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The last shall be first

Katrina | Disaster relief in Orange County, Calif., has an unusual twist: A faith-based organization is in charge

Issue: "Miers doesn't fit the mold," Oct. 15, 2005

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.

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"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.

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