Role of Faith-Based and Community Organizations in Providing Relief and Recovery Services After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Catalysts for Response


FBCOs studied responded as they did because it was their personal or professional mission to do so, or because of individual or organizational competencies, or as a result of an explicit mandateeither preplanned or dictated by the moment. Based on field observations, what appears nearly universal was that the magnitude of the disaster propelled those in the case studies into action, and serendipity explained the direction that the responses often took.


Everything about this disaster was bigger than anyone had experienced in previous storms. Katrina (and then Rita) was unprecedented, both in the damage from flooding or wind and in the response from around the country and around the world. For the principal actors in case study organizations, the breadth of the disaster moved them to respond; they had to do something. According to respondents, the small communities on the Mississippi Gulf Coast had lived through many severe storms, so many residents misjudged the potential of Hurricane Katrina and were complacent about planning for its arrival or had little means to make a timely evacuation. The storm surge from the Gulf had never come so far inland.

In the city of Waveland, Mississippi, 95 percent of residential structures, all commercial structures, and every emergency vehicle were destroyed. When the storm surge receded, respondents described that residents, regardless of color, age, or economic means, were just wandering in the streets in shock. For those who had housing and were able to help, the motivation to provide some assistance was overwhelmingly compelling. Much of the devastation, well documented in the press, was still obvious during field investigation nearly three years later. City government remained in temporary trailers, and the community consisted mostly of vacant land or construction sites where residences had been before.

As portrayed prominently in the media, the utter devastation of much of New Orleans and surrounding areas was unimaginable. Social services that typically assisted the neediest residents were limited once the city reopened more than a month later. Few would have the resources or other capabilities to rebuild their homes without help.

Baton Rouge, which was little damaged by Katrina, reportedly doubled in population as it absorbed the human flood, mostly from New Orleans. In both case study organizations based in Baton Rouge, one aspect of their relief efforts was in response to the areas new role as a host community to the evacuees.

The communities studied in southwestern Louisiana were forced to deal with two storms in quick succession, propelled into action by the inundation of Katrina evacuees, and then forced to regroup to take care of their own when Hurricane Rita arrived three weeks later. There was urgent need to deal with Katrina evacuees who quickly overwhelmed small communities.

Compared with other disasters that are more geographically bounded and affect fewer people, the helpers and those seeking help were all victims, creating even larger service needs. Several respondents retold the psychological trauma that helpers and evacuees alike experienced. One described that the din of medical evacuation helicopters bringing New Orleans hospital patients to Womans Hospital in Baton Rouge continued day and night for weeks, creating unrelenting reminders of the trauma around them. They turned off the television to give both volunteers and evacuees some respite.

Depth and Duration of Need

The depth of trauma in the children of evacuees motivated the array of interventions used by CIF and those with whom it associated in Renaissance Village. The extent of psychological trauma evident in wide portions of the population would require a degree of sensitivity on the part of volunteers and their ability to access trained mental health professionals. As one observer noted, Extreme trauma calls for an extreme level of care. Some stayed in trailers for nearly three yearsat the time of the site visit in June 2008, 109 families were still in trailers in that park. But the notion that the housing was temporary resulted in a failure to recognize, according to informants, the need for medical and mental health screening, which would have created baseline measures to facilitate better receipt of services from many experts who came to help.

According to respondents, the storms and resultant flooding also created a vacuum in the human service delivery system and a serious challenge to serving the swelling numbers who needed assistance with resources that were already strained before the storm. For a subset of the population, psychological effects would worsen over time, with nowhere to return and no means to relocate. A participant in a focus group conducted three years after the storm, for example, continued to relive an encounter with a corpse in the New Orleans floodwaters that he and his child experienced. The multiple strategies to deal with mental health services for children were in response to the lingering effects of the trauma and the need to change approaches as issues changed over time.

Limitations of Traditional Models

Traditional models for disaster response were severely challenged, overwhelmed, and dysfunctional, motivating newcomers to disaster response to try to help and spawning new approaches to both relief and recovery. Disaster response has typically been conceived in two phases: immediate relief within the context of an emergency and long-term recovery.

With regard to the first phase, few were prepared for the duration of need for emergency shelter. According to informants, neither the American Red Cross in emergency shelters nor FEMA in the trailer parks had the trained staff, resources, or protocols to provide more than limited assistance. Some respondents believed that FEMA had the authority to provide more services than they did. There was apparently little thought given when the parks were set up to the unprecedented length of time that the trailers would be occupied, or to connecting with schools, jobs, and other services to facilitate resettlement.

Bus service from Renaissance Village, for example, was limited to hours that did not support commuting to most jobs for park residents, the vast majority of whom were without cars. Children were stigmatized in the local schools and many refused to go, creating truancy and behavior problems in the park. The temporary housing model did not include spaces within the park to facilitate social interaction. Seemingly simple solutions, such as erecting a tent for a common space and as a venue for some services, raised alleged liability issues and demanded creative approaches to overcome bureaucratic obstacles. It took a year to put up the Childrens Center because of bureaucratic issues that no one understood, and despite the availability of funding and materials from donor sources. In these examples, CIF became the connective tissue for the multiple interventions brought into the park by outsiders.

In addition, many reported that both FEMA and the Red Cross relied on rotating teams of volunteers. Because of the duration of the crisis, new responders were constantly arriving and were unfamiliar with conditions on the ground, such as the people and organizations that made up the local service delivery systems with which they might interact or to whom they could refer for further help. By other accounts, FEMA was criticized for massive confusion, either imposing unclear or inappropriate rules, changing them constantly, referring to headquarters for every decision, or being insensitive to local practices.

