by Scott Walker, PLAN!T NOW Staff Writer
Planning for and dealing with natural disasters can be difficult, even overwhelming, for traditional responders such as the Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Increasingly, both relief groups and individuals are coming to view faith-based organizations as capable and accessible partners in preparedness.
Faith-based organizations rose to prominence in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Even though many of these groups had had no prior experience with disaster relief planning, they were able to respond surprisingly effectively in meeting the challenges presented by the storm. In particular, faith-based organizations were instrumental in addressing issues that traditional responders, focused on physical reconstruction and material aid, were less equipped to manage, according to a December 2008 study conducted by the nonprofit and nonpartisan Urban Institute.
Faith-based organizations could play a crucial role in tapping into “the broader universe of expertise and service delivery that might provide appropriate and sustained interventions,” the report concluded. In addition, faith-based communities often have a more detailed understanding of local disaster-planning needs than traditional relief organizations.
Post-Katrina, government agencies, private and public organizations have developed ways to incorporate faith-based organizations into disaster planning and response. For example, Texas Christian University’s College of Nursing recently examined how public health nursing students might collaborate with faith-based communities. One approach involved presenting poster materials during Christian church services urging church members to contact the students for planning advice. This action fostered new relationships between the students and church members, and resulted in a improved preparedness for the congregation and the nursing students.
By far, the most valuable asset that faith-based communities have is the ability to communicate and network with members. One organization that has done an admirable job of using information technology to bolster communication is New York Disaster Interfaith Services (NYDIS). NYDIS has mounted a disaster-planning webpage that describes its online database HOWCALM (House of Worship Communitywide Asset and Logistics Management). Initiatives like these are becoming commonplace nationwide.
You can participate in disaster-preparedness planning by either contacting an exisitng faith-based network (see the Resources section on our homepage) or starting one within a faith-based community to which you belong. These efforts will significantly augment federal and state planning initiatives – and may well mean the difference between life and death in your community.