Monday, January 23, 2017

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Coordinates of Resilience

EalyOn the Nimbleness of Community and Faith-Based Organizations in Disaster Response and Recovery


Lenore T. Ealy
[1]

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, bureaucratic systems inadequately facilitated resilience and recovery. This paper seeks to highlight, by contrast, how response and recovery efforts by numerous individuals and grassroots, community, and faith-based organizations—the existing and emergent organic structures of communities—nimbly helped to coordinate delivery of the material and non-material resources needed to foster resilience. This article is based on numerous interviews with philanthropic and charitable organizations and individuals who have participated in the response and recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina.  The lessons learned make it apparent that the cultivation of resilient communities that are better able to weather future disasters requires embracing policy structures that allow grassroots organizations to participate, to the fullest extent, in disaster preparedness, response, and recovery.

Community-based organizations—including nonprofit and faith-based organizations, associations and clubs, and philanthropic foundations—possess critical local knowledge and the strongest motives for success in restoring communities after disaster. Our quest for resilient communities requires us to intentionally cultivate the capabilities of a robust private, voluntary sector that will not get displaced in disaster response and recovery by governmental or quasi-governmental agencies.

Adaptive Relief

During the last weekend of August 2005, as Hurricane Katrina raged toward the Gulf Coast, Baton Rouge’s population almost doubled as evacuees from the New Orleans region converged on Louisiana’s capital city. Among the hundreds of thousands seeking refuge from the rising waters were 10,000 Muslim families. As leaders of the five mosques in Baton Rouge called upon members to help these families, Sister Jane Aslam, a former Islamic school administrator, went to her mosque to cook for the refugees who had managed to find their way there. “They [the refugees] weren’t there at dusk prayers, but by two or three hours later, it was overflowing,” recalls Aslam.[2]

A covered Muslim who wears a headscarf, Aslam chuckles when she talks about walking through the larger shelters looking for Muslim families in the early days after the storm: “I looked like the Pied Piper when I got out the other side!”  Muslim families faced particular challenges in obtaining assistance following Katrina. “Realize,” Aslam says, “that Muslims sexually segregate in social surroundings, which makes it to where most Muslims will not go into American Red Cross shelters. Those who did go in who were not aware of the mosques took turns sleeping. The men would stay awake and let the women and children sleep. The women would stay awake and let the men sleep.”

Food at most shelters also proved unsuitable for orthodox Muslims who could not eat sausage for breakfast and ham sandwiches for lunch, or who would eat no meat unless it was slaughtered according to Muslim rites, zabihah. Aslam tells of a family that had not eaten in three days, “because there was no food that was acceptable by them that they could eat without feeling that they had done something wrong. Whether that’s right or wrong, it doesn’t really matter. It matters what their perceptions were at the time.”

Muslim families who were fortunate enough to find refuge from the storm at the Baton Rouge mosques had a very different experience. Aslam and other volunteers coordinated preparation of familiar meals acceptable to Muslims who observe dietary regulations. The mosques also provided appropriately separated facilities for men and women. Perhaps most importantly, the mosques served as important clearinghouses for information, especially for those not fluent in English.

In the wake of the 2005 hurricanes, hundreds of relatively small voluntary organizations that were long on common sense and lean on governmental oversight—like Baton Rouge’s mosques—time and again proved more nimble than the bureaucratic systems of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the American Red Cross in delivering the right kind of emergency supplies and a caring human touch to the storms’ victims.[3] The success of private voluntary organizations in response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita may seem somewhat counterintuitive to many Americans who have come to expect the government and its official partners, including the American Red Cross, to be the leading providers of disaster relief. Throughout the twentieth century—first with the federal response to the Great Depression and especially since 1979, when FEMA was established to absorb the disaster-response functions of numerous federal agencies—there has been a growing trend toward nationalization of disaster response and recovery. The assumption seems to have been that where massive amounts of supplies and personnel must be quickly mobilized, a correspondingly massive organization with centralized funding mechanisms and trained professionals coordinated through an orderly hierarchy of clearly defined roles is needed. Surely, this frame of mind supposes, hundreds of disconnected efforts by local groups attending to whatever array of needs captured their attention and matched their capabilities could only result, at best, in a fragmented response, or, more likely, in neglect, chaos, and corruption.

Hurricane Katrina may prove to be the tipping point that will move us away from an over-extended confidence in nationalized disaster response. By causing devastation on a scale for which no single entity could possibly coordinate all aspects of the response effectively, Hurricane Katrina afforded ample opportunity for hundreds of voluntary and faith-based relief efforts to adapt their skills and assets to the response and recovery effort.[4] While FEMA, other government agencies, and their partners tried to confront the chaos using the tools of bureaucratic management, many individual citizens and voluntary organizations acted on the basis of necessity and compassion to respond with ingenuity to the needs of survivors and evacuees.

