conforming to Red Cross rules and regulations.

Many organizations that are not traditional disaster responders, including community-based social service providers and local congregations, played important roles in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The findings from the telephone survey and the case studies suggest several lessons about what roles they might play in future disasters.

  • Those preparing emergency preparedness plans need to better understand the availability and capabilities of FBCOs.  Simply being able to identify who is left after a disaster, what their needs are, and who might provide assistance is critical to a response effort. Incorporating an inventory of local FBCOs and their contact information into disaster plans would be helpful. Ideally, the nature of their facilities, their capabilities, and prior experience would be included in the plan.
  • Recovery services needed after a disaster of this magnitude extend far beyond the traditional boundaries of emergency relief.  Longer-term recovery activities in a traditional disaster response model are largely focused on physical rebuilding and dependent on a limited circle of organizations providing aid. These traditional models are not well equipped to deal with deep and sustained injuries of disaster victims, both physical and psychological, and they are not well connected to the broader universe of expertise and service delivery systems that might provide appropriate and sustained interventions. Lists of potential governmental and private providers, as well as regional and national specialists in trauma and vulnerable populations, could be developed by local areas to assist in reaching a wider group of experts after a disaster.
  • Many FBCOs involved in long-term recovery appreciate the need to coordinate activities, as evidenced by new attention to data-sharing mechanisms among traditional responders.  The case studies suggest the critical need for coordination among a wider array of providers, including federal, state and local agencies; experts in various specialized interventions; and private donors whose contributions may be critical to success.
  • Major disasters generate major humanitarian responses, which sometimes include those with the best intentions but uneven capabilities.  The case studies suggest the importance of seeking out the best performers  those with proven track records in addressing complex or challenging needs, the ability to work with the populations affected, and the ability to integrate their work with others. Those who are not sufficiently experienced, not culturally competent, or cannot recognize appropriate ways to coordinate their services with others are likely to be less successful in their relief efforts or create problems for others trying to give assistance.
  • Soliciting and managing cash and material donations as well as volunteers is a key to effective disaster response.  Some FBCOs studied learned to use the Internet to disseminate real-time information, reach out for help, solicit and vet volunteers, share databases, and establish 211 directories to identify resources. Government and FBCOs might devise ways to work together to set up web sites to serve as clearinghouses, manage solicitations, and allocate resources, including donations, volunteers, and emergency services.
  • How FBCOs will respond in the future will likely depend on the magnitude of the disaster and the extent of damage they sustain to their own operations.  Many that were new to disaster response learned much about how to provide disaster-related services and how not to repeat mistakes. It would be valuable to incorporate those experiences into disaster preparedness planning, including how to increase flexibility for traditional disaster responders. The fact that social and professional connections were so important to case study organizations reinforces the need to nurture connections, perhaps through strategic conferencing and other methods, to create awareness of how to tap connections before disaster strikes.

The Gulf Coast hurricanes of 2005 have put a new lens on the limits of understanding among researchers and policymakers of the breadth and depth of a major disasters effects. Collecting and reexamining data on the effects of the storms, particularly on the most vulnerable populations, and incorporating these lessons into planning for future disaster responses is clearly important. Data sharing among organizations, such as FEMA, that have detailed information on hurricane victims could be used to provide follow-up services for people who still need help. These data could be used to support needed evidence-based research on the effects of the storm and outcomes of sustained treatment, particularly mental health services, for individuals who are the victims of major disasters. The data could also provide needed evidence for proposed changes in disaster response planning.

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