USC Dornsife College Of Letters Arts and Sciences

University of Southern California

Faithful Action


Based on the foregoing, the authors recommend that Cal EMA consider the following points as it formulates a strategy to build competent sustainable relationships with and include faith communities of all “types” in the emergency management and public health emergency system(s).

1.    Networks: Strengthen Existing and Enable Emergent

Congregations that have the potential to work within local disaster plans will be increasingly likely to do so if they are networked and equipped in advance of an event. To ensure that this happens, intermediary coordinating bodies sometimes called “disaster interfaiths” must be established in each county, or county cluster (in rural areas). The current faith-based emergency management landscape dictates the need for strong, well-organized, self-governed and sustainable intermediary organizations to act as a bridge between government offices, and judicatory bodies, FBOs, and congregations. Research strongly indicates that congregations that receive messages about individual and congregational preparedness will be more willing to participate in a formal emergency management or public health emergency structure. It is incumbent on Cal EMA to fund, and also to create funding opportunities, for intermediary organizations that can reach congregations. Currently, there are many people from different government agencies engaging faith-based organizations about many issues, including disaster preparedness. A more effective approach would be to establish an overarching body that can coordinate disaster preparation activities and include widest range of religious groups possible in its membership base. This body must maintain a level playing field for all faith communities, and not allow the large and economically advantaged faith communities to govern or dictate the process. Nor would any government body dictate the process but rather, help build and sustain the capacity of a structure that is inclusive of all faiths on equal basis.
In rural or low-population counties, existing ministerial and interfaith alliances might be tapped in order to fill this function. Minority faith groups, however, are less likely to participate in a process that is perceived to be managed by a dominant faith group or one that appears to support a particular political agenda or person. For example, perhaps the police chief is Mennonite, so the Mennonites will convene the disaster interfaith meetings. In large population centers, many freestanding non-sectarian organizations are already dedicated to these activities. Among these groups, however, what is their level of expertise in disaster response? How effective are they in convening a faith-based initiative that sets its own agenda and is not subject to the secular effort? A lack of sustainable funding in both instances hampers the ability of these organizations to be effective and sustainable partners. Therefore, multi-year state and local funding should be made available for each county’s disaster interfaith network.

Intermdiary organizations should have several mandates:

  1. Identify all congregations and FBOs in their jurisdiction
  2. Build sustainable operational capacity and community resilience through regular communication, training, volunteer management, exercises/tabletops, etc.
  3. Provide resources and information to congregations not in their membership to increase individual and organizational preparedness.
  4. Increase their core membership of congregations in the network that are
    capable and willing to participate in preparedness or disaster human services
  5. Provide organizational capacity building and networking opportunities for network members, the faith community, emergency managers and public health emergency leaders
  6. Asset map the resources of those congregations and service providers
  7. Have a risk communication plan that communicates directly with local religious leaders in times of crisis
  8. Maintain a website and social media presence
  9. Work with emergency managers to integrate the faith community’s needs and capacities within local disaster plans and regional catastrophic planning
  10. Activate their membership, in coordination with emergency managers during a disaster
  11. Participate in long-term recovery efforts
  12. Train government agencies in religious literacy and competency
  13. Engage researchers and educational institutions in the endeavor as well as evaluation of the effectiveness of trainings, planning, and recovery initiatives.

One example of such an intermediary organization is the San Diego Interfaith
Disaster Council (IDC). Incorporated in 2007, the IDC has approximately forty active representatives from the faith community, one part-time staff member, and several volunteers from member organizations.105

The organization meets monthly and has several informational booklets available online. Their mission is to “increase the resiliency of the San Diego County community by establishing and maintaining a coordinated faith-based effort to prepare for and respond to disasters.”106  In the last few years, the IDC has completed 41 projects using 274 volunteers who contributed 2,220 volunteer hours.107

