Role of Faith-Based and Community Organizations in Providing Relief and Recovery Services After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Major Findings from the Case Studies


Characteristics of Case Study Organizations

  • Although half the case study organizations were secular and half were faith based, their collaborations represent a mix of faith-based and secular organizations. While religious faith may have provided a personal motivation for some organizations leaders, staff, or volunteers, the reasons for involvement were often indistinguishable between religious and secular organizations.
  • Disaster responses in the case studies appear often to owe as much to chance as to deliberate planning. With one exception, none of the organizations studied had previously engaged in disaster response planning, and they made decisions in response to challenges created by the storms.

Catalysts for Response

  • The magnitude of the disaster was the primary reason that FBCOs studied responded, and raises the question of who and how many would respond in future disasters. The level of devastation, the influx of evacuees to communities along the exit routes, and the inundation of cash, material donations, and volunteers both inspired engagement and demanded management and coordination (e.g., to sort, store, and distribute goods and to house, feed, triage, or supervise volunteers) on a level never before needed. Chance rather than prior disaster experience or preconceived plan explained the direction that the responses often took.
  • The storms magnitude also focused attention on the personal and social dimensions of the disaster, including permanent loss of housing, widespread family dislocation and emotional trauma, and the particular vulnerabilities of low-income minority populations, issues not addressed in depth or at all in previous disasters. For many, these factors would worsen over time. The storms and 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 already strained before the disaster.
  • Traditional models for disaster response were severely challenged, overwhelmed, or dysfunctional, motivating newcomers to disaster response to try to help, and spawning new approaches to both relief and recovery. Traditional responders did not have the trained staff, resources, or protocols to provide more than limited assistance, and they were frequently ill prepared for the long-term need for shelter or the extent of psychological trauma in wide portions of the population.

Mechanics of Response

  • Case study organizations together provided emergency aid, donations management, volunteer housing and coordination, case management, and direct human services; most provided some aspect of almost all these services. All the organizations used both paid staff and volunteers in their relief work. Seven of the eight organizations were supported by some public funding.
  • Finding and maintaining staff was a challenge for some organizations studied. The order for total evacuation meant that public employees who were not exempt would be unavailable in the critical first days after the storms; even first responders might be unavailable if their families had not been provided for through pre-arranged plans. Several organizations in New Orleans reported losing a majority of their staff because housing and basic infrastructure in the city had not returned.
  • Volunteers were important to the disaster response but could also create challenges, including the need for housing, feeding, careful supervision, and debriefing, as well as liability concerns. FBCOs using outside volunteer professionals, such as physicians and nurses, had no way, beyond basic licensing, of evaluating their quality or competence. Volunteers might come with truckloads of goods but had no place to stay and little money. As demucking of houses was completed, it became hard to match volunteer skills with tasks required for rebuilding. Some respondents suggested that some other FBCOs were in over their heads (for example, taking on shelters or feeding responsibilities with inadequate experience or resources) or less able to integrate their work with other relief efforts under way.
  • The inability to communicate readily created a major challenge to locating staff, congregants, volunteers, and partners to restart operations. Some FBCOs studied developed creative ways to use the Internet, including organizations own web sites, email networks, and official government sites, to generate large responses from social and professional networks and the general public, and to match organizational needs with volunteer skills and interest. One FBCO set up a 211 information number outside the impact area to help hurricane victims find services they had used in New Orleans. Another equipped a van with satellite communications to bring help to devastated areas and allow hurricane victims and first responders to communicate their whereabouts to others.
  • Leaders in several case study organizations illustrated attributes of particular value in the crisis. Leaders were often high-energy people able to donate large amounts of time, sometimes pro bono, in part because their own lives had not returned to normal. Several brought expertise, such as in management, housing operations, logistics training, or human service delivery, and in working in stressful circumstances. Others used connections to community and political institutions to catalyze funding and craft services based on unique understandings of services and populations. Because this disaster presented new and larger issues than experienced in the past, leaders had to learn to change approaches as populations and needs changed over time. Several leaders of case study organizations seemed to understand the limits of their expertise and connected with others in the area to broaden their services and skill sets.
  • Familiarity with local areas and perceived legitimacy were keys to overcoming distrust of severely traumatized individuals. Traditional responders were often unfamiliar with local conditions and local facilities and services, and any knowledge gained on the ground was lost as new teams were rotated in.
  • All the cases studied involved inter-organizational collaboration, some formal partnerships and others in which assistance was episodic or informal as needed. Several FBCOs studied connected with local, state, or federal agencies. These relationships were based more on social and professional networks than on support from formal hierarchical affiliations. These relationships created access to restricted areas, access to rebuilding assistance, sharing of facilities or resources, and access to financial help or professional expertise.

Accountability and Equity

  • Accountability for handling funds, distributing other resources, identifying needed services, and ensuring that they are delivered to those in need can be problematic in an emergency. There is clearly a trade-off between accountability and flexibility in the context of an emergency. Oversight of the emergency response sometimes took a back seat because of the magnitude of need and to allow for more flexibility in the delivery of assistance. Only two organizations studied were held explicitly accountable for the populations they were serving. In three sites, the principal reason for working outside formal long-term recovery structures was the ability to help more people without the burden of red tape and bureaucracy.
  • The lack of guidelines and specificity for designated use of funds, populations served, standards about what constituted need, or service units raises questions about equitable treatment among service recipients. While income and other assistance received was typically a part of the review in a long-term recovery committee structure, some in the field complained about the lack of transparency in needs assessments. In cases that were not part of a formal case management framework, chance and informal contacts often determined allocation of assistance. How evacuees sorted themselves or were triaged to different congregations for assistance is unknown.

Life Cycles and Sustainability

  • As time passes, funding diminishes, and the needs of those served before the storm come back into focus, many FBCOs return to their original mission despite continuing needs related to the 2005 hurricanes. Three FBCOs studied that did not previously have a disaster response mission have returned to their original functions, but each is likely to retain the internal capacity to respond to future disasters.

Connections to Traditional Disaster Relief and Human Services Systems

  • Except for the two FBCOs that were part of the formal response system, connections to traditional response or human service systems were rare or nonexistent among the studied sites. Two sites declined invitations to participate in long-term recovery structures or resigned after a short time, viewing these structures as too slow and burdened by red tape, or potentially inequitable. Some officials interviewed who were responsible for the areas emergency response plans were focusing on how to incorporate local FBCOs into their plans, though the specifics were not always clear.
  • Among those FBCOs that provided emergency assistance, cross-communication was often minimal, especially for coordinating volunteers and distributing donations. This lack of communication could create duplication of services and oversupplies of certain types of donations.
  • The Red Cross and FEMA were perceived as overwhelmed by the magnitude of the storm, the duration of needed assistance, and the nature of need. FEMA was criticized for its slow, rigid bureaucracy and the absence of a strategy to provide needed social services as a part of the provision of emergency housing. The use of rotating teams of those unfamiliar with the local area and unable to make meaningful referrals was also criticized.
  • Despite the massive need for health and social services, FBCOs that did not typically provide social services did not usually connect to the larger human services system. FBCOs post-hurricane contacts were more likely to be the result of efforts connected to long-term recovery structures, chance, or the doggedness of individual staff to locate services. Vulnerable populations often have an array of preexisting challenges, which are exacerbated by the trauma of evacuation and dislocation and the breaking of essential family and social networks that are difficult, if not impossible, to reestablish. Without attention to the full dimensions of psychological trauma, there was greater potential for persistent dysfunction and inability to resettle successfully.

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