Katrina: Where Faith and Interfaith Groups Picked Up as Federal Government Failed

The failure of the strongest government in the world was of historic proportions. But faith and interfaith communities made history. They were the first responders, if not the only help, for most people over the course of several weeks. After 10 years, their work with survivors continues.
08/27/2015 12:21 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2016

Katrina was among the worst natural disasters of the last 100 years of American history.

Moreover, the failure of the strongest government in the world was of historic proportions.

But faith and interfaith communities made history. They were the first responders, if not the only help, for most people over the course of several weeks. Today, after 10 years, some of these organizations still continue their work with survivors.

Being a neighbor and providing services are the reasons why religion is frequently rated among the top trusted institutions in the U.S. while media and the congress are rated at the lowest level by the Gallup Poll.

However, this remains a hidden success story of interfaith. No documentary was made about this historic contribution. Hardly any 60 Minutes or 20/20 TV spots thought it worthwhile to point it out. Even a Google search does not bring out very many hits since faith and interfaith groups have yet to master the art of telling their story.

For this reason, the world failed to learn an important lesson from this extraordinary episode. At the 10th anniversary of this disaster, it is important to bring back the good memories lost in that tragedy about the positive contributions of faith communities and their interfaith cooperation.

In the last week of August 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts, killing more than 1800 people, destroying more than 600,000 homes, and causing more than 100 billion dollars in damage. Hurricane Katrina forced the largest displacement of people in U.S. history: about 1.5 million people were evacuated from the Gulf Coast. These survivors were eventually spread across all fifty states.

Churches, mosques, and temples suspended all their activities aside from worship and turned their buildings into a base for volunteers, as a warehouse for supplies, and as a shelter for displaced people.

At some places, an "Interfaith Disaster Task Force" was born; in other places they just collaborated without a formal name; and in some places they put the existing format of interfaith cooperation into work.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which maintains a website named (ironically) ready.gov, was found absolutely not ready.

Even when FEMA did finally show up, its haphazard work style squandered an enormous sum of of $1.7 billion of tax money, as reported by the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security. The wastage included the shocking $24 million spent on unused ice, after which the federal government wasted another $3 million to melt it. I wish they had let the faith communities figure out how to melt it.

The image of tens of thousands of frightened, helpless people sleeping on the concrete floor of a leaking Superdome, without food and water, is etched in our memory as the great failure of our government. We are thankful to our media for those images.

FEMA's reckless wastage also included FEMA trailers that sat vacant for years.

Consider, on the other hand, the faith communities' work, as defined by an eye witness:

"I have got to tell you, without the religious/faith community in where I was and throughout the Gulf, Lord only knows where they would be now. I mean, it is truly amazing.

We met religious leaders who have their church, house of worship, synagogue or mosque -- and they are offering daycare programs, child care and all the things that a house of worship does. A lot of them that we met have completely stopped doing those, other than just a basic one-hour Sunday service, because they have turned their house of worship into either a food bank, or a shelter."

This is a story which most of the media failed to report.

A 2006 report by the Federal Government finally noted the contribution of the faith-based organizations in the following words:

Over the course of the Hurricane Katrina response, a significant capability for response resided in organizations outside of the government. Non-governmental and faith-based organizations, as well as the private sector all made substantial contributions. Unfortunately, the Nation did not always make effective use of these contributions because we had not effectively planned for integrating them into the overall response effort.

Faith-based organizations also provided extraordinary services....They used their facilities and volunteers to distribute donated supplies to displaced persons and to meet their immediate needs. Local churches independently established hundreds of "pop-up" shelters to house storm victims.

In Mississippi, faith-based groups were operating up to 53 percent of all shelters. A building donated by the Islamic Relief USA for a health-care center which was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, is still serving the community.

In Houston, Muslims took turns along with other faith leaders in feeding around 28,000 survivors each day at the downtown Houston, TX convention center. More than 2,000 Muslims volunteered just in Houston.

The city of Baton Rouge doubled in size almost overnight as people ran away from New Orleans. A pastoral letter from a Unitarian congregation in Baton Rouge which sheltered 400 people noted:

Tens of thousands of American citizens, almost all of them poor and black, living in unimaginable conditions with no food and water, waited for days while evacuation buses passed them by to pick up tourists at luxury hotels . . . .

Even 56 days after the disaster no Federal money had arrived in Baton Rouge. But the faith communities kept up taking care of the survivors.

This faith-based disaster work developed into long term relationships as many faith leaders collaborated with each other. Working with the United Methodist Church, a Muslim organization ICNA Relief became so involved that even 5 years after Katrina they had 100 full-time staff working in the rehabilitation of displaced people from Katrina.

The volunteerism of Muslims was memorialized in Dave Eggers' Zeitoun, a book about a Muslim family's sacrifices and turmoil as it dedicated itself to rescuing people in New Orleans. The book became a national bestseller providing a window into the days and nights of New Orleans.

In a rare media coverage Kim Lawton of PBS noted:

Hundreds of faith-based volunteers rushed into the devastated areas to help with rescue operations, while others mobilized to provide desperately needed food, medicine, and shelter. Southern Baptists initially committed to provide 300,000 meals a day for the next 90 days, but a spokesman expected that number to rise to more than one million. Congregations from almost every denomination opened their facilities and became emergency shelters. National Protestant, Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim groups all set up emergency relief funds and issued special appeals to aid the victims.

The power of faith and interfaith-based support is not just apparent in the example of Katrina relief. The same thing was observed when a tsunami hit Indonesia, India, and Sri Lanka. The people of faith communities were not only the first responders but they were also the interface with the government -- when it finally showed up -- to assist the victims.

Recommendations:

In light of potential disasters that loom due to climate change, it is critical that the world be more prepared to handle them. Houses of worships reside in people's neighborhoods and are connected with people who trust them. These houses of worship must serve as part of all disaster management planning.

Research

It is also critical that more research is done to critically assess post-Katrina disaster relief work done by the faith and interfaith-based organizations. When I interviewed people for this article their memories were already fading. Several master level theses that entail some field work are likely to bring up quite a bit of data as well as recommendations for the future. It would be also interesting to see how cost effective the faith-based organizations were as compared to FEMA in delivering services.

Funding

While the faith-based organizations have their own funding mechanisms, the interfaith funding model is still not clear. Interfaith remains the only movement that engages people of faith with one another in neighborly relations. Diversity is going to be as American as apple pie in the future, and the interfaith movement is going to be crucial for social cohesion. Strengthening the grassroots networks of neighbors working with neighbors, therefore, is critical for disaster coordination when, God forbid, a disaster strikes.

Church and State

The White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships does not need to remain mainly a vehicle for top-down communication as it has been during the Obama and Bush administrations. It needs to evolve as a proper bridge between faith-based organizations, the interfaith movement, and the guiding institutions. FEMA would have been better off working to strengthen the work already being done by faith-based organizations -- since, as local organizations on the ground, they know the streets, the neighborhood and the people.

The State of Louisiana still has about $150 million in unspent disaster aid that it received after Katrina. I hope they use this to strengthen the interfaith networks at the grassroots level which performed so well as the first responders.