Throughout the flooded areas of New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish, local citizens with access to boats led the way in search-and-rescue operations that saved many lives. These voluntarily initiated and coordinated rescues echoed the waterborne rescues that took place on September 11, 2001, when a flotilla of watercraft spontaneously evacuated hundreds of thousands of people from lower Manhattan following the World Trade Center attacks.[5] Most of these efforts relied on local knowledge, social networks, a modest human-scale ambition, and an improvisational ability that no massive agency, whether federal, state, or non-governmental, could match.

While an exceptional, though not unproblematic, military response helped staunch the floodwaters at the damaged levees in New Orleans and coordinated the massive airlift of people out of the flooded city, a spontaneously mobilized, largely disconnected force of independently acting civilians and voluntary organizations also began coordinating relief for the hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast residents displaced across the country.[6] The story of successful disaster response and recovery after Hurricane Katrina is in fact best told as the story of human action undertaken at the most personal level. The stories of heroes rescuing those in peril; families, friends, and strangers caring for the displaced; and religious and community organizations assembling the resources needed to begin to rebuild lives will best help us map how and when effective disaster response and recovery occur.

Many recent disaster-response studies have focused on the goal of resiliencethe capacity of communities and individuals to rebound from the stress of disaster, both physically and psychosocially.[7] Most of the work on resilience has not, however, sufficiently explored how spontaneous individual and organizational action in mobilizing and coordinating response and relief efforts plays a role in promoting personal and community resilience. This article seeks to remedy that deficiency by highlighting the spontaneous actions of grassroots philanthropic and charitable organizations and individuals who positively contributed to cultivating community resilience after Hurricane Katrina.

Coordinating Communities

Communities arise organically from the interactions of numerous individuals, families, and organizations associating to pursue both their distinctive and shared visions of a good life. Even after a century of a nationalized welfare state, American communities continue to embody the heritage of a frontier people accustomed to coming together to work out creative solutions to common problems. As Richard Cornuelle reminds us in Reclaiming the American Dream, Americans have long “joined together in bewildering combinations to found schools, churches, opera houses, co-ops, hospitals, to build bridges and canals, [and] to help the poor. To see a need was, more often than not, to promote a scheme to meet it better than had ever been done before.”[8]

Community resilience can be seen as “a process linking a set of adaptive capacities to a positive trajectory of adaptation after a disturbance.” This definition recognizes four critical sets of networked adaptive capacities: economic development, social capital, information and communication, and community competence. These adaptive capacities generally sprout from the grassroots, as individuals and organizations tap into existing social networks and generate new ones, share information through both formal and informal channels, and develop new economic and social means for promoting vitality within the community.[9]

A 2006 government study of the small, unheralded organizations that responded to the catastrophe wrought by Hurricane Katrina began with the presumption that it would make three findings: (1) that the efforts of these voluntary organizations largely supplemented the government and American Red Cross response, (2) that these efforts paled in comparison to the impact of the government and American Red Cross response, and (3) that their reach was limited to mental health and spiritual services. However, the resulting report, prepared for the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate, states that all of these assumptions proved to be false. It observes that the “FBOs’ and NGOs’ successes…are a stark contrast to the many chronicled deficiencies and failures of government during the catastrophic 2005 hurricane season. By studying these organizations’ successes, we can learn lessons that may make the nation better prepared for, and thus more responsive to, such disasters.”[10]

What are the lessons that these and many other surprisingly effective organizations teach about the path to community resilience? How did they succeed when chaos crippled larger, better-equipped, and better-financed systems which were officially tasked with relief and recovery efforts? Extensive interviews with Gulf Coast residents as well as organizations and volunteers helping them to recover suggest that the faith-based and community organizations that have been most recognized as successfully contributing to the response and recovery efforts have operated around at least four core coordinates.

First, these organizations have a positive and compelling vision of what full recovery will look like. Far from seeking merely to get people sheltered, these organizations have a robust and holistic vision of community recovery, which in many instances envisions making things better than they were before the disaster. Whether they’re local residents with a personal stake in the rebuilding of their communities or outsiders moved to “do something” by the scale and scope of the tragedy, a key commonality among the most successful community leaders has been that they talk directly to residents about their needs and gain their trust by placing themselves as close as possible to the situations they are trying to fix.

Emily Campbell, president of Project Rebuild Plaquemines, spoke about the organization’s decision to build new playgrounds throughout the parish, “To me, a part of building a town back is to have things in place. When a family sees that there’s a school and a grocery store and a park and a church, they’ll come to a community. But without those things, how do you tell people to go home when they have nothing to go home to?”[11]

Rebuild Iberia, an organization that has been dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Rita a hundred miles west of Plaquemines Parish, captured the importance of vision on their t-shirts, which read, “Build a Louisiana Better than Before.”  High on the list of projects being undertaken by Rebuild Iberia is the renovation of New Iberia’s West End neighborhood, an area that has become increasingly blighted over the past twenty years.[12]

Second, these organizations possess and orient their activities around a deep, intimate knowledge of the human, social, and cultural assets of the communities they are serving. Whether this knowledge is based on a long-standing presence in the community or has been discovered through a willingness to listen to residents tell their stories and voice their needs, when taken as a guide to action, it fosters trust and builds community anew. While bureaucracies operate around standardized processes and procedures, grassroots organizations tend to operate around people.

