A Seat at the Table for Nondisaster Organizations: West Virginia University Has a Strategy for Bringing Organizations Together to Render Disaster Services to Special Needs Populations, and North Texas Shows How to Integrate Religious Organizations in Disaster Response

By Robinson, Scott E.; Gerber, Brian J. | The Public Manager, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

A Seat at the Table for Nondisaster Organizations: West Virginia University Has a Strategy for Bringing Organizations Together to Render Disaster Services to Special Needs Populations, and North Texas Shows How to Integrate Religious Organizations in Disaster Response


Robinson, Scott E., Gerber, Brian J., The Public Manager


The hurricanes of 2005 taught public managers many difficult lessons. As we watched the aftermath on our TVs, the deficiencies in our disaster response system became clear. Communication between state, local, and federal agencies was difficult. Lines of authority were unclear, and implementation of disaster response plans was problematic.With the bad news, though, came some good news. As is common in disaster situations, individual and community group volunteers from across the country stepped up to assist in serving evacuees and rebuilding affected communities. Although such volunteerism is notably generous, it also poses an additional disaster management challenge. Public managers faced difficulties in coordinating efforts of their own agency with the efforts of other organizations--public nonemergency management (like schools), religious and nonprofit (like churches and charities), and business.

The experiences of the 2005 hurricanes demonstrate that nondisaster organizations have a lot to offer in the response to and recovery from the disasters. Religious organizations offered volunteers and even housing for evacuees who made it to the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Schools cooperated in providing access to counseling and social work organizations to evacuees enrolled in school. Private businesses provided material resources (such as truckloads of water) and locations (such as closed and empty stores for use as staging grounds, intake facilities, and temporary housing).These were all resources of great value in disaster response and recovery.

This article briefly discusses the anticipated management challenges involved in bringing nondisaster organizations into disaster planning and response activities. It then discusses strategies to overcome these obstacles and offers managers of disaster organizations advice on how to best involve nondisaster organizations in disaster planning and response.

Obstacles to Integration of Nondisaster Organizations

Although nondisaster organizations have much to offer in facilitating emergency response and recovery, integrating them into the plans and efforts of emergency response agencies is often difficult. Two major types of differences between disaster and nondisaster organizations create obstacles to their coordination. First, nondisaster organizations lack many institutional characteristics designed to make disaster organizations effective in disaster situations. Second, members of nondisaster organizations routinely come from different professional backgrounds than members of disaster organizations, often creating cultural barriers.

The structure of an organization is often a product of its core missions. Manufacturing organizations take on a shape and form that allow them to efficiently man ufacture goods. Educational organizations pattern themselves for their primary mission of education. Disaster organizations take on the structures they need to prepare for and respond to disasters. By this logic, organizations with diverse missions also have dramatically different structures.

Disaster managers need to consider these institutional differences in collaborating with nondisaster organizations. Fire and police departments (as disaster related organizations) often have plans in place to ensure robustness of operations, even amid the trying circumstances of a natural or human-made disaster, but nondisaster organizations often lack institutions to ensure that operations continue during or immediately following a large-scale disaster. This may make nondisaster partners in disaster scenarios particularly vulnerable and potentially unreliable in extreme events.

School District Illustration

Consider the case of a school district. According to the US. Government Accountability Office (GAO), in the wake of school shootings and natural disasters, many school districts have developed emergency plans. Given the historical role of schools in sheltering during natural disasters, they are a key example of nondisaster organizations with which disaster agencies may wish to collaborate in emergency planning.

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A Seat at the Table for Nondisaster Organizations: West Virginia University Has a Strategy for Bringing Organizations Together to Render Disaster Services to Special Needs Populations, and North Texas Shows How to Integrate Religious Organizations in Disaster Response
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