The IDC was formalized during the Southern California wildfires of October 2007 when faith communities and disaster professionals realized that a coordinated faith-based effort could improve preparedness and mobilize faith community resources and provide practical assistance in times of disasters.108  The regional leadership of the United Methodist Church and the Episcopal Diocese joined together to conduct recovery operations and to explore preparing congregations for future disasters.109  The two denominations formed an ad hoc group: Recover San Diego.110  Initially, the two groups provided case management services, but the necessity to understand the pressing issues within communities inspired a gap analysis.111  The results of the two month study showed a need for improved coordinating and communication with the County of San Diego and among faith groups.112

Over the next two years Recover San Diego expanded its membership and focus to include preparedness and disaster response in San Diego County.113  From the initial foundation of Recover San Diego, the San Diego Interfaith Disaster Council (IDC) was formed with Metro United Methodist Urban Ministry as the fiscal agent.114  The IDC has taken on the challenge of bringing together the diverse faith communities of San Diego with local government—an unprecedented move in that county. Recently, San Diego IDC has struggled with the loss of long-term recovery funding, as it is dependent on private foundation and corporate contributions to maintain its operations.115  Establishing a sustainable stream of funding could increase the IDC’s capacity immeasurably.

The Emergency Network of Los Angeles (ENLA), the Los Angeles County VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters), represents another example of an existing intermediary body. ENLA is a coalition of nonprofit organizations, including secular and faith-based organizations, along with government and private-sector partners, with some disaster function.116  ENLA serves as the forum where organizations share knowledge and resources throughout the disaster cycle—preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation—to help survivors and their communities.117  Similar to San Diego IDC, ENLA has suffered from inadequate funding and has lacked stability overall. ENLA is an excellent example of an intermediary organization that would benefit from a reduction of barriers to funding from governmental sources. It may also be beneficial to consider using a subgranting agency that can assist ENLA with capacity building. If ENLA were to be properly staffed and its capacity developed to handle public money,  it could serve as a point of contact for emergency managers in Los Angeles County. ENLA could then increase its membership and tap congregations within its membership base to be deployed by emergency managers during a disaster. ENLA could also conduct congregation-based preparedness activities more broadly, extending beyond its members. ENLA would further be able to target congregations at the individual level.

In summary, the authors recommend the following actions:

  • Increase the capacity in existing networks, and support the development of new networks in areas where they do not currently exist. This would include supporting and funding disaster interfaith organizations that can organize key FBOs and congregations in each county. Each county should have an operating disaster faith-based umbrella group that can work with congregations. Depending on the county, some will be operated completely by volunteers while others may need permanent staff and robust communications, program and training budgets.
  • Use those regional networks to inventory and maintain databases on congregational capacity and assets, and develop skills-based training with their members.
  • Enable an environment for emergent networks: create risk communication plans and strategies that help direct FBO and congregational involvement toward appropriate roles in disaster planning and programming.
  • Create infrastructure to help extending networks: put out calls for potential support services needed during a disaster not currently being filled.
  • Enhance long-term recovery engagement with congregations.
  • Connect those networks to existing initiatives to build capacity, such as AmeriCorps, VISTA, Citizen Corps Councils, and Medical Reserve Corps.

2.    Build Knowledge Within Public Agencies

It is often true that public agencies lack sufficient knowledge about faith communities and collaborating with them in an effective manner. Public agencies usually do not understand how faith communities are structured and what the broader faith community landscape looks like. In addition, they consider faith-based work as a set of activities, rather than as a distinct discipline. Often those activities are regarded with a checkbox mentality resulting in one-and-done events that lead to unrealistic outcomes and ineffective outreach.

If public agencies are expected to be responsible for faith-based engagement, whether disaster-focused or otherwise, they need a more formal training regimen focused on the faith-based landscape in their particular areas. Public agencies and their staff cannot be expected to operate effectively without formal training in religious literacy, on working with faith communities, and in understanding faith community demographics and cultural sensitivity issues. Without a baseline of “religious competency,” public agencies could waste resources and frustrate partners.

Initially, religious competency training programs and materials must be created and implemented. After this, a faith-based liaison—if one were to be identified—must go through a mandatory training, preferably in partnership with other groups, that would include a landscape analysis of the territory
for which they are responsible. Curriculum development would be an important
consideration when developing training courses. One suggestion is to create a manual on risk communication and faith-based engagement best practices, one that includes a primer on faith communities, their practices and engagement/mass care needs.