Judy Herring, Director of Family and Community Development at the Southern Mutual Help Association in New Iberia, Louisiana, put it this way:

We didn’t want to go in with a pad and pencil and ask questions. The government does that. So we first went in and listened to their story….When you listen to the story first, there is a bond there immediately, and with that bond then the most unbelievable questions could be asked….and from there you talk about mutual understanding and mutual helping each other get something built and ready to move back into.[13]

Iray Nabatoff, Executive Director of the Community Center of St. Bernard, knew nothing about St. Bernard Parish when he decided to volunteer there the first winter following Katrina. Though he had intended to stay for 18 days, he found he couldn’t leave.[14] Three years later, Nabatoff is one of the most passionate spokesmen for the ongoing plight of his adopted home, and the Community Center he helped establish continues to offer a wide array of activities to support recovery, as well as “a place for residents to gather, eat, share, and find the help they need to rebuild their homes, their community, and their lives.”

Third, these organizations exhibit a resourcefulness that has allowed them to discover and coordinate diverse streams of resources as they identify, prioritize, and meet changing needs on the ground. Although victimized by disaster, many organizations with deep roots in communities can become more resourceful in times of emergency. Connection through the national network of United Way smoothed the path for the United Way of South Mississippi and the United Way of Greater Ottawa County, Michigan to collaborate in 2005 on a Christmas-in-a-Box project for every child in the devastated Long Beach, Mississippi school district. Later, the two organizations partnered again to create a prom for the high school kids in Long Beach, providing dresses, tuxedos, decorations, and everything the teenagers needed in order to celebrate this special rite of passage.[15]

Unlike local chapters of the American Red Cross, which are typically “relieved” by national headquarters and therefore comparatively disempowered soon after disasters,[16] local United Way organizations remain autonomous and responsible to existing contributors in the local community. Local United Ways with effective leadership are thus well positioned after disasters to tap accrued social capital embedded not only in their communities but also in the national network of United Way. Their local decision rights also allow them to reprioritize local initiatives to realign available resources with emerging community needs.

Individual citizens can prove just as resourceful as established organizations when confronted with the devastation of disasters. In the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans, Denise Thornton established Beacon of Hope to promote “hand-in-hand, one-on-one” assistance to Lakeview residents who were trying to figure out whether and how to rebuild their homes and their lives in the community.[17] Thornton gathered information through intensive local reconnaissance, which often entailed stopping and interviewing workers in the neighborhood. With a growing list of working phone numbers on hand, Thornton pulled together a database of essential information, started moving flooded cars, began cleaning up yards block by block, and opened her own home as both a respite and a sort of showroom for the rebuilding process. Restoring physical order and a neighborly spirit to the Lakeview neighborhood helped make returning to New Orleans more attractive to many doctors, dentists, attorneys, and other professionals whose presence in the city was vital to recovery. Within a few months, Thornton’s leadership had crossed neighborhood boundaries and sparked the illumination of a dozen more volunteer-run Beacons of Hope across the city.

The fourth coordinate, and perhaps the North Pole with which the most successful of these organizations continually align their direction, is a sense of humility and community spirit that frequently puts the interests of the community itself ahead of the needs of organizations. Nonprofit fundraising is often viewed as a zero-sum game, in which one group’s success comes at the expense of another. In the weeks and months after Hurricane Katrina, when all groups were equally decimated and it was clear that every hammer, nail, and shoulder to cry on would be needed, a new community spirit began to emerge among many community members and organizations. Across the Gulf Coast, foundations, faith-based groups, longstanding community organizations, newcomer social entrepreneurs, donors, board members, directors, staff, and volunteers have found new ways of coming together to support one another and to devise new solutions for the unprecedented challenges their communities have faced.[18]

The exigencies of relief and recovery, including the breakdown of communications networks and many preexisting supply chains, required people to create new clearinghouses, intermediaries, and partnerships to equip and support the panoply of activities being undertaken. For example, Unified Nonprofits of Greater New Orleans was formed in October 2005 when six nonprofit leaders came together in a forum for mutual support through the crisis. By early 2009, Unified Nonprofits had helped the leaders of more than 500 nonprofits find respite, resources, and rejuvenation through its weekly meetings, informational e-mails, and trainings.[19]

Social Entrepreneurs of New Orleans (SENO) formed to promote economic and community development through entrepreneurship. Andrea Chen, one of the founders of SENO, notes the necessity of the outpouring of civic support and entrepreneurial activity in post-Katrina New Orleans: “People [were] seeing problems and realizing, you know, after about a few months, that the government wasn’t gonna do it, philanthropy wasn’t gonna do it. You know, just so many gaps, and because the landscape had completely shifted…there [were] huge…opportunities to make a difference.”[20]

