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


In the first few months after the storms, paid staff and volunteers were both called upon to deliver relief and recovery services. Over half (53 percent) of the FBCOs in the survey used paid staff to deliver their post-hurricane services, but the number of paid employees was relatively small (median of five). Secular nonprofits were more likely than faith-based organizations to use paid staff, but the difference in number of staff used was small (median for secular nonprofits was 7; for faith-based organizations, 4).

Finding and maintaining staff after the storm was often challenging. Several case study informants in the New Orleans area reported losing most of their staff because of lack of housing and basic infrastructure in the city, and some were still trying to get back to full staffing capacity. Employees were often in other states and out of contact, making it impossible to anticipate their return to jobs or to help in other ways in relief and recovery efforts. First responders are likely to be unavailable if their own families have not been provided for, and this may require prearranged plans.

On the other hand, leaders in several case study organizations were high-energy people able to donate large amounts of time, sometimes pro bono, in part because their own lives had not returned to normal. Some brought expertise in management, housing operations, logistics training, human service delivery, or working in stressful circumstances. Others had connections to community and political institutions that they used to catalyze funding and craft services based on unique understandings of services and populations. Several leaders understood the limits of their expertise and connected with experts in the area or elsewhere to broaden their services and skill sets. Informants noted the importance of perceived legitimacy in working with traumatized individuals, and of a sustained presence.

About three-quarters of FBCO survey respondents used volunteers, with the median number of volunteers used each week around 20. There was a very small difference between faith-based (median of 21) and secular groups (median of 18). Only 10 percent of FBCOs reported using more than 100 volunteers. For most FBCOs in the survey, the volunteer workforce increased substantially after the hurricanes. Volunteers were important to the recovery operations, and most survey respondents were very satisfied with their experiences working with volunteers; however, a few acknowledged that problems arose with the types and numbers of volunteer groups coming to help.

In the case studies, the number and ways volunteers were used varied greatly. Two or three volunteers could run a mobile van that served hundreds, while a team of 10 to 12 might rebuild one storm-damaged house. The studies also illustrate that the distinction between paid staff and volunteers was sometimes blurred; many people who lived in the impact areas may have volunteered in the immediate post-storm period while their normal jobs and lives waited to be reconstructed.

Volunteers could also create challenges, including the need for housing, feeding, and careful supervision, as well as liability concerns. Volunteers might come with truckloads of goods but have no place to stay and little money, which could become the burden of the host FBCO. Case study organizations using outside volunteer professionals, such as physicians and nurses, had no way beyond basic licensing of evaluating their quality or competence. Louisiana provided emergency medical credentialing, but basic licensing did not ensure that professionals were well suited to deal with the unique circumstances of this disaster or with populations with which they were unfamiliar. As demucking of houses was completed, more skilled labor was needed, and it became harder to fill work orders for rebuilding.

Some case study respondents suggested that some other FBCOs were in over their heads (for example, taking on shelters or feeding responsibilities with inadequate experience or resources), less competent to address the specific problems of the populations that needed help, or less experienced in working in collaborative settings and integrating their efforts with others. The finding emphasizes the need for predisaster planning and vetting of volunteers that come to help in major disasters.

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