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


How each organization did what it did reveals much about what might facilitate effective responses in the future. It is often difficult to make meaningful comparisons among the sites because the organizations and the work that they did were substantially different. Still, while each case must be considered on its own terms, some similarities offer lessons for FBCOs potential role in disaster response.


Broadly speaking, the eight cases studied provided many of the same services, as Table 29 indicates, though some service provision was a function of timing (immediate relief or long-term recovery) and location in relation to areas of impact. Five service typologies emerge from the experiences of these eight FBCOs:

  1. emergency aid, in which FBCOs provide immediate needs such as food and water, temporary shelter, and medical care to hurricane victims;
  2. donations management, in which FBCOs manage warehouses or points of distribution or otherwise receive and distribute donated goods;
  3. volunteer coordination, volunteer housing, and rebuilding projects;
  4. case management of the unmet needs of hurricane victims; and
  5. direct human services, such as health and mental health services, welfare assistance, housing, and employment services.

Several casesSt. Lukes, VFCC, and PIPSprovided emergency supplies, water, food, and shelter. These emergency relief services occurred mostly in the first months after the hurricanes. CGHC provided emergency medical care. CIF filled in the gaps in emergency care in the Baton Rouge River Center.

As the need for immediate relief services ebbed, other needs arose. Most cases distributed cash, gift cards, and other donations such as clothing and household goods, and some served as formal points of distribution or operated a warehouse for donations. Almost all these cases provided some volunteer coordination for rebuilding, distribution of goods, staffing shelters, or other relief activities. Some provided housing for volunteers. Several provided or coordinated some case management services for hurricane victims, including conducting unmet needs assessments in their communities, and sometimes outside a long-term recovery structure.

It is notable that only two organizations provided human service assistance, such as applying for welfare or FEMA assistance that would connect people to the social welfare system. This is consistent with the survey findings in which about one-third of FBCOs surveyed reported assisting with FEMA claims and about one-fifth with welfare applications. Some used their own expertise and capabilities to deliver more professionalized human services. Two cases (CGHC and CIF) provided professional health or mental health counseling to hurricane victims. Two cases (CCN and St. Lukes) provided spiritual or religious counseling, and others may have provided religious services. GNODRP created access to counseling for its own staff. CIF, through its collaborators, provided child care and education services, and St. Lukes briefly provided child care for neighboring hospital workers children. CCN, PIPS and VFCC provided access to employment services.

Table 29.
Services Provided by FBCO
Services Common Ground Health Clinic Community Care Network Community Initiatives Foundation Greater New Orleans Disaster Relief Partnership Hope Haven Partners in Prayer for Schools St. Lukes Episcopal Church Vermilion Faith Community of Care
Emergency Relief X X X   X X X X
Donations Management X X X X X   X X
Volunteer Coordination and Housing X X X X X X X X
Case Management     X X       X
Direct Human Services X X X X   X X X


All the FBCOs studied used both paid staff and volunteers. Much of the actual relief and recovery work was heavily reliant on volunteers, some who applied their professional skills to the disaster work and some who simply were part of the great numbers who descended upon the area to help in whatever way they could. For some cases, the staffing capabilities must be measured as the combined expertise of the larger whole that was created through a collaboration, described below.

Finding and maintaining staff in the context of the extreme devastation created by the storms has been a challenge for some organizations studied. One public official interviewed noted that the order for total evacuation meant that all public employees who were not exempt would be unavailable in the critical first days after the storms. These employees were often in other states and out of contact, making it impossible to anticipate their return to jobs or to help in other ways in relief and recovery efforts. Problems with communication attest to the discontinuities. One expert noted that first responders are likely to be unavailable in future disasters if their own families have not been provided for, and this would likely require prearranged plans. CCN lost staff halfway through its relief work. Several of GNODRPs partners, which are major social service organizations in New Orleans, reported losing most of their staff because of lack of housing and basic infrastructure in the city, and some were still trying to get back to full staffing capacity.

As reported by respondents in this study, the support and interest of volunteers often from outside the community to help the affected areas recover was remarkable. For those cases primarily focused on rebuilding homes, volunteers were the primary vehicle for accomplishing the work. Some volunteers were also involved in warehousing and sorting in-kind donations as well as surveying neighborhoods for recovery needs. For organizations that provided professional services such as health care and teaching, many of these services were also provided by volunteer professionals. Individual volunteers and volunteer groups found the FBCOs through web sites and word of mouth. For example, the State of Mississippi sponsored a web site for FBCOs and volunteer groups to connect, which Community Care Network used to post volunteer needs. Based on the reported influx of volunteers to the affected areas, it is not surprising that all the FBCOs in this study used many volunteers from outside the community.

