After the devastation
caused by Hurricane Katrina in the summer of 2005, Washington was
justly criticized for the shortfalls in federal assistance. However, too
much attention was given to the role of government and too little
to the efforts of those who can and should make the biggest
difference in the critical first hours and days of a crisis-people
in the communities themselves. The greatest advance that America
could make in preparing for catastrophic disasters is to build
better individual-based programs, a culture of preparedness, and
resilient and self-reliant communities.
Achieving this goal requires thinking
differently. Throwing money at states through homeland security
grants or turning the responsibility over to the federal government
entirely will not make Americans much safer. Instead, Washington
should play a limited role, enabling and encouraging states and
communities to take the lead by empowering individuals to care for
themselves and others during disasters.
Ideally, the federal government should be
responsible for building a national response system to mobilize the
nation's resources when a disaster overwhelms local communities.
Washington should also create "plugs," such as interoperable
communications and information sharing, that will allow state and
local communities to "plug into" the national response system.
By far the largest part of the responsibility
for emergency response lies with state and local communities. Local
communities should focus their resources on day-to-day emergencies,
but they must have the ability to assess the adequacy of their
emergency response plans and to communicate their needs to the
federal government in the event of a catastrophe. These localities
should also have an "all-hazards" disaster planning approach-a
single response system that can be adapted to a variety of
disasters. Most important, these plans should include community
The federal government should focus the
majority of its efforts on preparing for catastrophic disasters. In
most disasters, local communities oversee relief efforts until
national resources can be requested, marshaled, and deployed to the
scene-a process that usually takes several days. But catastrophic
disasters have a different character. In such disasters, state and
local resources may be exhausted from the onset, and government
leaders may be unable to determine or communicate their priority
needs. In these situations, national resources need to arrive in
hours, not days, and in unprecedented amounts regardless of the
Yet even then, federal help cannot arrive
everywhere at once because the scope of such disasters will likely
be vast. Federal aid in extreme disasters should be targeted first
at the most dire situations, where lives are in grave peril. The
more that citizens can do to take care of themselves and their
neighbors, the more national assets can be focused on the most
The Need for Grassroots
In most disasters, the first few hours and
days are critical, especially the first 72 hours. During this
period, immediate life-threatening illness and injury must be
addressed, and shelter and water must be provided-or people will
die. In addition, critical services and infrastructure must be
restored or replaced so that disaster assistance can be rushed to
the individuals who need it most. Because bringing in outside
assistance during this period is difficult, the most effective
responses come from those who are closest to scene.
The efficacy of grassroots response was
demonstrated in the wake of Katrina. National-level organizations,
including the federal government and nongovernmental agencies such
as the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, were unable to mobilize an
effective response during the first 72 hours. They lacked adequate
situational awareness of local needs and the means to deploy the
right resources to the right place at the right time to do the
right thing. In contrast, local communities provided immediate and
effective relief efforts.
Grassroots organizations can also provide aid
that adapts as needs change. Because the likelihood of confusion
and ambiguity increases with the scale of the disaster,
improvisation is crucial for effective response. Research has found
that the communities themselves are the best sources of innovation
and ingenuity, and the stronger the communities, the more
resourceful are their efforts.
Innovations in Individual
Recommendations about the roles of citizens in
disaster preparedness and response have changed little since 9/11.
Perhaps the most readily available source of information is the
American Red Cross. Individuals can obtain disaster education
material from local Red Cross chapters, the national Red Cross Web
site, and Ready.gov, a special Web site created by the Department
of Homeland Security (DHS). Virtually all disaster preparedness
guides include the same basic components: a disaster supply kit, a
family emergency and communication plan, a shelter-in-place or
evacuation scheme, and common-sense guidance for identifying
potential terrorist threats.
These measures are sound. Individuals who
follow these guidelines are less likely to be victims, allowing
emergency responders to focus on those who are truly at risk.
However, these traditional steps are largely passive measures that
do little to promote community action. They fail to tap the
potential of individuals to take charge, innovate, and adapt to
conditions after a catastrophe.
Individuals can and must assume a central role
in preparing their families and communities to respond to a
Hollywood films have projected a dismal image
of public response in a disaster, assuming that society will break
down and that survivors will take a Hobbesian "every individual for
themselves" approach. Real-life experience suggests another
outcome. Research indicates that panic is not a likely response to
a large-scale disaster. Preparedness in
the following areas will help to make a successful outcome more
Community-Based Planning.Most state and
local emergency management plans were developed without direct
involvement from the community. As a result, people tend to have
little faith that these plans offer the best courses of action to
protect themselves and their families. On the other hand, disaster
planning that includes input from the community produces not only
higher quality plans, but also far higher levels of community
approval and confidence in the plans.
