Disaster and the Civil Society

Article excerpt

Byline: James Wilburn, special to the Washington Times

While all eyes have focused on alarming failures of government at every level following Hurricane Katrina's recent invasion of the Gulf Coast, hundreds of religious congregations, some from 1,500 miles away in California, had teams on the ground in Louisiana ahead of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Guard. While the failures had 1,000 reporters, success was virtually an orphan.

Bearing seeds capable of healing a divided nation and demonstrating how civil society underlies the formal institutions of our democracy, these underreported successes hold powerful messages. They go far beyond this single catastrophe and the examples could fill a hundred Superdomes.

The Texas Salvation Army rolled a convoy of 20 canteen units and scores of trained relief volunteers into nearby Beaumont, Texas, well before the storm, to be near when needed.

The Southern Baptist Convention, perhaps the largest denomination in the affected area, mobilized 3,000 people to feed 300,000 people each day. An Episcopal priest in Baton Rouge turned his sanctuary into an obstetric ward for patients from a nearby women's hospital.

These first of the first responders are not slick televangelists. They are ordinary people, seeking neither praise nor money to keep themselves on the air. Many left day jobs as responsible managers. How else can one explain how one congregation in Houston could mobilize the efforts of 131 faith-based organizations, including Jews, Muslims, Protestants, Catholics, Buddhists and Bahaists? Their division of labor could provide a powerful case study for the Harvard Business School. The Adventists, for example, are experts in warehousing, the Quakers in child-care during disasters and the Mennonites, famous builders, can repair devastated homes.

Representing thousands of nodes in an intricate network, they seemed to awaken almost spontaneously. The web of connections that pervade such civic and religious organizations, combined with their more intimate knowledge of the region's geography and sociology, equip them better for many challenges posed by disaster than a centralized, bureaucratized government agency. …