SENO’s Web site testifies to the new spirit of cooperation, stating: “We believe in harnessing the power of local diversity and the new participatory mentality to launch the problem-solver into action.”[21]

Toward Nimbleness in Response

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has provided us an opportunity to glimpse again the healthy proclivities Americans have to join together in order to solve problems that challenge their communities. The vision, knowledge, resourcefulness, and community spirit of many people and organizations fostered an overall nimbleness that helped hundreds of these organizations play a critical role alongside commercial activities and sound governance in helping resilience become a realized experience, not just an “inspirational concept.”[22] Nimbleness in this context is marked by a “holistic emotional, conceptual, and tangible flexibility[23] that yields key components of resilience, including adaptive capacity[24] and improvisational capability.”[25]

The Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank displayed impressive community spirit and nimbleness as refugees flooded into Baton Rouge. Within hours of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, Mike Manning, president of the food bank, was deploying a fleet of eighteen 24-foot box trucks with water, Gatorade, and snacks throughout southern Louisiana.[26] Manning, who has a background in corporate finance, found himself running the forklift to load supplies to take to rescue boats on the Mississippi River, to first responders, and even to the artificial shoreline of the impassable interstate in New Orleans so responders could shuttle water by boat to the Super Dome.

Manning’s troops of employees and volunteers were among the first to get needed supplies into the devastated areas. Manning recalls seeing a news interview in those first days after the storm with a resident of Bogalusa, Louisiana, who was saying that no one had been there yet. “Well, we were there,” Manning says, “We’d been there three times already, and it was FEMA and the Red Cross that had not been there, but we’d been there.”

With food supplies rapidly arriving through a pre-existing supply chain that encompassed food products from individual donations, corporate donations, the Feeding America Network (formerly America’s Second Harvest), and even USDA commodities specially released for the emergency, the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank ran an unprecedented logistics operation for weeks that stopped only for a short time while Hurricane Rita devastated yet another portion of the Gulf Coast. With the food banks in both New Orleans and Acadiana temporarily incapacitated by the two storms, volunteers and staff loaded trucks and drivers put themselves and their vehicles at risk to get food to residents in affected areas. Manning resorts to military metaphors to explain how his team coordinated getting resources to where there was need:

We were fortunate enough to have a gentleman…[who] was driving all over the region to identify needs….The communication wasn’t happening, and I called him my spotter, and we would be the sniper shot. So he’d call us in like artillery….He’d even wait for us and show us how to get in if we needed to because of damage. You had to go [carefully because of] the damage, the trees, that kind of stuff.

His appreciation for military efficiency notwithstanding, Manning believes that existing assets, knowledge, and distribution routes made the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank more effective than the National Guard at delivering food supplies to points of greatest need. While the National Guard set up points of distribution (PODs) and moved tons of food, Manning believes that with roads impassable and communications lines down across the parishes, many people did not know about or have access to the PODs. Meanwhile, other people abused the system by going through the food lines over and over.

By contrast, Manning focused his deliveries on existing partnering agencies in the parishes that knew the people, the terrain, and where the direst needs for assistance would be. Local charities receiving supplies were able to then turn around and make targeted deliveries. Manning’s learning was fast and effective. Where his local partners had no way to accept cold foods because of power outages, the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank helped him acquire and place generators to run refrigerators and freezers. These generators remain in place today, hardening many Louisiana communities against future disasters.

In reflecting on the lessons learned, Manning suggests that the state and federal governments should have focused on more effectively partnering with local organizations than on setting up a redundant distribution system that neither made the best use of the National Guard nor most effectively helped people in need. “How much money could we have saved the federal government,” Manning wonders, “if you use existing infrastructure and existing systems that do it on a daily basis?  And that’s what I’ve been trying to get GOHSEP [the Governor’s Office on Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness] to understand; that’s what I’m trying to get FEMA to understand on a national level—we are the food banks; we’re the food infrastructure already in place.”

Manning doesn’t pull punches when reflecting on the problems with the government response.

You know, the governor can point a finger all day. We [the government of Louisiana] wanted to push administration to FEMA, but the first three days are the local and state governments’ responsibility; it’s not FEMA. Well, you hear all this stuff; it took the federal government five days to get water to New Orleans—to the Super Dome. Okay?  State was responsible to get the water there day one. So you take three—they were two days late. They weren’t five days late. State was five days late.

The Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank, however, hardly missed a beat in doing what its mission requires—distributing food to people in need.

Localizing Authority: “Get off your duff and do something”

While mobilizing fewer financial resources than government, grassroots and faith-based organizations mobilized the spirit of humanity and resilience essential for the restoration of community. The coordinates of vision, knowledge, resourcefulness, and collaborative spirit comprising the nimbleness of these organizations could not be prescribed by any centralized mechanism of bureaucratic control. John McKnight, one of the most insightful interpreters of the necessary conditions for community development, points out “that communities are built”—and rebuilt, we might add—“through structures that mobilize the gifts and capacities of local citizens.”  The current maps of policy makers are filled with systems and “clients” who are the objects of these systems. What we most need, McKnight urges us to realize, is new maps that better depict the rich associational structure of genuine communities.

