Role of Faith-Based and Community Organizations in Providing Relief and Recovery Services After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Lessons Learned


Many organizations that are not traditional disaster responders, including small 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. How well that knowledge has been incorporated in local area planning efforts is unclear in the cases studied. 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. The survey findings tell us that most respondents provided assistance; how many other organizations were unavailable because they were wiped out by the storm is unknown.

The study suggests that it would be helpful to incorporate into disaster plans an inventory of local FBCOs and their contact information. Ideally, the nature of their facilities, their capabilities, and prior experience would be incorporated into disaster planning. Some FBCOs have limited capabilities, but those capabilities can be used strategically to implement a communitys overall disaster response effectively. Locally based organizations can operate outside the constraints of official disaster responders, maintain flexibility, and craft innovative solutions to new needs and as needs change over time. But with no guidelines or oversight and limited recordkeeping, it is unclear how services are distributed and whether they are distributed equitably. To better account for the services that FBCOs can provide, disaster response planners can also provide guidance on how to document services provided and recipients served, including how to count service units and measure outcomes, and how to determine eligibility and triage people to ensure that all who need help receive it.

  • 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.

The case studies illustrate that neither the traditional disaster responders nor the FBCOs studied were well connected to those that might provide behavioral health services, transitional and permanent housing, or school structures and educational experts able to address the psychological and emotional challenges of traumatized children and adolescents. The need for such services may be especially critical for low-income and vulnerable populations who may have preexisting disabilities that can be exacerbated by a disaster, and who generally have limited options for successful readjustment and resettlement.

Similar to incorporating an inventory of FBCOs into emergency preparedness planning, a map of current human service providers, including governmental and private providers as well as regional and national specialists in trauma and vulnerable populations and who might be called upon to assist, would be a valuable component of such a plan.

  • 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 experience of the FEMA trailer park in one case study demonstrates the critical need for coordination among a wider array of providers, from 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 that successful interventions appear to recognize the importance of seeking out the best performersthose with proven track records, the ability to work with the populations affected and whatever challenges they present, 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 can create problems for others trying to provide assistance.
  • Soliciting and managing cash and material donations as well as volunteers is a key to effective disaster responses. 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. Emergency preparedness planning could include consideration of how to control donations, including instruction on the best tools to solicit and manage donations. Government or FBCO entities can set up web sites that can be shared among responders, serve as clearinghouses, manage solicitations, and allocate resources, including donations, volunteers, and emergency services.

A model for working together was developed in the Washington, D.C., region after the 9/11 attacks. Nonprofit leaders and government representatives worked together to develop guidelines for sharing data, scaling up for volunteer efforts, and soliciting and handling monetary and in-kind donations.[17] New methods for maintaining access to 211 directories when local telephone service is disrupted have reportedly been developed since the 2005 storms and were used in the Gulf region after the 2008 storms.

  • 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. But many that were new to disaster response in 2005 learned much about how to provide disaster-related services, and how not to repeat mistakes that hampered their response. An effort should be made to incorporate those experiences into disaster preparedness planning, including how to increase flexibility for traditional disaster responders, what rules can be relaxed and what rules cannot, and how to tap the expertise of those who participated in disaster response to teach others what they learned. 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. More work remains to understand the effects of the disaster and the most effective ways to provide immediate and long-term assistance. 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 individuals who still need help. These data also could be used to support needed evidence-based research on the effects of the storms 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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