Risk Communications. One of the most
significant challenges for authorities in mobilizing public
preparedness is crafting and communicating appropriate warnings
that will motivate individuals to prepare and respond. To be
effective, risk communications must be credible, understandable,
addition, choosing an appropriate spokesperson to deliver news and
recommendations is critical. When individuals receive alarming
information, they are more likely to act with less stress and
apprehension if they are able to ask questions and receive accurate
answers. In many cases, people may consider the family doctor or
religious leader the most valuable source of information.
Developing community risk communications programs that identify,
educate, and empower these spokespersons before the disaster will
enable them to reach out effectively to individuals in the event of
Needs Assessments and Situational
Awareness. In a large-scale crisis in which communications are
interrupted, access to the disaster area is limited, and
infrastructure is disrupted, it is essential to determine where
needs are the greatest and where assets and resources are
available. Extending this situational awareness to frontline
responders is extremely difficult, but community residents can
often be the most important source for disseminating this
information. This exchange
can happen most effectively when citizens know what information is
needed and how to organize and communicate it during disasters.
For example, after Hurricane Katrina, rumors
spread of hundreds dying in the Superdome. In fact, six people
died: four of natural causes, one of a drug overdose, and one of
suicide. Most displaced persons at the scene behaved well and
followed instructions from the National Guard and other emergency
responders at the scene. Yet fears of
violence at the Superdome slowed recovery because responders were
forced to wait for additional security before moving into the
facility in full force. If the correct information had been
communicated properly to officials and the media, the response
might have been much more effective.
Self-Treatment.Catastrophic disasters can place tens of
thousands of lives in jeopardy, requiring medical care for far
greater numbers of people than medical service providers care for
under normal circumstances. In disaster conditions, only limited
medical infrastructure and service providers will be available.
Expanding capacity for basic medical self-evaluation and treatment
will allow scarce medical assets to be focused on the greatest
Mental Health Response. One of the most
significant and underappreciated aspects of disaster response is
responding to mental health issues caused by stress and trauma.
These issues surface with both victims and responders. Not only
does community-centered planning offer more effective prospects for
developing better plans and obtaining greater public support, but
grassroots efforts make for more resilient responses in the event
disaster research study found that when community ties "are strong,
supportive, and responsive to the individual's physical and
emotional needs, the capacity to withstand and overcome stress is
heightened." Citizens tend
to feel more secure and better cared for when members of their own
community respond to their needs. Even informal community
conversation can provide talk-therapy and other immediate measures
to relieve stress.
Long-Term Health Monitoring.Large-scale
disasters can produce many ill effects that do not become apparent
for days, weeks, months, or even years after the crisis. At the
World Trade Center site, responders, victims, and members of the
surrounding community were exposed to a variety of environmental
hazards, and the effects on long-term health are still not
Individuals can help themselves to cope with
long-term health consequences by knowing what kinds of information
to retain to make long-term health monitoring more effective.
Laying the Foundation
Research by emergency preparedness experts
shows that individuals are more likely to prepare for natural or
man-made (technological) disasters when they have some experience
that makes them believe that such disasters might actually affect
them. Typically, those who have already experienced a disaster are
the most likely to develop a culture of preparedness.
However, all Americans should be prepared to respond to a
catastrophic disaster without having to experience a disaster
first. A community-centered program can serve to build individuals'
capacity for response. These programs should:
- Train the
trainer. Establishing training programs for state and local
leaders would help state and local communities to develop a culture
- Set the
standards. Establishing national standards and identifying and
sharing best practices and lessons learned will help to establish
consistent, quality local programs across the country.
accreditation and credentialing. Local voluntary programs are
most effective when responders and local officials know who has
what skills and where they are.
liability and privacy. Individuals should be able to act in
good faith in the wake of a disaster knowing that their actions
will not incur unreasonable liability, compromise their individual
liberties, or impose on the liberties of others. Programs must be
built to address these concerns.
The Unique Role of Faith-Based and
Because the first responders to any natural
disaster are typically the survivors of the affected community
itself, it is crucial that individual households and faith-based
and community organizations (FBCOs) are prepared. Recent polls
indicate that six in 10 Americans consider themselves prepared to
respond to a natural disaster. Most Americans also believe that
their local hospitals (62 percent) and emergency service providers
(68 percent) are prepared. However, only 31 percent of Americans
believe that the federal government is equipped to provide
acceptable relief following a major natural disaster.
