USC Dornsife College Of Letters Arts and Sciences

University of Southern California

Faithful Action

Congregations and Faith Based Organizations in Disasters: Setting the Stage

The story of Katrina, and the role of the faith communities in response to the devastation caused both by the storm and human error, helped fuel a new and evolving interest in the role of faith-based organizations during public health emergencies and disasters. These local FBOs (the term is inclusive of congregations and faith-based nonprofits) are increasingly viewed as formal assets that are capable of mobilizing a disaster response without much support. Yet, the story of the overwhelming and effective response by FBOs in the Katrina context must be tempered by stories of the many congregations that did not respond, those that responded but were untrained or ineffective in their efforts, and those that responded only to be ultimately overwhelmed by the burdens on their programs and forced to close down or still suffer from the emotional and financial scars of their service.

A difficult reality exists between the extreme views that cast FBOs as either fully prepared and able to spring into action without much support in the event of a disaster, or as incompetent or irrelevant to planning and response. The category itself includes a entities such as fifty member storefront congregations, college campus-like megachurches, service organizations, advocacy groups, and many others. Understanding these groups and supporting their disaster planning, response and recovery efforts requires some complex navigation. There is admittedly, a significant lack of religious literacy on the part of government, and even between faith communities.

Nonetheless, the challenge of working with faith-based organizations should not be a deterrent to engaging them. FBOs currently play a critical and expanding role once disasters strike, providing “Mass Care” (food, shelter, and many other essential services), along with risk communication, transportation, emotional and spiritual care, among other services, to their congregants and their surrounding communities. These responses, however, lack systematization. Outside of the Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) structure, FBOs and congregations are generally not included in the formal disaster mitigation planning process mandated by local emergency managers and public health emergency officials. The disaster response structure does not usually recognize congregations and their unique resources and capital that can be harnessed before, during, and after disasters. In addition to their typically recognized capabilities, some FBOs are also able to coordinate activities because of their formal partnerships with other FBOs and local government social service networks that license, contract, and coordinate those services.

Therefore, there is an opportunity to increase the effectiveness with which congregations and many FBOs prepare for and respond to disasters. The following actions can improve the effectiveness of FBOs:

  1. Understand their individual and collective assets and risk communication capacity,
  2. Make data on congregations available to incident commanders and public officials,
  3. Train congregational leaders in best practices, and
  4. Educate policy makers on how to work effectively within all faith communities.

This report attempts to address these issues and to create a framework and process for thinking about congregations and other FBOs—and their potential assets—and to identify the resources needed to support and sustain their potential efforts.

Brie Loskota is the former executive director (2016-2021) of the USC Center for Religion and Civil Culture.

Hebah Farrag was the assistant director of research of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture through 2023.

Richard Flory is the executive director of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.