Faith-based organizations (FBOs) and faith leaders serve as focal points for people seeking physical, social, emotional, and spiritual care when disasters strike, as evidenced by responses to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the 2009 California wildfires, the 2010 earthquake in Imperial County, California, and other events such as heat waves and blackouts. In fact, FBOs represented around two-thirds of the social service agencies involved in recovery efforts following the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina. A recent study determined that over 60 percent of Americans turn first to their religious leaders for advice and direction in times of crisis; this percentage has been found to be even higher in low-income and immigrant communities. Studies of 9/11 and Katrina also indicate that low-income populations—especially low-income immigrants—are less likely to have property or health insurance, be highly skilled, or work in well-paying industries. Consequently, they are the most vulnerable in the case of disasters, and face greater levels of economic, psychological, familial, and health-related hardship compared to non-immigrant or middle-class populations. As a result, their recovery challenges can also impede the long-term sustainable recovery of the broader community, with these groups looking to congregations and FBOs at higher rates than the general population. Thus, it is of the utmost importance to understand the potential (and limits) of faith communities and how they might be more of an integral part of the disaster planning, response, and recovery process.
Hurricane Katrina provides an excellent example of both the strengths and weaknesses of faith-based organizations operating in disaster response and recovery. Katrina, at its height a category five hurricane, caused catastrophic regional damage.1 Breached levees flooded 80 percent of New Orleans and resulted in $75 billion in damages.2 Katrina was responsible for at least 1,417 deaths, countless missing and over 1.5 million internally displaced persons.3
As sections of the New Orleans levee system collapsed, the natural disaster of Katrina deteriorated into a social debacle.4 Thousands of people—mostly African American, poor, and elderly—were trapped in the New Orleans Superdome and the city’s convention center, or on rooftops, without electricity or food.5 The consequences of this disaster were grave: 1.5 million people had to meet the challenge of where they would live or work, and pondered if they would ever return to their homes after such massive, widespread suffering, while also facing the shock of losing loved ones and dealing with confusion over federal policies regarding disaster relief.6
Many regard Hurricane Katrina as a moment when the system failed. Government incompetence—exemplified by a failure to prepare, to respond, and to adequately communicate risks—was fueled by perceived bigotry, hesitancy, and an impotent bureaucracy. In the midst of this failure, some faith-based and community actors rose spontaneously to fill the gaps and meet the needs of the many affected by this tremendous storm and its aftermath. Thus, the story of Katrina is also a story of awakening and realization. It has long been recognized that faith communities, their houses of worship and social service agencies offer relief programs, but Katrina set a new standard by shining the light anew on the domestic work done by faith-based organizations in response to local problems, both catastrophic and minor. The successful provision of services by FBOs and NGOs contrasts with the many chronicled deficiencies and failures of government during the catastrophic 2005 hurricane season.7
Worden (2006) has argued that the faith community provided the initial response because of its immediate proximity to the disaster:
From tiny storefront congregations to deep-pocketed denominations, the communities of faith arrived first. In the harrowing hours and days after Hurricane Katrina, when survivors roamed the desolate streets in search of water, food and medicine, (religious) groups—not FEMA, not the Red Cross, not the National Guard—provided dazed residents with their first hot meal, their first clean water, their first aspirin.
Researchers at the Institute for Southern Studies found that faith communities were among the first groups to respond to the overwhelming needs left behind in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.8 Similarly, Cain and Barthelemy (2008) found that Louisiana residents rated the effectiveness of the efforts of faith communities higher than other responding groups and agencies, even higher than large nonprofit groups (e.g., American Red Cross) and local and state government. Although officials say it is difficult to know the exact number of people who have volunteered in the Hurricane Katrina recovery, they estimate that more than one million volunteers have served in Louisiana and Mississippi since the storm. Many faith-based groups have helped residents return to their homes.9
Pete Hull’s report, “Heralding Unheard Voices,” (2006) includes hundreds of examples of the roles that faith-based organizations and congregations played in the wake of a disaster. For example, Temple Baptist Church, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, opened its doors as a shelter for over 300 workers from the local power utility. Church volunteers operated the facility around the clock for three weeks so linemen and technicians could rest between their arduous shifts returning power to the battered community.10 In East Baton Rouge, Louisiana, University Methodist Church operated a distribution center that provided critical supplies to other shelters.11 Elsewhere in Baton Rouge, Lifting Up This Temple Unto God Full Gospel Church used its bus to shuttle evacuees to medical clinics and bathing facilities.12 In Opelousas, Louisiana, Pastor Nathaniel Carter opened the New Life Church of God in Christ as a shelter on the night Hurricane Katrina made landfall.13 He did so without direction from any government authority.14 Over the next five months, the shelter provided refuge for 200 to 300 evacuees each evening.15
One year after the storm, many of those same groups continued to work across the Gulf Coast, from New Orleans to Alabama, adapting to the needs of the community and recruiting thousands of additional volunteers.16 Many congregations and groups committed themselves to the long-term tasks of recovery. Religious groups became the primary donors of free muscle power for displaced homeowners, repairing and rebuilding, once concrete block at a time.17 While the system fumbled, many different organizations—whether already existing, emergent because of the emergency, or extending their efforts into new areas—coupled with the spontaneous action of many individuals, did whatever was necessary to assist their communities. These groups and individuals exhibited cooperation and used their networks, innovative response tactics, and fundraising abilities to assist others, often without direction or assistance.
Brie Loskota is a contributing fellow and the former executive director (2016-2021) of the USC Center for Religion and Civil Culture.
Hebah Farrag is the assistant director of research of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.
Richard Flory is the executive director of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.