Local, state, and
federal governments must interface better with each other and with
trusted community groups. To create effective partnerships,
governmental authorities must include community groups and
faith-based organizations in their planning sessions, recognizing
the unique contributions that these groups can make beyond the
capacity of government while preserving the integrity of their
FBCO Disaster Relief Efforts.
Faith-based and community organizations are uniquely positioned to
provide relief after a disaster.
Spiritual Relief. One of the greatest
services that faith-based organizations can provide is material
relief coupled with spiritual relief. Disaster survivors often
suffer from more than physical needs. Survivors may experience
feelings of anger, depression, doubt, and guilt-all of which could
adversely affect their ability to recover physically, mentally, and
For example, one of the most spiritually
trying aspects of disasters can be the loss of a loved one.
Faith-based groups, especially clergy, can fill an important void
in this phase of recovery because they have experience with
bereavement counseling. Similarly, local funeral homes could
volunteer their services. Pre-trained volunteers could assist with
the most difficult and pressing tasks such as filing death
certificates, notifying family members and friends, and assisting
with funeral preparations. More important, clergy could be
available to pray with survivors and offer support through grief
counseling and scriptural words of hope and strength.
Numerous studies have indicated that religious
belief and participation in a strong religious community are very
important and effective in helping individuals persevere through
with strong religious beliefs experience a greater remission of
depression symptoms than is experienced by those who do not have
strong beliefs. Moreover,
individuals who receive spiritual support from fellow church
members and clergy are more inclined to use positive coping
methods-even after major life traumas-than are those who are not
part of a religious community. Faith-based
groups and clergy members involved in the disaster relief effort
can help to provide this support from the religious community.
Public Confidence. Survivors are often
most comfortable speaking with trusted religious leaders. For
example, after 9/11, many survivors preferred to see a pastor (or a
leader from their particular religion) rather than a mental health
counselor. In fact, according to one poll, 60 percent of victims
preferred to receive support from a religious counselor, compared
to only 45 percent who preferred to see a physician and 40 percent
who wanted to consult a mental health provider.
Survivors who are members of faith communities
often associate a stigma with receiving mental health counseling,
yet they are comfortable with receiving similar support from a
clergy member. As a result,
faith-based groups and clergy members can form an effective
partnership with mental health providers to ensure that survivors
receive the care that they need. Once referred by a trusted clergy
member, survivors are often more willing to seek support from a
mental health counselor.
Similarly, many local caregivers-such as
police, fire, and medical professionals-are often hesitant to seek
mental health care for themselves but are willing to talk to clergy
volunteers or members of faith-based groups. It is crucial
that the emotional and spiritual needs of emergency service
providers be met, and faith-based groups and clergy members can
help to provide this support or direct them to mental health
providers who can meet their specific needs.
Infrastructure. Because local FBCOs and
churches are actively involved in the community before disaster
strikes, these organizations already have an infrastructure and
network in place that allows them to respond quickly during a
disaster. They have personal relationships with many of the people
in the community, a significant asset for establishing trust and
commanding respect during post-disaster planning. Furthermore,
proximity and established relationships give these local leaders a
greater understanding of the community's particular needs.
In addition to the local infrastructure,
churches and FBCOs also have state, national, and international
networks that are capable of providing an incredible amount of
monetary relief, supplies, and volunteers-even homes in neighboring
states and communities willing to take in refugees. For example,
after Hurricane Katrina, 9,000 Southern Baptist Relief volunteers
from 41 states aided survivors in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi,
Alabama, and Georgia by serving over 10 million meals and helping
with the cleanup. Operation
Blessing utilized its existing network to provide survivors with
11.4 million pounds of food and supplies, 900,000 meals served from
three food kitchens, and medical services for over 10,000
Blessing also awarded 279 grants totaling more than $4 million to
Long-Term Relief Efforts. Religious
groups have staying power. While government and other emergency
responders withdraw from a community once the most urgent physical
needs have been met, religious organizations remain as a part of
the community. This permanence is important because depression and
other emotional and spiritual issues often do not fully manifest
themselves until after the immediate needs have been met and the
confusion has subsided.
Survivors need access to trained volunteers
who are willing to remain in the community and be a source of
support throughout this long recovery process, and local religious
leaders are wonderfully equipped to bind such wounds.
Anniversaries of disasters, memorial services,
and other observations require sensitivity and knowledge of
survivors' needs. Preventing burnout among long-term relief
providers is another serious need. Caregivers can overwork
themselves or become victims of "compassion fatigue." Religious
leaders and faith-based organizations can serve caregivers by
providing relief for them as well, such as planning retreats, or by
providing accountability and debriefing sessions.