“The basic shift necessary for an effective twenty-first century map,” McKnight wrote in 1996, “is a contraction of service systems in order to provide the territory and incentives for community structures to expand….To successfully navigate the next century, policymakers will have to move in different directions. To reach their destination, they will need to enhance community power while diminishing system authority.”[27]

McKnight does not reject the role of policy making, but enjoins policy makers to exercise their responsibility by promoting the capability and authority of local community structures over top-down, bureaucratic systems.

John Davies, President of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, knows a lot about enhancing community power—and learned a lot more in the fall of 2005. While Katrina was still out in the Gulf building up steam, he sought the expertise of other foundations who had dealt with community-level tragedies, including the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region, and the New York Community Trust.[28] By the Tuesday evening after Katrina’s Monday landfall, Davies’ staff had established a Web site to receive donations for disaster response and within a week had raised $1 million and given away about $800,000. While the amount of money again pales in comparison to government expenditures, the rapid response efforts of Davies and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation exemplify the important role bold philanthropy can play even in the earliest stages of a disaster.

Davies credits much of the early success to the expertise of eleven members of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), who arrived in Louisiana on Friday, marking the first time in its 73-year history that the IRC responded to a humanitarian crisis in the United States. Davies had managed to contact the IRC through his “friend-of-a-friend” network on Tuesday after spending a frustrating 24 hours trying to get in touch with state and/or federal officials about how to respond to the mass of evacuees descending upon Baton Rouge. “I didn’t know who the hell FEMA was, not in this sense,” Davies remarks.

I mean, we hadn’t even dated. I knew of FEMA because we’ve had hurricanes, but I didn’t realize the shock of the wedding with a very strange partner, and the same…when the American Red Cross comes in. They take over for the local chapter. The local chapter stands down. National takes over. So everything about what was happening here was new to us, and we needed to have experts, and these guys were spectacular.

The IRC team gave Davies and his team the confidence to do what had to be done. “They told us, first of all, learn how to deal in chaos….Secondly, communications will be absolutely impossible and totally untrustworthy. Third, if you are communicating, do it face-to-face with people. So you’ve got to go to meetings and see people. And fourth, you have to develop clearinghouses to get stuff done, because you’re going to be—once the chaos starts settling—you’re going to find that…it becomes tremendously inefficient. You will be inefficient at the outset, and there’s no way to prevent that.”

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent.

It takes a touch of geniusand a lot of courageto move in the opposite direction.

— Albert Einstein, at whose suggestion the IRC was founded

With clear expectations—one might even say with the permission to be inefficient—Davies and his staff helped fuel the heroic response of the Baton Rouge community to the human inundation left as the waters receded. Refusing to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, the foundation’s team put together a rapid response form, and staff quickly got out into shelters around the city to interview people and see how the shelters were performing. According to Davies, there were as many, if not more, evacuees in Baton Rouge in non-Red Cross shelters as there were in Red Cross shelters—and the non-Red Cross shelters had no ready access to the streams of donations flowing into the Red Cross.

Foundation staff got out into the community to assess its needs, and a committee would meet each evening to review the services the shelters provided. The next day the foundation would send out checks to the people, churches, community groups, and faith-based organizations that it thought were doing a good job. Within a month, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation had issued over $1.7 million in grants to support relief programs, including those of 71 different non-Red Cross shelters, most of which were organized for the first time ever in response to human necessity.

Davies reflects positively on the experience of helping these local groups and retains some frustration about his experiences trying to work alongside the American Red Cross, which at the time of Katrina was designated by the federal government as a primary agency with responsibility for coordinating the provision of mass care after a disaster.[29] “The Red Cross was a different story because they needed more services,” Davies comments. “This was not like anything they’d ever seen before, and they didn’t know how to correlate [with other groups].” Far from exercising self-sufficiency during the relief effort, American Red Cross personnel seemed to require significant attention and local support that drained local resources already near exhaustion.

Davies’ boldness in moving resources quickly to where they were needed suggests just what a trusted local community foundation can accomplish in the wake of a disaster. “The issue, really,” Davies remarks, “is how a donor in Dubuque figures out who the trusted local agency is, because what happened post-Katrina is that there was a high recognition that the local organizations did spectacularly well.” The Baton Rouge Area Foundation took the right steps to be that trusted agent on the ground for many hundreds of private donors and was able to turn 40 years of experience in the community into a responsible process of moving donated resources quickly to areas of need.

