09/21/2011 09:59 am ET Updated Nov 21, 2011

Faith Communities Can't Rebuild Alone

I was driving back to my office in D.C. when I felt the impact of the 5.8 earthquake, centered in Mineral Springs, Va. On Saturday morning I found myself abandoning NYC and heading north to Vermont as I thought to escape the forecasted ferocity of Hurricane Irene. Ah, the best laid plans...

The morning after, as I visited some of the communities in the river- and creek-flooded valleys of Vermont, the levels of physical destruction were overshadowed only by the unbearable burden reflected in the faces of both young and old as they tugged at clumps of rubble and appliances in search of treasures and memories that had been washed away by the flooding.

The radio informed us that helicopters were busy delivering the supplies of food and water that had been flown in by army transport planes to cut off towns and hamlets. Others were searching for the isolated and infirm who had not been heard from in more than two days. Natural disasters occur every day all over the world but somehow when they hit close to home, they seem much bigger. Meanwhile, estimates to restore power and rebuild roads by the local authorities stretch from days to weeks to months.

Amid the churning of generators and the roar of trucks and bulldozers, a debate about how all this rescue and relief work would be paid for began to bubble up. We have come to expect that faith communities across the country will be the first to respond by taking extra collections at services and calling for donations from private citizens. Faith-inspired organizations, like Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army, exist for this purpose, and they have mobilized around the victims accordingly. NGOs like the American Red Cross are also, as they say, "on it." But events like Irene provide yet another opportunity to reflect on the role and responsibility of the various public and private institutions within society to respond when such disasters occur. Should we expect disaster relief to be financed by private donations?

From the point of view of Eric Cantor, our government can't afford disaster relief unless the money comes from spending cuts in other public services. This is an extortionist idea at minimum, and his colleagues on the hill need to rebuke him for even suggesting it. Public safety and orderly preventive measures are clearly the responsibility of government authorities.

But what about the role of the private sector to help contribute to the "clean up"? Doesn't this type of aid qualify as a "corporate social responsibility"? Corporations, we are told, that are holding large sums of money overseas, are in need of a tax holiday so that they can bring the money home. I am presuming that they want to use some of it to help in the response to the aftermath of hurricane Irene. This makes great sense to me. Meanwhile, increased dividends, ballooning executive compensation packages and building new shiny headquarter complexes must take second place to the responsibility of companies to recognize their interdependence within the system and contribute to the response effort.

Catastrophic events like hurricanes and earthquakes, while local in their impact, usually demand a response from a much broader community. They remind us all of our reliance on fundamental infrastructure like roads, bridges, water and sanitation services, electricity and ordinary emergency services, the domain of the public sector. They give us all much to ponder as we consider the differences between responsibility and expectations.

We shouldn't expect the voluntary faith communities to do it alone. We can usually count on the public to be there, but it needs the support and revenue support of the private sector to fulfill that role.