Role of Faith-Based and Community Organizations in Providing Relief and Recovery Services After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The Larger Context: Connections to Traditional Disaster Relief and Human Services Systems


FBCOs are often resistant to connecting either to traditional response systems or other human service systems. Except for the two FBCOs that are part of the formal response system, connections were rare or precarious among the studied sites.

Emergency Response

Connections to the local offices of emergency preparedness were one way FBCOs connected to the traditional response system. VFCC had been previously part of emergency planning for Vermilion Parish as a result of Hurricane Lili in 2002. United Way was part of the plan in Lake Charles disaster response system. GNOCDRP was created to coordinate long-term recovery structures in nine parishes. Other organizations studied had only occasional informal contact with the office of emergency preparedness or had no contact at all.

Problems exist with creating and maintaining connections between the traditional response systems and FBCOs. Some officials interviewed who were responsible for emergency planning were clearly focused on how to incorporate local FBCOs into their disaster response plans, though the specifics were not always clear. In one site, the FBCO director and another local leader had participated in regional or state disaster response planning, but had mixed views about the effectiveness of these efforts. These planning efforts could be a useful way to share information, but in this instance they were viewed as inappropriately detail-oriented or lacking in recommendations that resulted in action. Another intergovernmental task force that included nongovernmental organizations was also intended to be a venue for sharing information. However, according to at least one FBCO member who participated for over a year, the task force was ultimately unable to focus on larger, strategic issues that were critical to effective service response.

The magnitude of the 2005 hurricanes brought in numerous outside agencies that were often a dominant presence in relief and recovery activities on the ground. Among those groups and individuals that provided emergency assistance, cross-group communication was often minimal, especially concerning coordinating volunteers and distributing donations. The lack of coordination reportedly created duplication of services and oversupplies of certain types of donations. Some questioned whether office of emergency preparedness directors might exercise more power over registering and restricting incoming FBCOs. In one instance, the parish office of emergency preparedness aggressively restricted the number and type of FBCOs entering the area; the results, reportedly, were positive. Other OEPs were unable to get all, or even a majority, of incoming organizations to cooperate. Efforts that were successful used local leaders in traditional nonprofit organizations, such as the United Way and community faith-based organizations, to coordinate activities.

Traditional disaster relief agencies, such as the Red Cross and FEMA, received mixed reviews from many in the field. Some had positive views of the Red Cross, which provided shelter and human services in the immediate aftermath and funds for long-term recovery. Many of those interviewed had contact with both FEMA and the Red Cross and in some way used their resources; for one site, a FEMA voluntary agency liaison was a major player in the creation of the disaster response organization.

Case study organizations, however, were not typically willing to become official shelters under Red Cross regulations, and the general perception was that both the Red Cross and FEMA were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the storm, the duration of needed assistance, and the nature of need, including psychological trauma, enduring medical needs, domestic violence and civil disorder, family reunification, and the variety of human services, including childrens services and schooling that became an issue as the emergency continued. FEMA was derided for its slow, rigid bureaucracy and the absence of a strategy to provide social services as a part of the provision of emergency housing. As described earlier, hundreds of families were housed in trailers for months or years, isolated from local communities or job opportunities, with no common areas for playing, eating, socializing or problem-solving among the residents. FEMA, in the eyes of some respondents, became an obstacle rather than a facilitator to bring services in or create community in these situations. Also noted earlier, both the Red Cross and FEMA used rotating teams consisting largely of outside volunteers, and the longer the emergency endured, unfamiliarity with the local area became a problem. On the other hand, the military was lauded by several respondents for its clear hierarchy, clear parameters for services, and respectful demeanor.

Long-Term Recovery Structures

Another venue for FBCOs to connect to the traditional response system was through local long-term recovery committees. Three sites were part of or connected to formalized long-term recovery structures to address unmet needs; the others deliberately worked outside the traditional long-term recovery process, using instead their own professional or informal networks. Those working within the structures saw them as a way to increase efficient use of funding, and to pool other resources and case managers to ensure that services were not duplicated and that unmet needs were addressed. Several interviewees who worked within those systems saw significant improvements in the process over the long term and believed they were able to provide more comprehensive assistance to those with documented need.

Two sites declined invitations to participate in long-term recovery structures or resigned after participating for a short time, viewing these structures as too slow and burdened by documentation requirements, red tape, and poorly managed funding streams. Others felt that the power to allot money was in the hands of too few people and personal connections often decided who would be funded and who would not. As noted earlier, one complaint was that the organizations were not accountable for the funds they used and the process was not transparent.  In that site, the committee was challenged when funds were provided to a local construction company owned by a board members family.