However, problems arose with the types and numbers of volunteer groups coming to help. As occurred in one FBCO, some volunteers came with truckloads of goods but had no place to stay and little money. According to several respondents, as the demucking was completed, more skilled labor was needed, and it became harder to fill work orders for rebuilding tasks.

Volunteers who were medical or education professionals also provided much-needed help. They also could cause liability concerns. While Common Ground Health Clinic now has a paid staff of seven, the clinic began with all-volunteer staff that included professional doctors, nurses, and emergency medical technicians, and continues to attract volunteer professionals. The State of Louisiana instituted emergency medical credentialing, which relieved the clinic of its responsibility for ensuring proper licensing so the clinic was able to organize and begin operating quickly. But as one informant noted, beyond basic licensing, they had no way of evaluating the quality or competence of medical volunteers. Community Initiatives Foundation was careful to connect with volunteers who were professionals licensed in art therapy, mental health counseling, and education, and it stressed the importance of connecting with the best. Licensing did not ensure that professionals were well suited to deal with the unique circumstances of this disaster, and some of those who lent their services in Renaissance Village did not succeed or stay long to create the consistent care that children and adults suffering extreme psychological trauma need to recover.

The FBCOs in this study have reported that the numbers of volunteers and volunteer groups coming to help with the disaster response has been diminishing even though there is still much work to do. However, some respondents reported that they now have a cadre of reliable volunteers either in the community or through groups that return to the area to help.


All the FBCOs studied received donations, both cash and in kind, and grants from more than one source. The funding used for the disaster response by these eight organizations ranged from $42,000 to over $1 million. As in the survey, establishing the cost of the disaster assistance was difficult, in part because cash and in-kind donations that were distributed early in the relief efforts were not well documented, relief activities were often a cooperative effort among several organizations, and many staff were themselves volunteering services apart from their regular functions so the real cost of those services is not separated from their other functions.

Seven of the eight cases, as shown in Table 30, received some public funding, but most of the funding came from private sources. One, the Community Initiatives Foundation, was begun with seed money from a local foundation and received the core of its funding a year after the start of relief work from a foundation source. Much of the work with which it was associated in Renaissance Village was foundation funded. The CIF, the Coalition for the Homeless, and Family Road consortium is using $1.2 million in CDBG funds that the Coalition is charged with administering. As discussed later under sustainability, available funding and donations have diminished as new disasters and priorities gain the spotlight.

All cases received and distributed some type of in-kind donations such as clothes, nonperishable food, building supplies, household goods, and gift cards. Storage was a problem for several sites. Some (e.g., VFCC, GNODRP, Hope Haven) already had or created warehouse space to handle the influx. Others (e.g., Community Care Network) became official points of distribution, and others just distributed the goods as they came. How the beneficiaries of cash and in-kind donations were selected and how organizations were accountable for managing the funds and targeting deserved recipients is addressed in the section on accountability.

Table 30.
Funding and In-Kind Donations by Type of Source
Cases Individual Giving Organizational/
Religious Affiliates
Congregations Nonprofit Organizations/
Government Business
Local National Local National Local National Local/
National Local State Federal Local National
Common Ground Health Clinic   X   X     X X   X X    
Community Care Network X X   X   X   X     X    
Community Initiatives Foundation X X         X X   X X    
Greater New Orleans Disaster Relief Partnership       X     X X     X   X
Hope Haven X X     X X X X X X   X  
Partners in Prayer and Service             X       X    
St. Lukes Episcopal Church X X     X X           X X
Vermilion Faith Community of Care X X X X X X X X X X   X X


While it is only part of the story in the immediate aftermath of the storms, the inability to communicate readily created a major challenge to responding with expediency. For the leaders of the FBCOs that evacuated, locating their staff, members, congregants, and partners who had also evacuated was a necessary precondition to sort out when and how to restart operations.