By contrast, far removed from the urgencies of the situation, many large private foundations across the country were slow or outright reluctant to engage in the aftermath of Katrina. Without pre-existing relationships with organizations in the area, many simply didn’t know who or what to fund. One large national foundation sent four different assessment teams from its different divisions to interview Davies and discuss what he thought should happen in their particular area of interest. With the fourth, he sent a message back that he would not give another interview and that the foundation needed to just send one program officer to Louisiana with a checkbook.

Frustrated by such experiences, Davies has some strong advice for foundations seeking to help in future disasters:  “Write a check is the answer. It’s inefficient. Responding in these times is very, very inefficient, and you just have to go and take your best bet and go after it and get it done….Get off your duff and do something.”

Conclusion

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we all have to get off our duffs and do something. We need to make an important choice: Should we prepare for future disasters by further shoring up the brittle levees of the large and centralized bureaucratic systems that responded clumsily in the face of catastrophe? Or should we seek to develop new means of better understanding the “community of associations” that can nimbly guide the flow of community life, even in turbulent times, within the strong natural levees built on local vision, knowledge, resourcefulness, and the humility that fosters collaboration?

It is important that we listen intentionally and carefully to the lessons learned by the hundreds of thousands of people who have engaged with one another, neighbor with neighbor, volunteer with resident, in the labor-intensive work of rebuilding and creating anew communities devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Those who have proven most resilient, often with the fewest material resources, are those who best can teach us how to facilitate, rather than hamper, resilient outcomes.

In fact, there are no simple paths to resilience. Much as each individual has a distinct set of protective and risk factors affecting their ability to rebound from stress,[30] each community has a unique thumbprint of cultural, economic, spiritual, and human resources. Bringing the right mix of these resources to turn a devastated community toward positive recovery is more of an art than a science. The organizations and leaders who are most likely to get this right will be those who are already embedded in the community. While policy is necessary for directing the flow of government dollars toward response and recovery, good policy will foster community-based initiatives and will reduce barriers to entry for smaller and start-up organizations with good ideas.

Bureaucracies seek to control by counting, enumerating, credentialing, and authorizing human action.[31] This is an impossible feat when the terrain is very legible, much less in the fog of disaster.[32] Good policy in preparing for future disasters will give up the holy grail of legibility and control, in favor of seeking to discover what is working in each situation and how to get more of it. The key levers of resilience in Gulfport, Mississippi, may be similar to those needed in New Orleans. Nevertheless, discovering the most effective places to exert leverage requires nimble, on-the-ground vision, knowledge, resourcefulness, and a commitment to the community.

Abandoning our misplaced confidence in large-scale, centralized, and bureaucratic approaches to disaster response, whether they originate in government or non-governmental agencies, will take courage. Even some branches of government recognize the need to foster preparedness more widely at the grassroots. A recent survey conducted by FEMA and Citizen Corps found that 57 percent of respondents expect to rely on fire, police, or emergency personnel in the first 72 hours following a disaster. The survey summary then observes that “individuals’ high expectations of assistance from emergency responders may inhibit individual preparedness. Communicating more realistic expectations and personal responsibilities is critical.”[33] To the extent that Citizen Corps, a very modestly funded program with only $14.5 million in grant monies available nationally for FY 2009, can effect this broader education of the public, these are steps in the right direction.

In the end, however, it will not be government programs or funding but a shifting frame of reference about the power of human action that will make the most difference. Moving toward resilience will require us to recognize that, at the end of the day, it is the engagement of individuals and the elevation of the human spirit through associational life in genuine communities that are both the ends and the means of the most effective disaster response.

Coordinating resilience happens best when local knowledge, vision, resourcefulness, and an emotional stake in the community converge. Disaster-response agencies, whether public, private, or non-governmental, should strive to develop more nimble systems. The public-policy process should ensure that government action after disasters empowers, rather than paralyzes, the recovery process.

Instead of relying on a centralized scale, we need decentralized capabilities that are scalable. Instead of authorizing only those people bearing credentials, we need to learn to recognize what works and extend credibility and support to those who actually solve problems. Instead of relying primarily on professional responders, we need to willingly engage grassroots actors as integral parts of disaster preparedness and response and empower the most nimble among them to move forward as fast as possible with the hope that they will discover uncharted paths to resilience. Instead of a mandate of efficiency, which makes us slow to move, we need to embrace the goal of efficacy, which enables us to move, learn, and move again.

More importantly, however, it is essential that we acknowledge that effective disaster response and recovery are not in the first place a matter of public policy, but grow out of the character of the people. To revise and align John F. Kennedy’s famous injunction with a more Tocquevillian understanding of American voluntarism, citizens should be asking not what their country can do for them, but what they can do for themselves and for one another in times of crisis. Like Jane Aslam, Mike Manning, John Davies, and thousands of others who have creatively used all the resources available to them to help people and communities recover, we need to reengage, even before disaster strikes, in the complex and necessary work of building strong and resilient communities.