The creation of a manual for those working with faith communities in the context of disaster is important. Such a manual could serve as an overview of how to operate and how to work within such communities for those doing public-private engagement.

A neutral, multi-faith third party that understands the issues and potential problems, and action-oriented resources should create the manual, rather than the groups themselves. Faith communities could evaluate the manual, but academic and editorial control must come from an impartial institution in order for it to be trusted and reliable. After the creation of the manual, courses can be developed to deliver the information to staff.

Training materials should include a smart phone application based on the primer. This “app” would essentially serve as a religious competency field guide for emergency responders and public health emergency personnel that are engaging or attempting to serve the needs of faith communities. A smart phone app is a unique way of getting information quickly into the hands of someone who will be interfacing with faith communities. For example, if an ambulance were to drive up a mosque with a person in need of services inside, first responders may not know of the proper etiquette required when entering such a house of worship. Their lack of information may lead to confrontation that could hinder their ability to respond. If they were to have access to an app that could tell them the ten most important things to know when entering a mosque (for example, avoiding shoes on prayer surfaces, specifics of gender segregation, and physical contact), they would be able to assist the distressed person(s) more quickly.

Another important way to build knowledge about faith communities within public agencies is to harness the network of faith-based liaisons within each agency. One approach would be to develop a roundtable that includes faith-based liaisons from all government agencies. This roundtable could serve as a place where discussions can occur around faith-based geographies and outreach techniques. A professional interagency faith-based initiatives roundtable should be created by both geography and discipline. For example, emergency organizations working on disaster response should have a roundtable, those working specifically with faith-based actors should have a separate forum, and those involved in disaster work in Los Angeles should also have a forum. The frequency of these meetings would need to be determined, but interagency roundtables that are focused on knowledge-sharing, relationship building and identifying best practices would help in alleviating congregational stress caused by overwhelming information as well as fine tune outreach by public agencies.

Further, the report authors recommend that Cal EMA take the lead in establishing a statewide faith-based steering committee to provide strategic planning, communication, training and operational support for multi-jurisdictional emergency response. This steering committee would consist of the leadership of each county disaster interfaith and would function as an advisory panel that would assist in coordinating the county disaster interfaith organizations. Among other responsibilities, the steering committee would assist in communicating between Cal EMA and other state agencies and each county interfaith, reducing the costs related to communication and planning. The steering committee would also work on strategic planning for the disaster interfaiths, communicate about opportunities related to disaster training and response, such as disaster training drills. The state faith-based liaison officer would be advised by the steering committee, assisting them with planning and outreach to the county disaster interfaith organizations.

During an emergency, not every congregation or FBO will respond, thus a successful engagement strategy may not need to include every FBO or congregation in a particular area. Cal EMA, local emergency managers, and VOADs need to assess local emergency plans and set targets for potential faith-based engagement that will augment existing plans related to disaster human services capacities and gaps. Further, faith-based engagement must have specific goals. Public agencies need to identify and define and transparently share their goals for engagement. What specifically do public agencies hope to gain from working with
the faith community: increased sheltering capacity, better preparation, other resources, or something else? What are the goals in each location in which they are involved? What is the target number of congregations or FBOs to be reached in each region and for each zip code? Are congregations viewed as a way to access and hard to reach populations? These types of questions are important to determine at the outset of any faith-community engagement plan, thus we recommend the development of a process to define goals for what the faith community could contribute, by county if possible. Such a process will aid public agencies in targeting their efforts so that faith liaisons can have measurable goals toward which they can tailor their work plans and efforts.

A related step in the process of identifying goals would be for public agencies to clearly articulate and define a specific set of activities for engagement with faith communities. It would also be beneficial to attach funding to these defined activities. If intermediary organizations could access funds that could then be passed on to congregations or FBOs who have met the defined requirements but do not have the capacity or capability to handle public money, then their ability to respond and prepare for a disaster would be improved.

