The case studies offer a number of findings that are key to anticipating the role and effective use of FBCOs in future disasters.
The magnitude of the disaster propelled most in the case studies into action. While some FBCOs may respond in future disasters as they have in past disasters, the magnitude of the disaster in 2005 was the primary reason that FBCOs studied responded, and it raises the question of who and how many would respond in future disasters. The unprecedented level of devastation from the hurricanes and subsequent flooding, the breadth of population affected, the depth and duration of need, and the extent of donations and volunteers that needed to be managed, however, explain why most of the FBCOs studied responded.
The depth and duration of need also exposed the limitations of traditional response models, which were overwhelmed and unprepared to provide the assistance needed, particularly as the crisis wore on. The magnitude created long-lasting need for a range of human services, including temporary housing that exceeded the capabilities of traditional shelter and emergency aid providers, health and mental health services for psychological trauma, and services to address enduring medical needs, domestic violence, family reunification, and special schooling arrangements as the emergency continued. FEMA was criticized by interviewees for its slow, rigid bureaucracy and the absence of a strategy to provide social services as a part of the provision of emergency housing. Long-term recovery structures were also criticized for their red tape and lack of transparency.
Chance explained the direction that the responses often took. Most FBCOs studied had no prior disaster experience and no preconceived plan for response. Rather, they responded to the needs as presented, relying on the skills and expertise of their leaders, their ability to give large amounts of time, often pro bono, and their ability to understand their own limitations and look to others for additional help. The case study organizations were also innovative in their uses of the Internet to overcome communications problems, to solicit and vet donations and volunteers, and to connect with social and professional networks for help.
Familiarity with local areas and perceived legitimacy were keys to overcoming distrust of severely traumatized individuals. Traditional responders, such as the Red Cross and FEMA, were typically unfamiliar with local conditions and local facilities and services, and any knowledge gained on the ground was lost as new teams were rotated in.
Few accountability mechanisms were in place to provide a clear picture of services provided and people served among the FBCOs studied. The lack of guidelines and specificity for use of funds and populations served, or standards regarding what constituted need or service units, makes it difficult to assess the content and appropriateness of services provided by the FBCOs studied. How FBCOs ensure equitable treatment among recipients, and how individuals sort themselves among, for example, religious and secular providers, deserves attention.
Connections between FBCOs studied and the larger human service or disaster response systems were often limited, with little recognition about what role each might play in the others efforts. For FBCOs that did not typically provide social services or interact with the public human service system, there were neither formal nor informal connections to enhance their efforts, for example to access mental health services or subsidized housing. 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.
Among the many organizations that provided emergency assistance, cross-group communication was often minimal, especially concerning coordination of volunteers and distribution of donations. This reportedly resulted in duplication of services and oversupplies of certain types of donations. While official emergency response planners may have new appreciation for the role that FBCOs can play in disaster response, the case studies suggest that it will be critical to understand their specific abilities, resources, and interest in participating in future disaster responses as part of official response planning.