Emily Campbell of Plaquemines Parish paints a picture to which we might look for the courage to admit that in disaster response, one size can never fit all:

These things are difficult. And everybody’s going to have a different aspect of the challenge that they feel like maybe wasn’t met right. And so I guess everybody’s going to see it in a different light. That’s why I think that’s why God gives everybody a different dream. Some people will have food banks, and some people, whether they share music, whether they have a burden to do parks, whatever it is that people feel the need to do, I think somehow those things all come together to meet people where their needs are. And I think that’s what the job is. Everybody can’t and shouldn’t do the same thing. But everybody needs to do what they feel like is on their heart. Because I think in the end maybe all the needs get met because everybody’s offering up whatever it is that they do have professionally or even on the side to offer back to the community.

[1] Between February 2006 and January 2009, the author conducted over 100 interviews in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas as a field researcher for the Mercatus Center’s Gulf Coast Recovery Project. See http://www.mercatus.org/ResearchAreaLanding.aspx?Category=186. The author wishes to thank her colleagues in the project, especially Emily Chamlee-Wright, Daniel Rothschild, Heather Allen, and Rosemarie Fike for their assistance both in the field and in development of this paper. Per the usual caveats, the author assumes all responsibility for the content of this paper, and any possible mistakes therein.

[2] Jane Aslam (ICNA Relief USA, Baton Rouge, LA), in discussion with the author, January 29, 2009.

[3] For all intents and purposes, the American Red Cross can be considered a quasi-governmental agency. Founded in 1881, the American Red Cross received a congressional charter in 1900, which was renewed in 1905 and remains in effect today. “Unlike other congressionally chartered organizations, the Red Cross maintains a special relationship with the federal government. It has the legal status of ‘a federal instrumentality,’ due to its charter requirements to carry out responsibilities delegated to it by the federal government.” American Red Cross, The Federal Charter of the American Red Cross, http://www.redcross.org/portal/site/en/menuitem.d229a5f06620c6052b1ecfbf43181aa0/?vgnextoid=39c2a8f21931f110VgnVCM10000089f0870aRCRD.

[4] For more on the limits of bureaucratic management of disaster response, see Russell S. Sobel and Peter T. Leeson, “The Use of Knowledge in Natural-Disaster Relief Management,” The Independent Review XI, no. 3 (2007): 519–532.

[5] An overview of the work of Tricia Wachtendorf and James M. Kendra on the waterborne evacuation after 9/11 is available at http://copland.udel.edu/~twachten/waterborne_evacuation.html. See also, Tricia Wachtendorf and James M. Kendra, “Improvising Disaster in the City of Jazz: Organizational Response to Hurricane Katrina,” in Understanding Katrina: Perspectives from the Social Sciences (Brooklyn, NY: Social Sciences Research Council, June 11, 2006), http://understandingkatrina.ssrc.org/Wachtendorf_Kendra/.

[6] For more on the military response, see Hurricane Katrina: Better Plans and Exercises Needed to Guide the Military’s Response to Catastrophic Natural Disasters, GAO Report to the Congressional Committees, GAO-06-643 (2006). For more on civilian initiatives see, for example, Lenore T. Ealy and Paige T. Ellison-Smith, To Hold Safe: Framing a New Era of Disaster Child Care (Carmel, Indiana: Project K.I.D., 2007);  Mikel Schaefer, Lost in Katrina, with a foreword by Douglas Brinkley (Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing Company, 2007). For more on faith-based initiatives, see Homeland Security Institute, Heralding Unheard Voices: The Role of Faith-Based Organizations and Nongovernmental Organizations During Disasters, final report prepared for the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate (Washington, DC: December 18, 2006).

[7] One of the most promising of these studies is that of Fran H. Norris, et al.,  “Community Resilience as a Metaphor, Theory, Set of Capacities, and Strategy for Disaster Readiness,” American Journal of Community Psychology 41 (2008): 127–150.

[8] Richard C. Cornuelle, Reclaiming the American Dream: The Role of Private Individuals and Voluntary Associations (Random House, 1965; Transaction Publishers, 1993), 21.

[9] Norris, et al., “Community Resilience as a Metaphor, Theory, Set of Capacities, and Strategy for Disaster Readiness,” 130, 136.

[10] Homeland Security Institute, Heralding Unheard Voices, 1, 10.

[11] Emily Campbell (Project Rebuild Plaquemines, Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana), in discussion with Rosemarie Fike, January 28, 2009.

[12] Judy Herring (Southern Mutual Help Association, New Iberia, Louisiana) and Jim Wyche (First United Methodist Church, New Iberia, Louisiana) in discussion with Rosemarie Fike, January 27, 2009. See also Jason Brown, “New Iberia Project Aims to Alter West End,” The Advocate, May 14, 2009, http://www.2theadvocate.com/news/44953682.html.

[13] Judy Herring (Southern Mutual Help Association, New Iberia, Louisiana) in discussion with Rosemarie Fike, January 27, 2009.

[14] Iray Nabatoff (Community Center of Saint Bernard, Arabi, Louisiana) in discussion with Rosemarie Fike, January 26, 2009.