Accessing the Broader Human Service System

Connecting to the larger human service system to provide needed services that are outside the traditional disaster response model was less common. Large disasters reveal the underlying needs of vulnerable populations that make recovery more elusive. The massive loss of publicly subsidized housing, the pervasive occurrence of undocumented succession of privately owned homes that could impede access to assistance for repair or reclamation, the sluggish implementation of Louisianas Road Home program, and the spike in rental costs as a result of the storms made resettlement for low-income populations a major challenge. Mental health issues for children and families traumatized by the storms made mental health services, limited under the best of circumstances, a critical need for storm victims. Health care for low-income populations was increasingly strained with the collapse of facilities and services for the uninsured. Family and legal problems, which may have followed individuals into the storms, were often exacerbated by the effects of the storm, requiring new levels of case management and the services to back it up.

For those FBCOs that do not typically provide social services or do not interact with the public human service system, it was difficult to understand the need to connect to the larger human service system. It was rare for most of the FBCOs studied to have formalized connections to public human services structures to enhance their efforts, for example to access mental health services or subsidized housing. These FBCOs only contacts with the larger, public human service providers were either through long-term recovery structures or were informal, or relied on the doggedness of organization staff. Previous formal connections to the department of human services, the penal system, schools, and other public agencies were either unused or were so altered by the storms that they were unrecognizable and would have to be recrafted. Almost none of the study sites, moreover, had set up formal connections or agreements for future disasters. In most instances, public human service providers and the FBCOs viewed relief efforts with different lenses; each generally had little acknowledgment or understanding of what the other was doing or that each may have a role to play in the others efforts. The problem also worked in the other direction: human service providers who are charged with serving vulnerable populations are unlikely to understand how to connect with the FBCO community involved in disaster relief in order to connect human services with the efforts of the FBCOs. Further, nongovernmental organizations do not represent a coherent whole themselves, and their own turf issues can create challenges to mutual support, particularly if competencies and responsibilities have not been sorted out before a disaster.

Within the public sector, working across agencies to coordinate services, or across governmental jurisdictions, may be especially challenging. In one instance a group was created to connect public agencies with nongovernmental organizations and to facilitate intergovernmental coordination. The group met intensively for over a year following the storms and reportedly had many successes in addressing issues, such as recognizing the formaldehyde problem in FEMA trailers. But getting necessary action from multiple levels of government proved more elusive. Decisions about housing replacement were caught in the debate between the city, public housing authority, HUD, and other interests about whether public housing would be replaced. FEMA had never dealt with a disaster of this magnitude, was more concerned with logistical issues than individual service needs, and reportedly could not make local decisions without national approval. Another issue cited was the interest in maintaining local discretion, although local capacity in a large-scale disaster may be inadequate.

Experts who worked with Katrina victims described the particular needs of traumatized populations for systematic screening and assessment, to establish a baseline of psychological status, and to respond to an inevitable spiral of challengeshigh rates of school truancy, high rates of parental depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which fuels childrens difficulties, all of which must be followed by long-term treatment. One expert suggested that nearly everyone in the FEMA trailer park had some measure of PTSD. Art therapists reportedly found that 80 to 90 percent of teens in Renaissance Village would not go to schoolthey could not sit still, and were ostracized by local teens in the district school, reinforcing their need for some sort of alternative school. The attempt to develop a charter school, described earlier, might have helped.

Further, vulnerable populations often begin with an array of challenges, which are then exacerbated by the trauma of evacuation and dislocation. The low-income African American populations in New Orleans were supported by strong family and social networks. When those ties were broken, as they were by the evacuation and ad hoc resettlement in trailer parks, they were difficult, if not impossible, to reestablish. Another way of understanding this is the need to capitalize on these bonds in a disaster response whenever possible. Common Ground Health Clinic served constituents in its community and required training to heighten staff sensitivity to racial discrimination and enhance their ability to work with the local population, which may over the long term provide a model for other disaster responses.

Addressing the full dimensions of psychological trauma was, according to experts interviewed, not purely for humanitarian reasons. Without attention to the trauma, there was greater potential for persistent dysfunction and inability to resettle successfullyto reestablish housing, jobs, and functional families, to ensure school attendance, and to avoid substance abuse, domestic violence, and other forms of child and adult delinquency. As one respondent described the context, screening and assessment services were not planned for, and many people were trying to pump services into Renaissance Village that were not well coordinated and only exacerbated a very broken system.

With no prior planning for services in response to a disaster, and relationships among human service providers, official disaster responders, and nongovernmental organizations not well developed, it is much more difficult to know who to talk to or how to coordinate responses after the fact. The problem is further complicated when local and state entities must interact with outside entities, both federal agencies and nongovernmental emergency responders. Similarly, it is difficult to convince public or private organizations to collaborate without roles that are understood and funding to support their efforts. One informant familiar with the efforts to get behavioral health services to children in Renaissance Village observed that as the magnitude of the disaster increases, the need for persistent relationships increases exponentially; it took over a decade for him to forge relationships with providers of behavioral health services in his city.

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