The FBCOs studied dealt with the communications blackout in several ways. The larger FBCO collaborators often had disaster communications plans in place as a part of their evacuation plans. For example, the United Way of Greater New Orleans Area was able to set up a 211 information number outside the impact area to help hurricane victims find the social services they had used in New Orleans. The United Way convened the leaders of its member organizations in Hammond, Louisiana, by the end of September to begin planning the citys human services response. St. Lukes Episcopal Church equipped its recreational vehicle with satellite communications and computer equipment in order to operate in affected areas, and hurricane victims and first responders could use the equipment to call and e-mail to let people know that they were safe and to try to find relatives.

Many used the Internet, including other organizations web sites, to list volunteer opportunities for people across the country looking to help. Some, such as St. Lukes, were able to set up their own web sites quickly to reach out for assistance. CGHC used a live camcorder to broadcast local conditions and attract support. As the affected areas communications came back online, many respondents said that they began to tap their own networks of social and professional contacts to help with relief and recovery. They used their mailing and membership lists, e-mail address books, web sites, and phones to obtain resourcesmainly donations and volunteers. They also began to hold meetings with other FBCOs, national affiliates, and government in the months following the storms.

Individual and Organizational Capabilities

The specific skill sets of the leaders of the organizations help explain why particular FBCOs responded as they did. The question of expertise needs to be addressed on two dimensions. The expertise and professional experience of the leaders provided the means to implement their efforts directly; it also explained their ability to recognize their limitations and find others with whom they could join forces.

With regard to the first, the leader of the St. Lukes effort was an expert in military operations, casualty recovery, and logistics, and he understood the stress of emergencies. That experience helped him recognize the need for the mobile unit equipped with satellite communications to deliver assistance from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. Hope Haven and CCN were shelters for vulnerable individuals before the storm. Both directors knew how to run group homes, which helped each set up housing for volunteers. PIPS had experience in volunteer coordination. St. Lukes as an institution had the know-how, as they put it, to take care of people, which included shelter, feeding, day care, and spiritual counseling. One of the principals in St. Lukes had experience counseling in a psychiatric hospital before becoming a rector and could use that experience in working with people who were severely traumatized. Both Hope Haven and CCN had social service experience and knowledge of the local social service system. Hope Havens director offered to house the county social services unit as a result of that connection. In a large collaborative like GNODRP, the members were the leadership of charitable and social service providers in New Orleans.

In many cases, the leaders were visionary, high energy, and able to donate large amounts of time, sometimes pro bono, even after the initial emergency had subsided. In addition, the world around them really did not return to normal for a long time, and they remained focused on the continuing magnitude of need.

Leaders at CIF and CGHC also brought unique and broad perspectives to their relief efforts, which included an understanding of the complexity of the problems of hurricane victims and the skills needed to address that complexity. CIFs efforts were grounded in the directors professional training and her ability to recognize that individuals and families lived in precarious circumstances before the storm and over time would be unable to resettle because of the combined effect of those circumstances, the depth of the trauma experienced, and the lack of affordable housing and job opportunities to enable them to get back on their feet again. Her training, drive, continued attention, and sense of mission facilitated her ability to look for creative solutions for the long-term dislocated. Her connections to community and political institutions enabled her to leverage funding, and to recraft services as populations and needs changed over time.

Informants noted the importance of perceived legitimacy in overcoming distrust of individuals who have been traumatized and are difficult to reach. The CIF director became intimately familiar with the circumstances of children and families in Renaissance Village, stayed with them over their years in the park, and continues to follow several hundred children since their transition out of the park. That familiarity was also developed by the art therapists who came repeatedly to treat the children. As one child reportedly remarked, we know you love us because you keep coming back. Other interventions, which were more limited or delivered by those less familiar with the populations in the park, were reportedly less successful. Similarly, one informant noted that donations that were well intended but ill informed (e.g., WalMart gift cards used to buy bicycles that had no place to be stored) failed.

Another expert on victims of trauma noted that a major predictor of poor outcomes for children is the physical disruption of daily routine. The first efforts to assist children in the River Center, establishing playgroups and some sense of calm, were in response to the chaos that confronted traumatized children and parents.

CGHC brought together unique training of so-called street medicsemergency medical technicians and others trained in delivering emergency first aid, with expertise in administering medical care under various stressful circumstances and avoiding legal and credentialing entanglements. They also were grounded in an understanding of and desire to change how discrimination and cultural competence affect access to medical care. The clinic required all staff to take formal racism and discrimination training, which has been adopted by at least one other long-standing community clinic.