In addition, Cal EMA should designate a faith-based liaison officer in each county, similar to the terrorism liaison that is required to be identified on each Cal EMA grant application. This individual would be responsible for engaging and coordinating with faith communities and the county-wide disaster faith-based intermediary organization. This person would also be the point of contact for the state level steering committee. The authors recommended that public agencies such as Cal EMA hire faith-based officers whose responsibilities are to coordinate with intermediary organizations. This officer would not be responsible for supporting and coordinating with individual congregations, rather their focus would be to convene the statewide steering committee and to support all county based intermediary organizations within a manageable territory. This position would be responsible to be a liaison to enhance communication and knowledge transfer between the statewide faith-based steering committee, intermediary organizations and Cal EMA. Such a position will enhance productivity, networking, and effectiveness, especially when these activities are combined with their participation in a faith-based liaison roundtable that includes all the local and county agencies that are pursuing faith-based outreach. If public agencies such as Cal EMA can coordinate with intermediary organizations as well as with all other governmental staff doing outreach to faith communities through monthly or bi-monthly roundtables, information sharing across departments and efficiency will be enhanced as a result.

In summary, the authors recommend that Cal EMA pursue the following actions.

  • Develop an increased religious literacy.
  • Develop a process to insure there are religious needs competency within its programs and mass care plans.
  • Build faith based roundtables with both a statewide steering committee and one Cal EMA-based, fusion point of contact, that is within and across all state agencies that are conducting outreach to or have MOUs with faith-based organizations to share information and best practices, or provide direct services.
  • Increase and institutionalize knowledge of and about the faith community (including congregations and the broader range of faith-based nonprofits).
  • Develop a manual with religious literacy primer for how to work with FBOs.
  • Create a smart phone app for first responders and others with quick tips on cultural competencies for different faith groups.
  • Create an FBO engagement officer in each county tasked with bridging between local efforts, the county OEM and statewide agencies.
  • Create an FBO steering committee to support the engagement officer and all local disaster interfaiths.
  • Host regular meetings with the steering committee and the local disaster interfaiths to identify gaps and opportunities in current planning, response and recovery efforts by county where faith communities could play a role. Use those gaps/opportunities as road-maps for outreach and partnership.
  • Bring together countywide FBO engagement officers within and across each of Cal EMA’s three regions to share best practices and learning.
  • Bring FBOs and senior judicatory and congregation leaders/volunteers together regionally and at the state level, on a regular basis to network, train and build sustainable capacity.
  • Secure strategic and sustainable funding systems for these efforts (e.g. a percentage of annual HMGP, CNCS, CDC, and Citizen Corps grants) with limited or no impact on state revenue/budget.

3.    Assisting  and Partnering with Faith Groups

Often, congregations are under-resourced in terms of their leadership capacity and programmatic ability—especially pertaining to emergencies. While congregations generally have a wealth of social and cultural capital, they often lack the ability to steward and manage their resources in the most effective way. On a daily basis, congregations work to meet the unmet needs of their members and the local community, and manage to meet those needs with fewer resources than they need to fill them. Given this reality, congregations, much like most individuals, have a hard time engaging with the concept of a future disaster. Disaster is a far-off thought considering the individual human tragedies that exist before them on a regular basis. Thus, congregations need to be taught about their hazard vulnerabilities and the roles that exist for faith communities within the disaster life cycle. Religious leaders must recognize that this is a necessary part of their organizational mission and responsibility as religious and community leaders.

Building Standing Capacity and Resilient Congregations. The first and most important predictor for congregations and FBOs to do disaster life cycle work is to create a standing capacity and stronger and more resilient congregations and FBOs. Any programmatic endeavor that enables an organization to be stronger, and thus able to sustain stress and demands on its resources, will enhance its ability to prepare and respond to disaster. Moreover, engaging congregations and FBOs in their larger social world and helping them to develop programs and services, creates the necessary foundation that can be activated during a disaster. Congregations and FBOs that are socially engaged and participate in civic engagement activities, tend to view themselves as part of a larger geographic community, which helps to establish an organizational cultural and sense of vocation among members that can sustain the stresses that are caused by disasters and public health emergencies.