Promoting Greater Cooperation with
FBCOs. According to the White House's own report, faith-based
organizations and community groups successfully served the
survivors of Hurricane Katrina "in spite of, not because of, the
government." In the
aftermath of 9/11, more attention has been given to improving the
interface between FBCOs and government, but much more can be done
to create an effective and integrated relief plan.
- First, government
officials need to recognize that FBCOs are uniquely equipped to
meet certain needs in ways that are far beyond the capacity of the
federal relief agencies.
- Next, federal, state,
and local governments need to take the necessary steps to interface
better with these groups before disaster strikes.
- Finally, after much
collaboration, they should establish a centralized disaster
response plan that takes into account and fully involves
nonprofits, FBCOs, and charities without compromising these
organizations' characters or missions.
Open Dialogue Prior to the Disaster.
Individual household preparedness is key. Pamphlets and Web sites
can help to educate people, and polls and surveys can help
authorities to make policy decisions regarding relief efforts.
While these types of interaction are important, however, they are
one-sided. Better interfacing between government agencies and
faith-based and community groups requires open and robust dialogue
between government officials and local FBCO leaders.
It is critical that this exchange take place
before a disaster strikes. Collaboration in the wake of a disaster
is often rushed and unorganized. Engaging community leaders and
authorities in planning deliberations prior to a disaster can
prevent confusion and potential disagreements later. Moreover, such
dialogue can help to educate the community about what to expect
from government, in addition to identifying gaps where their
service will be essential.
Predetermine Roles, Responsibilities, and
Resources. Local governments and federal agencies should work
with FBCOs to create a disaster response plan that incorporates
government and private initiatives. Participants in these planning
sessions can use this time to predetermine roles and
responsibilities in the event of a disaster.
Inventorying resources is also crucial. FBCOs
should assess and communicate exactly what resources they can
access and who in their organizations and communities is trained to
provide particular types of assistance (e.g., medical
professionals, carpenters, electricians, engineers, and certified
counselors). Leaders also need to know who would be willing to host
people displaced from their homes, deliver meals or relief
packages, or volunteer their time and vehicles to shuttle survivors
to various appointments and shelters. Other community members' and
government agencies' familiarity with such resource inventories
will smooth and increase the efficiency of post-disaster relief
By working with authorities to delegate
emergency responsibilities before a disaster strikes, FBCOs can
avoid bureaucratic impediments from excessive government oversight.
To help to eliminate these red-tape barriers that have often
prevented the coordination of FBCOs and the government, President
George W. Bush issued an executive order on March 7, 2006, creating
a new Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives within the
Department of Homeland Security, the 11th agency to include such an
office. One of the
center's main responsibilities is to propose strategies to include
faith-based and community groups in DHS programs, initiatives, and
pre-disaster planning sessions.
Preserving the Character of FBCOs.
Faith-based organizations, community groups, and other charities
with the capacity to assist in relief efforts must have assurances
that their organizations' missions will not be compromised.
Religiously motivated groups must have the freedom to offer the
spiritual support that is central to their mission. Protecting this
freedom is one of the main responsibilities of the DHS Center for
Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
Greater Communication During the Relief
Effort. Disaster survivors should not be required to recount
their circumstances and needs repeatedly to various service
providers. Yet until the public and private sectors better
integrate efforts, initiatives will often duplicate efforts or even
work at cross-purposes.
During the response to Hurricane Katrina, many
groups were forced to obtain critical information through
second-hand sources-if they received any information at all. In spite of
these government-imposed obstacles, FBCOs still delivered crucial
aid to survivors, but broader efforts would have been greatly
improved if information had been collected and disseminated through
one centralized hub for both governmental and private
When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast,
one electronic networking tool was in its pilot phase. After 9/11,
FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) partnered with seven
of the largest disaster charities to create the Coordinated
Assistance Network (CAN), a database that
was intended to identify resources, avoid duplication, and share
important client information between the government and the private
sector. Although the
completed database will be an important tool for long-term relief
efforts when fully functional, many organizations have expressed
concern to the Government Accountability Office about using the
database again during the initial phases of a large-scale disaster
because of the risk of technical glitches. During long-term relief
efforts, the database will serve as a helpful organizational tool,
but it cannot replace the effectiveness of pre-disaster planning or
Sustaining Community Volunteer Efforts.
In the wake of a major disaster, FBCOs can marshal multitudes of
volunteers and large amounts of aid (financial and material
donations) to serve the affected community. While volunteers do not
expect payment, they do need food, housing, and operational
resources. In the past, FEMA had provided funds to the American Red
Cross, but Katrina marked the first occasion when the federal
government made large-scale compensation available to smaller
religious groups for disaster relief. Some criticized the
application process as overly complex, and some groups were
concerned about mission integrity. Before future disasters occur,
the application process should be simplified.