With regard to the second phase, many respondents criticized the long-term recovery structures, which most typically provide assistance, such as for housing repair or furnishings, when all other assistance is exhausted. Several respondents in the case study communities rejected the local long-term recovery structures.  Some cited the time it took to bring cases before them and get results. Others cited the lack of training of the case managers who reportedly were hired quickly and trained inadequately in order to use a massive infusion of case management fundsthe Katrina Aid Today (KAT) funds, about $66 million received from foreign governments and contracted by FEMA to the United Methodist Committee on Relief to provide case management to Katrina evacuees across the country. In one instance cited as more successful, the supervision was consistent and remained for a long time, and case managers got to know the clients and establish relationships. One informant noted that the International Rescue Committee, which has provided emergency relief for more than 75 years, used a much higher case managertoclient ratio for this sort of work, facilitating greater attention to client needs. Another informant noted the importance of sustained leadership, citing other experiences with disaster assistance in which outside leaders were brought in, paid well, and actually moved into the community for long periods to supervise the relief and recovery work.

In addition, case management must be followed by services sufficient to address the needs presented, such as a range of behavioral health issues (e.g., depression, substance abuse, domestic violence, adolescent truancy) likely to result from or be aggravated by the trauma of a major disaster. An expert in the field who came to help noted that those who have dealt with earthquake victims have understood the need to get to know the populationas might be gained from sustained case management by trained personnel, and the provision of adequate services to treat the sustained trauma. Some respondents characterized their efforts as trying to fill the void in services needed for long-term recovery.

Need to Manage Donations

The magnitude of donations also became a driver of the FBCO response. According to respondents, the magnitude of donations from around the country and the world was not comparable to anything anyone had seen before. Donations were not centrally vetted, there was often no way to distribute what came in, no way to turn off the spigot, and no way to scale back the donations even when the initial crisis had subsided. As one respondent stated, it [the onslaught of donations] took on a life of its own. Media stories piqued the national interest in helping victims, and those stories resulted in assistance far beyond the ability of some FBCOs to absorb it. As an example, the stories of the airlifted babies to Baton Rouge produced 1,500 maternity outfits. One program director posted a request on the Internet for toys and received, unannounced, 10,000 toys from a group in one Midwestern city and an 18-wheel tractor-trailer filled with toys from another city. One respondent recounted the arrival of a truck full of donations from Ohio, with a driver proclaiming, God sent me, but he did not have the gas money to return home. By another account, some donations simply got dumped by the warehouse-full and some were sent to Africa when they could not be used in local efforts.

On the other hand, the support could be energizing, and many attributed their ability to persevere to that support. Items would just magically appear, such as bedroom sets to outfit newly repaired homes or to help the homeless still in shelters. As another explained, We kept doing it [housing volunteers who came to help rebuild] because we had all these people who would come and keep coming. Others foresaw the long road to recovery and the extensive needs that it would generate over many years and beyond the life of volunteer efforts.

Specific Mandates

Two of the organizations studied had an explicit mandate to respond to disasters. Both VFCC and GNODRP are formally part of local disaster response plans, though only VFCC was formally involved with the local Office of Emergency Preparedness at the time of the hurricanes. GNODRP was formed after the 2005 hurricanes as a result of meetings among the major social service providers in the Greater New Orleans area, which identified a need for coordination of the regions long-term recovery efforts. GNODRP was asked by the City of New Orleans to serve as a Community Organization Active in Disasters (COAD); it is the only COAD in the southeast region of the state. It has created its own mandate to plan for and participate in responses to new disasters. While not based on a formalized agreement, city and community leaders asked Hope Havens director to participate in post-disaster coordination efforts.

Two other case study organizations were asked to respond to specific needsCIF to become an advocate for children affected by Katrina, and St. Lukes to shelter families of the premature babies evacuated to Womans Hospital from New Orleans. St. Lukes other disaster responses were self-initiated.

Chance characterizes many of the details of the responses. The sequence of events in Hope Haven, from the director encountering the police officer, who connected to the Navy Seabees, who reconstructed the childrens shelter, which enabled its use by the Department of Human Services, can only be described as serendipity. In the case of St. Lukes, the New Orleans rector had a fleeting acquaintance with the rector of St. Lukes, which prompted him to evacuate to St. Lukes while he located his flock. It was because of that connection that he was available to staff the mobile unit and bring it down to New Orleans for its daily cleanup operation. PIPSs role in the Lake Charles disaster relief effort was born out of its church database and knowledge of the abandoned school in Moss Bluff, which facilitated the collaboration between the United Way and the school board to create the Volunteer Housing Center. The many approaches to treating the trauma of the children in Renaissance Village were described as a learning laboratory, which changed over time and as new players came in to help; while they had the help of some of the nations experts in art therapy, child psychology, and childrens mental health services, the concentrated population of traumatized children and their caretakers and the persistent uncertainty of the fate of the families made each intervention a step into the unknown.

Interviews confirmed that the leaders of the organizations studied were motivated out of compassion for their fellow human beings who were struggling to survive after the disaster, whether spiritually based or not. These individuals also brought personal or organizational competencies that would lend themselves to recognizing what was needed, applying their own skills, or finding others to lend to the efforts.

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