Watching Hurricane Katrina's building fury, Rachel Coleman, 19, evacuated from New Orleans to Texas on Aug. 27, two days before the storm stomped ashore. Her experience with other hurricanes told her she'd be back at her job as a placement-service secretary in two, three days max. But after flood waters swept through the Crescent City, there was little left to go back to. Her single mom had died the previous year of breast cancer, her extended family had fled across four states, and her job was under water.
In Texas, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) told Ms. Coleman she was "not a serious case." So when a friend offered her refuge in Orange County, Calif., she headed west. En route, at a Tucson motel, she signed onto the internet and found Operation OC, a Katrina relief group in Orange County.
The group's website advertised immediate help for Katrina victims. Ms. Coleman sent an e-mail containing her name and cell-phone number. The next day, as she rolled west down a lonely ribbon of desert interstate, her cell phone rang.
"This is Jessica at Operation OC," said the voice at the other end. "How can we help you?"
"I thought, omigosh, you're calling me and offering help?" Ms. Coleman told WORLD. "People just don't do that."
Perhaps not, if they work for traditional, big-government disaster relief operations. But Operation OC isn't one of those. Instead, it's a collaborative effort of Orange County government agencies and nonprofits-with an unusual twist: The Orange County Rescue Mission (OCRM), an evangelical Christian outreach and recovery program for the homeless, is in charge.
After most domestic natural disasters, government agencies call the shots while faith-based organizations (FBOs) fit themselves in wherever they are allowed. But in Orange County, under the collective moniker Operation OC, OCRM is guiding government agencies-including the Orange County board of supervisors, county schools, the housing authority, and sheriff's department-along with county nonprofits in providing 341 evacuees from 151 families with comprehensive aid. And it was the county government that asked the mission to take control.
"What we decided to do instead of the rescue mission trying to be the first, or the only, group to assist, was to invite other nonprofits to participate," said OCRM president and Operation OC director Jim Palmer. "That goes back to our philosophy: We're not just trying to minister to our homeless clients, but to everyone."
OCRM didn't leap into its lead position overnight. The concept of faith-based groups partnering with local governments in leadership takes a tremendous investment, Mr. Palmer said. "It takes years of being involved in serving the community in different capacities, of building strong relationships, and earning the trust and confidence of elected officials."
For example, OCRM's vice president of finance serves on the local jobs board, while various OCRM board members serve in building- and health-industry associations. Meanwhile, Mr. Palmer, formerly chairman of the county's housing authority, now serves as chair of Orange County's homeless issues task force.
"In many counties, FBOs feel like second-class organizations," said Mr. Palmer. "In our county, we have faith-based leaders at every decision-making level."
Operation OC's collaborative model centralizes families' application for a wide range of types of aid-food, clothing, money, counseling, medical help, housing, and employment referral-at the Village of Hope, an OCRM residential project located in converted barracks on Marine Corps Base Tustin. The idea is to avoid compounding victims' suffering by subjecting them to the endless bureaucracy of relief-migrating from agency to agency, appointment to appointment, line to line.
Most of the storm victims streaming into Orange County held jobs on the Gulf Coast, and many were homeowners. A significant number are Vietnamese families looking to resettle near Santa Ana, where a large Vietnamese population thrives. Some are seniors who lost their homes and are looking for warmer, storm-free climes in which to resettle. Others, like Tom and Lisa Allison, are young married couples seeking only temporary refuge.
Parents to Christian, 2, and Katherine, 16 months, the Allisons own a home in Mandeville, La., 20 miles north of New Orleans. The family evacuated in advance of Katrina's landfall, then returned to find their home had escaped serious storm damage. But the absence of water and power-and the putrid floodwaters lapping at the edges of their neighborhood-rendered their home unlivable. So the Allisons decided to seek temporary shelter.
Through a staffing agency, Mr. Allison, 29, a registered nurse, landed a temporary position at Orange County Children's Hospital. Days later, Mrs. Allison, 32, a stay-home mom, found herself sitting in Operation OC's resource center, applying for help, while her kids crawled around in a colorful play area, fiddling happily with toy trucks and telephones.
As a middle-class homeowner, Mrs. Allison said she finds her family's displacement "extremely surreal."
"You watch the effects of [Hurricanes] Ivan or Andrew and you think, gosh, that's terrible," she said. "But then you can click off the TV and go back to your life."
This time, she's applying for food stamps.
To keep victims from bouncing around in a maze of aid services, Operation OC assigns each individual or family a single volunteer, who provides a listening ear and walks them through the entire process. That doesn't always work perfectly. After a long day at the resource center, Mrs. Allison carted her kids to social services to pick up enough food stamps to last until the family returns to New Orleans next month.
An Operation OC volunteer phoned ahead to let the office know a Katrina victim was headed their way. But when Mrs. Allison arrived, no one remembered the call. Then, a clerk told her she was too late to file her paperwork that day and would have to return the next.
"The office was packed with screaming children. I was tired. The kids were tired," Mrs. Allison said. "By the time I got in to talk to a counselor, I just started crying." She realizes that with an intact family and home to return to, she's better off than most storm victims. Still, she suggested that Operation OC's link with social services could have been made smoother by having a liaison onsite at the food-stamp office.
That may be a possibility. One difference Operation OC has been able to offer Katrina victims is speed and flexibility, the ability to staff creatively and color outside regulatory lines. For example, the group is marshaling aid from an array of entities that government relief models might have left on the sidelines.
Operation OC is asking local churches to sponsor a year's worth of apartment rent-about $18,000 in Orange County. It tapped corporations to underwrite 30-day bus and metro rail passes. And the group also asked the folks at Disneyland to put together "welcome baskets" containing towels, blankets, hygiene items, bus passes, laundry soap-and quarters to take to the Laundromat.
For Operation OC, the next relief phase is actually being able to house Katrina victims for the long term. To that end, OCRM is fast-tracking completion of its Village of Hope project. The Village was designed as a Christian residential program that would provide more than 60 fully furnished apartments to homeless individuals and families working toward self-sufficiency. Originally set to open next year, OCRM is fast-tracking completion so that, within the next 30 to 60 days, it can open occupancy to as many as 70 families displaced by Katrina.
Since the Allison family registered with Operation OC on Sept. 19, the aid group "calls me pretty much every day to make sure we have everything we need. One day they called to see how my little girl's rash was doing, and had we seen a doctor?"
Mrs. Allison told WORLD her "little bitty brush with government" at the food-stamp office made her glad she was able to get other necessities through a private aid group. "If I had had to get everything through the government, I probably would have had a nervous breakdown," she said. "Operation OC is a really good connection to have."