[15] Donna Alexander (Executive Director, United Way of Southern Mississippi, Gulfport, Mississippi) in discussion with the author, January 28, 2009.

[16] Knowledge of this practice by the American Red Cross comes from the author’s experience responding to children in the early weeks after Katrina and is reiterated by John Davies (Baton Rouge Area Foundation, Baton Rouge, Louisiana) in discussion with author, January 30, 2009, see below.

[17] Connie Uddo (Beacon of Hope, New Orleans, Louisiana) in discussion with the author, January 27, 2009.

[18] Most of our interviews attest to this emerging spirit of cooperation among not-for-profit organizations, but see for a local perspective Ray Nichols (board member, Carrollton-Audubon Renaissance Incorporated, New Orleans, Louisiana) in discussion with Heather Allen, January  28, 2009.

[19] Lisa Kaichen, Susan Waymen, and Lynn Dynn (Unified Nonprofits of Greater New Orleans, New Orleans, Louisiana) in discussion with Heather Allen and Rosemarie Fike, January 26, 2009.

[20] Andrea Chen (Social Entrepreneurs of Greater New Orleans, New Orleans, Louisiana) in discussion with Rosemarie Fike, January 30, 2009.

[21] Social Entrepreneurs of New Orleans, “Mission and Vision,” http://www.seno-ola.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1&Itemid=7.

[22] Norris, et al., “Community Resilience as a Metaphor, Theory, Set of Capacities, and Strategy for Disaster Readiness,” 146.

[23] Daryl R. Conner and Linda L. Hoopes, “Elements of Human Due Diligence: Supporting the Nimble Organization,” Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research 49, no. 1 (1997), 17–24, see especially 21.

[24] Norris, et al., “Community Resilience as a Metaphor, Theory, Set of Capacities, and Strategy for Disaster Readiness.”

[25] Wachtendorf and Kendra, “Improvising Disaster in the City of Jazz.”

[26] Michael Manning (President, Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank, Baton Rouge, Louisiana) in discussion with the author, January 29, 2009.

[27] John L. McKnight, A Twenty-First Century Map for Healthy Communities and Families, (Chicago: Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University, 1996), 20, http://www.northwestern.edu/ipr/publications/codevpubs.html.

[28] John Davies (Baton Rouge Area Foundation, Baton Rouge, Louisiana) in discussion with author, January 30, 2009.

[29] When the National Response Framework (2008) replaced the previous National Response Plan (2004), the American Red Cross was designated a supporting agency rather than a primary agency in the coordination of Emergency Support Function (ESF) #6 Mass Care, Emergency Assistance, Housing, and Human Services. Federal Emergency Management Agency, Emergency Support Function Annexes (Washington, DC: FEMA, January 2008), http://www.fema.gov/pdf/emergency/nrf/nrf-esf-intro.pdf.

[30] See the work of George Bonanno, including “Loss, Trauma, and Human Resilience: Have we underestimated the human capacity to thrive after extremely aversive events?” American Psychologist 59 (2004): 20–28.

[31] James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University, 1998).

[32] Sobel and Leeson, “The Use of Knowledge in Natural-Disaster Relief Management.”

[33] Federal Emergency Management Agency/Citizen Corps, Personal Preparedness in America: Findings from the Citizen Corps National Survey: Summary Sheet (Washington, DC: FEMA, June 2009),  http://www.citizencorps.gov/ready/research.shtm.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, bureaucratic systems inadequately facilitated resilience and recovery. This paper seeks to highlight, by contrast, how response and recovery efforts by numerous individuals and grassroots, community, and faith-based organizations—the existing and emergent organic structures of communities—nimbly helped to coordinate delivery of the material and non-material resources needed to foster resilience. This article is based on numerous interviews with philanthropic and charitable organizations and individuals who have participated in the response and recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina.[i] The lessons learned make it apparent that the cultivation of resilient communities that are better able to weather future disasters requires embracing policy structures that allow grassroots organizations to participate, to the fullest extent, in disaster preparedness, response, and recovery.

Community-based organizations—including nonprofit and faith-based organizations, associations and clubs, and philanthropic foundations—possess critical local knowledge and the strongest motives for success in restoring communities after disaster. Our quest for resilient communities requires us to intentionally cultivate the capabilities of a robust private, voluntary sector that will not get displaced in disaster response and recovery by governmental or quasi-governmental agencies.

Adapting Relief


[i] Between February 2006 and January 2009, the author conducted over 100 interviews in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas as a field researcher for the Mercatus Center’s Gulf Coast Recovery Project. See http://www.mercatus.org/ResearchAreaLanding.aspx?Category=186. The author wishes to thank her colleagues in the project, especially Emily Chamlee-Wright, Daniel Rothschild, Heather Allen, and Rosemarie Fike for their assistance both in the field and in development of this paper. Per the usual caveats, the author assumes all responsibility for the content of this paper, and any possible mistakes therein.