Report: Faith groups "critical" to Gulf Coast rebuilding

I and other Institute staff have gone to the Gulf Coast over 20 times since Katrina struck three years ago for our Gulf Watch project. And every time I've asked a resident or local leader about who have been the heroes of the Katrina recovery, the most common answer has been "people of faith."

After Hurricane Katrina struck three years ago, faith and religious groups mounted an unprecedented response that made them the go-to resource for tens of thousands of storm victims.

Now, as New Orleans and coastal Mississippi struggle to rebuild, the expertise, resources and commitment of faith groups will be an indispensable ingredient to the success of long-term revitalization of the Gulf Coast.

Those are among the findings of "Faith in the Gulf" a new report we at the Institute for Southern Studies released today.

The study, the largest to date on the religious response to Katrina, also finds that faith-based efforts can't replace the central role of government in Gulf rebuilding, but they can be a valuable catalyst and model for federal, state and local policy.

The report is the seventh Institute report tracking the Katrina recovery, and looked at more than 80 faith and community organizations in the Gulf Coast and nationally, from store-front churches in New Orleans to major national religious relief agencies. The study found:

As government agencies stumbled after Katrina, faith-based groups filled the vacuum and mounted a historic response. Faith groups became the most important resource for tens of thousands of storm victims, quickly and effectively delivering food, shelter, supplies, money, medical care and other assistance. Local faith groups continued to provide these services months after the storms, even though in many cases they were among the over 900 houses of worship were damaged or destroyed in the Gulf Coast.

Key to the success of the faith response was the backing of national religious agencies and networks, which quickly mobilized an unprecedented relief and recovery effort. National faith groups deployed at least a quarter million volunteers and raised over $200 million in relief funds in the first two years after Katrina. The value of faith-related labor, services, materials and funds combined can be measured in billions of dollars.

• Drawing on their success in Katrina's aftermath, faith groups are now in a unique position to take leadership in the task of long-term rebuilding in the Gulf Coast. Faith-based initiatives can't replace the central role of government in rebuilding - the scale and scope of the task is beyond the capacity of faith groups. But faith efforts will also be crucial, like the recently-launched Isaiah Funds, an innovative partnership of Baptist, Catholic, Jewish and Mennonite organizations that have raised $4.5 million for long-term revitalization projects in the Gulf.

As the Right Reverend Charles E. Jenkins III, Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana, said in a foreword to the report:

"The Gulf Coast was dealt a merciless blow from two hurricanes in succession, and yet it has also been transformed by the boundless energy and generosity of strangers from far and wide. We are three years on from Katrina and Rita and the needs are still here, and the faithful are still coming."