One initiative that could be the model for such inclusive involvement with congregations is the concept behind the Faithful Readiness conferences held by the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships at FEMA. Conferences should move beyond information sharing, to identifying, creating, and sustaining local faith based engagement using conferences as the beginning point for identifying potential participants and stakeholders. Creating stakeholder conferences or forums that engage congregations on their social based-programs, and then help them to pursue disaster readiness, can be an effective entre into congregational participation. Understanding the programs that congregations already have in place and then finding a space within such work to connect them to disaster preparedness and response may help congregations use the resources and current skill sets available to them in multiple ways. Rather than asking congregations, “How can you participate in a broader engagement in society during this disaster?” the question needs to be reframed in familiar language. For example, the questions could be rephrased to ask how they would continue to care for their members or keep their community programs going in the event of a disaster.

Distributing Inter-Religious Disaster Related Materials. Every congregation should receive materials with information about how to increase the individual preparedness of their members and how to create disaster plans for the organization. Unfortunately, a FEMA-approved faith-based curricula for congregations and FBOs does not exist. In addition, most existing material has been created by individual faith communities for their own congregations. Most non-religious curricula are designed for secular nonprofits, and are inadequate for congregations and FBOs.

FEMA curricula tend to be generically geared to nonprofits, lumping CBOs and FBOs together and expecting a one size fits all response. This approach is insufficient and demonstrates a disconnect when it comes to religious competence. While faith-based training materials and print resources specific to particular faith communities and disaster exist, they are primarily Christian and have not been adequately introduced into the public disaster sphere. In addition, appropriate translations of such material are difficult to find. Recently FEMA has been exploring the co-branding of inter-religious resources in partnership with NDIN. For example, Episcopal Relief and Development partnered with New York Disaster Interfaiths Services to create the “Spiritual Care Curricula for Disaster Chaplains and Spiritual Care Workers.” The curricula trains and certifies faith-based volunteers in disaster spiritual care, clergy and religious leaders as disaster chaplains, and includes a module to train instructors. Another example of an interfaith curriculum is the “Community Arise” program created by Church World Service. This curriculum encompasses eight trainings for community-based and faith-based organizations. Unfortunately, the course struggles to attract the participation of non-Christian organizations.

It is clear that U.S. congregations, FBOs and religious leaders think of themselves as different, indeed separate, from the larger nonprofit sector. While FBOs are nonprofits and community-based organizations, they tend to see themselves first as religious organizations and therefore function differently from other, non-religious organizations. Thus, they expect material that is tailored to their specific vocabulary and faith-based culture. Many congregations will not identify with material used for other community based organizations and nonprofits, and as such, it is important to craft material specifically for faith-based organizations, with a plural or inter-religious perspective.

Reducing Building Code and other Legal Barriers. Barriers to congregational involvement also need to be addressed. Ordinances and zoning restrictions are examples of these barriers. Local congregations can find themselves in violation of local building and safety codes, and the costs of complying with local code ordinances are prohibitive. The ability of congregations to be active in a disaster is sometimes predicated on their ability to have thriving social ministries before the disaster, yet many of them cannot adequately develop such programs because of code restrictions related to costly facility upgrades. For example, researchers interacted with a church that hoped to remodel a kitchen and expand its feeding program capacity. The church planned to spend $100,000, but code requirements for unrelated upgrades in other parts of the building would have resulted in a total cost of $2 million. As a result, the church decided against the upgrade, which in turn, has limited its capacity to the provision of canteening services in a disaster.

Following a 2007 tornado in New York City’s boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, Mennnonite Disaster Services was unable to provide free roof tarping and repairs to low-income families because the city building code required that only licensed NYC contractors who completed an engineering study of each structure could perform these tasks. Needless to say, many families did not have the insurance or funding to meet that standard and the good will and free labor of a long-standing nationally recognized expert in home repair was thwarted.

These are some of the reasons why faith communities are wary of sharing information about their assets, including their physical plants. Public agencies must be aware of such barriers to involvement so that they can change their target demographic, adjust their expectations of congregational involvement, or focus outreach to the largest and most well-funded congregations. Otherwise, public agencies will need to find some way to ease the burdens on congregations of creating and maintaining their social ministries at a capacity or skill level that can be mobilized in a disaster. In the end, the fact that a congregation has a good kitchen means that they can be much more easily incorporated into a local disaster response plan.

