Religious Ready to Serve in Disaster; Experts Agree People Give More When Others Are Hurting, and They Usually Come Through

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Byline: JEFF BRUMLEY

Mike Ragland's passion for disaster relief has taken him everywhere from California to Mississippi - providing water to wildfire victims, scooping mud out of flooded homes and clearing downed trees in hurricane-ravaged communities.

The Jacksonville Baptist youth minister has started a small nonprofit to raise money for emergency-response efforts. And he keeps a trailer packed with chain saws, tarps and other gear ready to roll at a moment's notice.

Is he prepared for the 2010 hurricane season, which some experts predict could unleash almost 20 punishing storms, to be named later?

"Oh, yeah," he said.

The bigger question is whether the nation's top faith-based groups - the ones known for providing disaster aid - are as ready as Ragland.

Tithing and charitable giving have taken a hit, thanks to a lingering recession. And faith-based and other nonprofit groups have already been tapped in this region - mounting an all-out response to the devastation caused by the January earthquake in Haiti.

"They're not immune from the economy," Wendy Spencer, CEO of Volunteer Florida, said of the Salvation Army, Southern Baptist Convention, Church of Christ of Latter-day Saints and other ministries known for mobilizing massive disaster-aid efforts.

"Ten to 40 percent of their donations have declined in terms of grants, fundraising, donors and special events," said Spencer, whose agency is responsible for integrating faith-based groups into the state's emergency operations. "So they've been hit."

Even so, emergency planning is proceeding with the assumption that faith-based groups will rise to the occasion, meeting the disaster-response obligations they've made with federal and state agencies.

"I've never heard of a case where the faith-based organizations haven't been able to respond" to catastrophe, said Diana Rothe-Smith, executive director of National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, a group that coordinates disaster-relief efforts between government and nonprofit agencies.

"They always find a way to respond."

That's good, because religious groups provide the lion's share of non-governmental disaster relief, Rothe-Smith said. Of the 51 national organizations in her group, 40 are faith-based.

Altogether, they provided $200 million in direct dollar support and 7 million volunteer-hours - with an estimated value of $147 million - in 2008, Rothe-Smith said.

The federal government has praised the performance of faith-based groups at disaster zones, citing their fast and efficient dispensing of food, water, shelter and other necessities. Driven by faith, legions of volunteers cleared roads and yards of debris, and provided counseling, medical care and clothing.

A White House report on Hurricane Katrina described religious groups' contributions as "truly extraordinary. …