The survivors of a major disaster require
immediate, personal relief. The government is simply not equipped
to provide for all of these needs-especially survivors' spiritual
needs-but by partnering with faith-based and community groups
before a disaster, government (local, state, and federal) can help
survivors receive a higher quality of immediate attention and
guarantee long-term support.
After 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, the public
became much more aware of the great acts of service that
faith-based and community organizations perform. However, despite
this recognition, government agencies have not adequately included
these groups in their disaster relief plans or planning sessions.
Federal, state, and local government authorities need to include
FBCO representatives in their pre-disaster planning sessions to
encourage better coordination between the private sector and
government. Groups and agencies must accurately assess their
resources for responding to emergencies and coordinate efforts to
Survivors need speedy, effective relief. When
government agencies work effectively alongside faith-based and
community organizations, their coordinated efforts can provide
survivors with hope, comfort, and sources of strength.
James Jay Carafano,
Ph.D., is Assistant Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom
Davis Institute for International Studies and Senior Research
Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security in the Douglas
and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage
Foundation. Jennifer A.
Marshall is Director of, and Lauren Calco Hammond is Research
Assistant in, the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and
Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.
Publications and Related Web Sites
Koenig, In the Wake of Disaster: Religious Response to Terrorism
and Catastrophe (Philadelphia: Templeton Press, 2006).
The Politics of Disaster: Katrina, Big Government, and a New
Strategy for Future Crisis (Nashville: W Publishing Group,
Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, Light Our Way: A
Guide for Spiritual Care in Times of Disaster, 2006, at www.nvoad.org/articles/Light_Our_Way_LINKS.pdf
(December 3, 2007).
House, The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons
Learned, February 2006, at www.whitehouse.gov/reports/katrina-lessons-learned/index.html
(December 3, 2007).
Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD), at www.nvoad.org/index.php (December 4,
Response Network, Faith Based and Community Organizations Online
Resources, at www.emergencyresponsenetwork.org
(December 4, 2007).
on Religion and Social Policy, "The Role of Faith-Based
Organizations in Disaster Response," at www.socialpolicyandreligion.org/resources/article.cfm?id=3337
(December 4, 2007).
Federal and State Disaster Recovery Resources
Department of Homeland Security, Office of Faith-Based and
Community Initiatives, at www.dhs.gov/xabout/structure/editorial_0829.shtm
(December 4, 2007).
House, Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, at www.whitehouse.gov/government/fbci
(December 4, 2007).
House, "Hurricane Preparedness," at www.whitehouse.gov/infocus/hurricane
(December 4, 2007).
Florida Disaster Recovery Fund,
State of Alabama, Governor's Office of
Faith Based and Community Initiatives, at
(December 4, 2007).
Foundation, TexasResponds, at www.texasresponds.org
(December 4, 2007).
Mississippi Emergency Management
Agency, at www.msema.org (December 4,
Louisiana Governor's Office of Homeland
Security and Emergency Preparedness, at
Faith-Based and Community Disaster Relief Initiatives
Disaster Relief, at http://bnaibrith.org/programs/dr/index.cfm
(December 4, 2007).
Charities USA, at www.catholiccharitiesusa.org
(December 4, 2007).
Service, Emergency Response Program, at www.churchworldservice.org/Emergencies/index.html
(December 4, 2007).
Relief and Development, at www.er-d.org (December 4,
Lutheran Church in America, Disaster Response, at www.elca.org/disaster (December 4,
Humanity, Disaster Response, at www.habitat.org/disaster/default.aspx
(December 4, 2007).
Americans Needing Disaster Support), at www.hands.ms/home (December 4,
USA, at www.irw.org (December 4, 2007).
Disaster Response, at www.lsss.org/disaster/disaster.htm
(December 4, 2007).
Disaster Service, at www.mds.mennonite.net (December 4,
Mission Board, Disaster Relief, at www.namb.net/site/c.9qKILUOzEpH/b.224451
(December 4, 2007).
Blessing, Disaster Relief, at
(December 4, 2007).
Disaster Assistance, at www.pcusa.org/pda/index.htm (December
Compassion, at www.prccompassion.net (December 4, 2007).
The Church of
Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Humanitarian Services, at www.lds.org/humanitarianservices
(December 4, 2007).
Army, Disaster Relief, at www.redshield.org/crisis (December 4,
America, Hurricane Relief, at www.somebodycares.org (December 4,
Methodist Committee on Relief, at http://gbgm-umc.org/umcor (December