Linking Congregations to Other Community Disaster Infrastructure. Another innovative way to involve congregations in disaster planning is to create formal coordination and outreach mechanisms between congregations and critical infrastructure such as hospital and schools. Creating such connections within neighborhoods, congregations and local FBOs can work to fill holes needed during a disaster in their immediate vicinity, and also benefit from relationships that have been created with other organizations outside of the region. Hospitals and schools are, in general, trusted institutions, and religious leaders understand their role when it comes to illness and education. Caring for the sick and providing educational opportunities for their young are both traditional functions across faith traditions, and thus represent trusted public institutions.

In this model, hospitals and schools could partner with congregations and FBOs to share space and planning for the potential use of houses of worship and their facilities in times of disaster or for public health emergencies. For example, congregational buildings could be used for setting up an overflow clinic staffed by local hospital personnel, or, if a hospital is damaged and cannot be used, local congregations could be utilized as an alternate location for meeting medical needs or disaster mortuaries.

Creating these kinds of neighborhood-by-neighborhood connections would cover a large portion of the population in dense geographies like Los Angeles or San Francisco. That is, if there are existing neighborhood-based planning efforts that include existing institutions mandated to have a disaster plan, nearby congregations or FBOs could be an important asset in that plan. While it would take much time and effort to build trust, and then form and sustain those relationships, it is less so as compared to creating a stand-alone faith-based engagement program.

Congregations as Liaisons to Special Needs and At-risk Populations. Another area where congregations and FBOs excel is in identifying and accessing vulnerable, special needs or other at-risk, low visibility populations. In California, like many states, there are language access issues and immigration issues. Some groups are suspicious of government engagement, especially minority religious communities and their institutions, as well as ethnic, racial and refugee enclaves. One way to reach these populations is to develop partnerships with religious and ethnic minorities, like Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Native Americans, Sikhs or Hmong and Somali refugees. Congregational engagement could be established by outreach by language groups, to groups such as Salvadoran or Guatemalan churches, Gurdwaras, or Vietnamese Cao Dai. This engagement with underrepresented communities must be done with cultural and religious competency and sensitivity, which often requires significant training and capacity building as well as the involvement of intermediary organizations.

Educating Faith Communities and their Congregations about Existing Programs. Public agencies have many strong and successful programs that would benefit from more exposure to faith communities. Many of the programs that exist are unknown by the very populations and communities that could use them. Cal EMA, FEMA and other public agencies should expend the resources necessary to educate and inform the public of existing programs that could be of benefit to them, with the goal to build sustained engagement relationships. Educating congregations about existing programs in and after disasters, builds resiliency and benefits both the recipients of such programs (with congregations as the crucial channel of information). This would also keep congregations from unnecessarily duplicating existing programs and allow them to put their resources into other areas of need. Further, it is important to point out that online training and traditional English-only curricula are not adequate educational sourcing for reaching out to different faith communities. For example, many faith groups serve immigrant communities with their leaders being both foreign born and trained, suggesting that significant communication and literacy barriers exist at both the leadership and membership levels. Further, a significant number of religious leaders and congregations do not have Internet connections, may not use e-mail or computers, and may not be Internet savvy.

In addition to existing programs, groups that are expected to have a role during a disaster require funding mechanisms to assist in their building and expending additional capacity without overly taxing their existing resources. There could be creative ways to do this, for example making regular training, course delivery, and technology tools available at the state or county disaster interfaith level. Or, there could be a federal, state or local matching program for volunteer activity or donations centered in particular congregations. This funding could be a standing percentage of annual funding for existing programs, for example the FEMA HMGP (Hazard Mitigation Grant Program), so as not to require new budget lines or tap state coffers. Also, if a congregation raised a certain amount of money for disaster related program, there could be a federal or state or local match to the amount raised by the congregation for themselves or for their local disaster interfaith. In short, there must be creative ways that disaster interfaith networks can support congregations by being a conduit for funding or other resources without being overly reliant on public funds or tapping their already strained resources in order for them to fill the needs that emerge in a disaster.