In other case study organizations, staff also appears to have had the requisite knowledge of local areas and omnipresence to be able to offer meaningful help. One observation repeated by several focus group participants was that the FBCO staff member helping them rebuild their houses always seemed to be able to anticipate what they needed and know how to get it.

As noted at the outset, the case study organizations are exemplars, not chosen to be representative of the universe of responding organizations. Several leaders seemed to understand the limits of their expertise by connecting with experts in other areas. CGHC connected with other community health clinics for specialized services and professional advice, and it created an active board to provide continuing advice and oversight. CIF made a point of connecting to the best performers, those with highly developed professional skills, proven track records, and competency to work with the particular populations that they were trying to serve. Collaborators, whether local or national, were selected with those standards as a guide.

Organizational capacity was less striking than the characteristics of the leadership in the FBCOs studied. Although VFCCs past experience in disaster response also gave it the imprimatur of legitimacy to become the repository of donations coming through the local emergency response office, past experience with disasters was not a necessary component in defining other case study organizations approach to assistance. VFCC and PIPS staff had current databases of local organizations and resources that assisted the local area response. Certainly, St. Lukes physical plant, including multiple facilities, accommodated its shelter operations. But the responses of Community Care Network, Hope Haven, Community Initiatives Foundation, and Common Ground Clinic were creations of the moment and the product of the skills and insights of their leaders.

On the other hand, several informants referred to other FBCOs that came to help and were in over their headsfor example, taking on shelters or feeding responsibilities with inadequate experience or resources. Organizations that were less competent to address the specific problems of the populations that needed help, or less experienced in working in collaborative settings and integrating their efforts with others, were not as successful. In one example, an individual was highly committed to offering his professional skills and worked tirelessly to help, but at a certain point his inability to connect with the larger assistance efforts became problematic. Working alone, he could neither fold his effort into that larger whole nor appreciate when to allow the larger organizational efforts to overtake his own.

Networks and Collaborations

In one way or another, all the relief efforts studied were the product of multiple organizational collaborations, some representing formal partnerships and others using episodic or informal assistance as needed. As noted in the methodology, cases were selected for study that had important stories to tell; those stories tended to be associated with multiple organizational or institutional connections. The findings from the telephone survey of a larger group of FBCO responders indicated that hierarchical or formal affiliates did not increase the likelihood of working with others. Consistent with those findings, the case study collaborations appear to be based more on social and professional networks than on support from formal hierarchical affiliations. For some cases, however, horizontal affiliations, such as the Interfaith Disaster Task Force on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, were instrumental in making connections between organizations that were used in the 2005 hurricane response. Vermilion Faith Community of Care and GNODRP represent the formalization of horizontal networks.

Especially in the immediate aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the FBCOs in existence before the storms tapped into their social and professional networks for resources, information, and coordination. Reliance on these networks in St. Lukes and Hope Havens response was described earlier. Hope Haven was put on the mayors top ten targets for rebuilding.

Social and professional networks were also used as long-term recovery activities began. Community Care Networks director went to her pastor to ask what she could do to help. Her church lent CCN office space and put her in charge of housing and coordinating the volunteers who descended on the Gulf Coast and on the church to help rebuild. The connection to the local YMCA, which was down the street from the church, was the result not of proximity but of networking at Interfaith Disaster Task Force meetings. GNODRP was formed by social service organization leaders in the New Orleans area who had known each other professionally and who together recognized a lack of regional coordination for long-term recovery.

Respondents reiterated that they called whomever they could in a broad social and professional network, and they reached beyond their immediate circle to create new relationships to meet the needs of hurricane victims and their communities. For the most part, they cited high levels of cooperation and a willingness to set aside turf issues or concerns for rules and protocols in order to respond to the disaster. These working relationships with old and new associates continued when the disaster response moved from emergency relief into long-term recovery.

Several FBCOs studied connected with local, state, or federal agencies. GNODRP leaders worked closely with the FEMA Voluntary Agency Liaison (VAL), who helped develop the structure and activities of GNODRP and the parish-level long-term recovery structures in the region. In contrast, some respondents in Mississippi reported that turnover in the FEMA VALs assigned to the area made it difficult to create partnerships with them. Hope Haven, PIPS, and VFCC had existing relationships with local government officials that supported their response. In several other FBCOs, connections to government were remote, usually through receipt of funding or grants, or nonexistent.

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