Role of Faith-Based and Community Organizations in Providing Relief and Recovery Services After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Connections to the Larger Whole


The FBCOs operated within the context of a massive humanitarian response, including official emergency responders (e.g., military, law enforcement, fire and rescue, and offices of emergency preparedness), religious and secular organizations with dedicated arms for disaster services, and a historic outpouring of volunteers, cash, and in-kind contributions from around the country and, in some cases, around the world. Where the FBCOs in this study fit in that larger whole is important to understand in planning for more effective response in the future.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita resulted in massive loss of housing (much of which has still not been recovered), behavioral health issues for large swaths of the population that require sustained treatment, and a range of family dysfunctions created or worsened by the effects of dislocation. These effects require responses far beyond traditional disaster response modelsand beyond the capabilities of most FBCOs that are not human service providers.

It is difficult to know from either the survey findings or the case studies how well the efforts of the FBCOs studied penetrated the universe of need and whether better connections with both traditional disaster responders and those that provide longer-term services would produce a more effective response. To be sure, thousands of units of assistance (e.g., water and cleanup supplies, food, clothing) were distributed, though it is difficult to make any judgment about the numbers of individuals served. For those that sheltered evacuees, the numbers range from less than a dozen to over a hundred. For the one case study organization that was well connected to the overall emergency response structure, the contribution of its FBCO shelters to the total is knowable; for others, it is unclear. Survey respondents indicated that a large share of people served were low income and families with children.

For many FBCOs, understanding the need to connect with public human service systems or other human service providers and how to do it was not part of their experience. Similarly, FBCOs are fairly isolated from the larger disaster response system. According to the survey respondents, only 15 percent worked with state and local governments, and less than 10 percent worked with federal government agencies. Survey respondents often cited poor communication as one barrier to working with government agencies. Most FBCO connections were with other FBCOsthat is, congregations were most likely to work with other congregations and nonprofits were most likely to work with other nonprofits. The result is a silo effect not only within the larger disaster response system but also among FBCOs. As noted above, some disaster response officials appreciate the FBCOs contributions in the 2005 hurricanes. It will be important to see how FBCOs are integrated into future response efforts.

As the case studies showed, FBCOs rarely had formalized connections to public human services structures, especially for gaining access to mental health services or subsidized housing. Assistance for any long-term services other than housing recovery appeared circumscribed by which organizations participated in roundtables that addressed unmet needs, and by specific funding allocations. Other contact with human service providers was likely fortuitous.

As noted above, both the survey findings and the case studies suggest that small, community-based organizations, both religious and secular, have special capabilities to offer in disaster relief, including the ability to respond quickly with critical knowledge of local areas and local facilities, operate outside the constraints of formal rules and protocols, and possibly provide a level of comfort and assurance that was difficult to find in the cacophonous aftermath of the 2005 storms. In general, however, connections to the larger disaster response apparatus, which might have expanded or strengthened their response, were difficult to achieve and frequently not sought.

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