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Church volunteers help wildfire victims in San Diego

Helping the helpers

Disaster relief | FEMA officials are finding ways to get rid of the red tape and work with faith-based groups during emergencies

Issue: "Unify and conquer," June 14, 2008

When disaster strikes, Kansas native James Bond is on the ground. Increasingly, so is the federal government.

Last May, when a tornado ripped through Greensburg, Kan., wiping out 95 percent of the town, Bond, a disaster response coordinator for World Hope International (WHI), worked alongside a much more helpful version of FEMA than the one that gained notoriety during Hurricane Katrina.

Bond remembers the way the town looked when he used to travel there for high-school athletic events. The world's largest hand-dug well. Old Victorian homes. Mature trees. Quaint shops.

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"When we rolled into town the afternoon after [the tornado], I had trouble referencing where I was," Bond told WORLD.

Immediately, he and his crews of volunteers began rushing around the once historic town cleaning up debris and bulldozing dilapidated houses. Meanwhile, FEMA staff helped coordinate long-term recovery plans and paid to remove ruined houses.

"When you've got hundreds and hundreds of volunteers beating on your door, it's helpful to have someone to set up the meeting[s], doing the ground work for us," Bond said.

Two years ago, Bond might not have seen this type of cooperation. For the federal government, Hurricane Katrina served as a template of what not to do. Red tape and inefficiency defined much of FEMA's attempts at providing even the most basic aid to victims. Some people spoke of waiting for hours just to get food stamps, only to walk away empty-handed.

Meanwhile, faith-based and community organizations (FBCOs), as well as churches, became experts in disaster relief. Christus Victor Lutheran Church in Mississippi fed 400 evacuees and volunteers and provided shelter for 200. Southern Baptist volunteers served 10 million meals. And Operation Blessing delivered food, blankets, and generators to churches sheltering evacuees.

Almost three years after Katrina, the feds have revamped and revised their approach to disaster relief. Among their modifications, they have started treating faith-based and community organizations as the veterans.

"We're in the middle of a very active tornado season, so we don't need to be reminded of the fact that at a moment's notice nature can visit some very serious consequences and devastation upon our communities," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told a group of disaster response leaders at a White House roundtable event on May 19. "Faith-based and community organizations undertake a surprisingly large, varied, and demanding set of initiatives with extraordinary effectiveness, and so we want to do everything we can to harness this energy."

Chertoff's comments came more than two years after President Bush created the Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives within DHS to decrease red tape between faith groups and the government during disaster relief.

Since then, center officials, under the leadership of John Kim Cook, have taken steps to make sure that the federal government doesn't repeat its Katrina experience. They've reevaluated FEMA's staff to make sure it includes people who have experience working with FBCOs. They've hosted emergency preparedness workshops for more than 1,000 leaders of FBCOs in six cities around the country. And they've strengthened the National Response Framework to better coordinate volunteer efforts.

This new strategy has been put to the test with the recent onslaught of fires, floods, and tornadoes across the country.

Last fall, when fires swept across southern California, FEMA had a chance to show that it was serious about partnering with local FBCOs at the ground level. While Southern Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers prepared 10,000 meals a day for evacuees and local churches rolled out sleeping mats, DHS and FEMA staff provided temporary housing for displaced families and met with local faith leaders to answer their questions and provide them with other disaster relief information.

"This was the first catastrophic disaster since my office was created in 2006, and it was time for us to be on the ground to explore opportunities where there was a need for us," Cook said.

To Kevin Massey, acting director of Lutheran Disaster Response, the Bush administration has made good progress. "The federal government is earnestly trying to understand faith-based organizations," Massey told WORLD. "They are really trying to get this."

Over the past two years, as Lutheran Disaster Response provided relief along the Gulf Coast and in tornado-affected areas throughout the Midwest, Massey received frequent calls from FEMA employees asking for advice, particularly on how FEMA can be more sensitive to religious groups. He's also noticed the increased efforts of Voluntary Agency Liaisons (VALs), FEMA employees working on the ground helping voluntary agencies coordinate donations and volunteers.

To Bond, VALs are the trustworthy faces of FEMA. He said he doesn't hesitate to ask their advice because he knows "they give us the straight and skinny on it."

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