Capitalize on Key Opportunities to Educate. Finally, capitalizing on pivotal moments is a key to successful engagement. Cal EMA should consider mailer campaigns that would be timed specifically to a recent or upcoming preparedness event that makes people more aware of disasters. For example, the population of an area affected by a blackout, has firsthand experience about how unprepared they are to live without electricity. This presents a window of opportunity for agencies to inform the population about disaster preparation. Informational mailers, targeted by languages spoken, could then be disseminated through the membership of each congregation and their community and religious networks. Such cognitive windows are important in creating connections and enhancing action. Other approaches for such engagement include creating shopping lists for disaster preparation kits, that could also be distributed through congregations and concomitantly creating programs with supermarkets so that they could create displays organized around the preparedness lists. The larger point is that congregations should be considered as informational depots that can assist in getting disaster preparedness information distributed across a wide swath of the population.

Risk Communication. Researchers have found that disasters often devastate key community infrastructures leading to obstructions in communication.118  Communication is vital to successful disaster preparedness and response, yet communication prior to, during, and after times of disaster is extremely difficult.119  The inability to communicate readily creates major challenges to locating staff, congregants, volunteers, and partners.120  Religious leaders frequently report that that one of biggest obstacles they have encountered before and after a storm is the break in social networks (e.g., not knowing how to get into contact with congregation members) that emerged from lack of communication capabilities.121

Disaster communication may be enhanced through novel uses of new and existing technology resources.122  Many FBOs have developed creative ways to use the Internet, including their own web sites, e-mail networks, and official government sites, to generate large responses from social and professional networks and the general public, and to match organizational needs with volunteer skills and interest.123  Along these lines, Aten and Topping (2010) have introduced an online social networking disaster preparedness tool that psychologists can help faith communities use to assist in developing preparedness and response plans. They hope this tool can be used to strengthen social networks within and between faith communities in disaster circumstances through improved information sharing and gathering, communication, and support. This tool may be used to allow psychologists to facilitate and assist clergy feeling stretched by responsibilities, defusing responsibility and ensuring that greater input and more diverse perspectives will be shared and incorporated in response and recovery efforts directed at spiritual care.

In summary, the authors recommend that Cal EMA:

  • Translate existing materials for both language and cultural/institutional/religious competency and mandate that all materials generated at the community level, with state or federal monies, be measured for religious competence
  • Work with religious bodies (such as denominational, ministerial alliances, interfaith groups, and clergy councils) to distribute information to all congregations
  • Engage congregations and FBOs in preparing their own continuity of “ministry” plans to activate their self-interest
  • Distribute pre-packed materials for congregational newsletters/communications
  • Reduce barriers to developing standing capacity- local ordinances, building codes
  • Encourage faith based organization engagement in all community issues to develop trust, social capital and local knowledge needed for disaster work
  • Target hazard specific outreach after disasters in particular areas for both long-term recovery and also for future preparedness
  •  Offer faith-based specific training and workshops to build capacity specifically for FBOs: offer them on nights and weekends to ensure that congregations with limited professional paid staff can participate and ensure that organizations can join a local disaster interfaith network after these events. Further, using an interfaith “holy day” calendar to select event dates will insure a larger cross section of attendees.
  • Use congregations via judicatories as a partner in enhancing individual preparedness. It is vital to respect religious protocols and authority when approaching their congregations.
  • Encourage faith-based participation in neighborhood planning efforts (among schools, hospitals and law enforcement/first responders)
  • Conduct outreach to religious minorities to reach hard to reach populations
  • Develop disaster preparedness and training curricula across all faith groups
  • Develop disaster interfaiths that are intentionally inclusive, self-governing and sustainable
  • Develop formal faith-based risk communication capacity in every county
  • Equip disaster interfaiths to asset map all congregations and FBOs and use that data to increase the capacity of disaster interfaith, and religious judicatories and teach them how to use the data to enhance the planning and response capacity of emergency managers without compromising confidential data.

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.