Responding Holistically in the Wake of Natural Disasters

With the breakneck pace at which the news moves, it is easy to forget that we are not far removed from the recent catastrophic natural disasters that swept through Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico. If you were to ask a resident of these affected regions if their communities are still concerned with recovery efforts, you would find that the speed of our media coverage far outpaces the progress of holistic recovery. The after-effects of superstorms continue to shake these communities. This should compel us to continue to reflect on our approach to emergency management. What does a public justice response look like when a natural disaster strikes? Many critical issues have surfaced regarding infrastructure and national policy, particularly concerning Puerto Rico. While there is much to consider on these topics, there is an important and often overlooked aspect of emergency management that is central to our identity as Christians - neighbors.

Neighbors and neighborhoods provide some of the most essential services in the midst of crisis. It may seem quaint or sentimental to talk about people sharing blankets, caring for each other’s pets, or checking in on elderly neighbors. However, neighborliness is perhaps the most vital and dependable part of any disaster response. Stories of good Samaritans do much more than merely warm our hearts. Neighbors coming to each other’s aid is sometimes the only way to carry out rescue or assistance efforts when roads are impassable and supplies are a long way off. While the compassion of individuals certainly makes a positive contribution in times of crisis, we know that it would be impossible for individuals to singlehandedly respond to the scope of need.  

Generally, we tend to think of federal agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), local or state law enforcement, and first-responders as being primarily responsible for disaster relief responses. In many cases, these institutions play enormous roles. However, in local communities, there are powerful webs of institutions that are tightly bound to their citizenry and place. City governments, non-profits, churches, schools, and businesses all have resources and local knowledge that federal agencies might not possess. Additionally, these institutions have the immediate numbers and mobilizing capacity that first responders often cannot supply as readily.

Disasters overwhelm our resources, particularly the federal government’s ability to respond quickly across long distances. However, when we see local groups step up – like the “mattress guy” in Houston – we are not witnessing merely people filling a gap that federal agencies have failed to fill. Citizens often step up simply because these are the sorts of actions that human beings are compelled to do for one another in a just and compassionate society, and they often do so through their local institutions. Federal agencies are beginning to recognize the power of these local groups to identify and provide life-saving services. Local groups across the country are coordinating with federal agencies to prepare for and respond to disasters. FEMA decided several years ago to harness the vast resources that local communities possess, creating a “Whole Community Approach.” FEMA defines it this way:

Whole Community is a means by which residents, emergency management practitioners, organizational and community leaders, and government officials can collectively understand and assess the needs of their respective communities and determine the best ways to organize and strengthen their assets, capacities, and interests.  

This new approach diverges from FEMA’s prior position on the role of the community during crises. Former FEMA Administrator Craig Furgate explained, “We [FEMA] had almost by default defined the public as a liability. We looked at them as, ‘We must take care of them, because they’re victims.’  But in a catastrophic disaster, why are we discounting them as a resource?” With this, FEMA set out to teach local communities, as well as to learn from their approaches to disaster management.

When it comes to disaster management, governments and citizens each have critical responsibilities in the pursuit of public justice. Leveraging the assets of each locality is a way to live out the truth that God has entrusted humans with many kinds of responsibilities, exercised in different types of relationships and institutions. Each of these must be wise in how it uses resources, and in how it shapes the habits, habitats, and practices of its members. However, a Whole Community approach also recognizes the responsibility that government has in shaping and stewarding our shared environment. While disasters are experienced most acutely in local communities,they touch our shared life together as a nation, impacting our common spaces.

Disaster response will naturally be stronger if the local community is already flourishing and neighbors know each other and their available community resources.

Local leaders who are passionate about the places in which they live have been cultivating a Whole Community approach for years. Community development practitioners seek to identify, train, and mobilize engaged citizens for the common good in local communities. The best approach in response to a disaster is to analyze and utilize a community’s local assets, regardless of whether the disaster is ongoing, such as failing education structures or gang violence, or is an acute, isolated disaster, such as Hurricane Harvey. These assets can include local government, businesses, residents, neighborhood groups, public spaces, and more. This approach is commonly called Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD).  

FEMA has taken the principles of ABCD and has applied them to emergency preparedness.  With this, FEMA has begun to ask how it can effectively train communities to leverage their resources to respond to disasters. To accomplish this, FEMA officials began by creating opportunities “to listen to those who work in local neighborhoods, have survived disasters, and are actively engaged in community development.” This perspective is vital to establishing a public justice framework in a local community, as institutions at different levels of society use their various strengths to create an environment that fosters flourishing for all. A Whole Community Approach has two key facets: first, it recognizes that diverse institutions have unique roles and responsibilities. Second, it recognizes that flourishing is possible when government and civil society institutions work harmoniously, even in the face of disaster.

Christians have a particular calling to this type of community engagement. Instead of  only focusing on the problems within a local community, Christian citizens are concerned with seeing evidence of God’s common grace throughout society, and the image of God in all people and places. Many Christians have engaged in this type of ongoing local work, too. And it is ongoing work. Good emergency management requires long-term local investment and advocacy. Disaster response will naturally be stronger if the local community is already flourishing and neighbors know each other and their available community resources.

Unfortunately, this does not happen everywhere. Disasters often reveal the inequality between various communities. We saw this in stark display in the aftermath Hurricane Katrina, and there is reason to believe it is happening again with the current recovery efforts. For instance, New Orleans has about 100,000 fewer African American residents than in 2005. This is a result of damage done not just by the storm, but by decisions made during the recovery process, such as the demolition of 4,500 public housing apartments.  Resolving these inequities in disaster relief responses will require tuning in and responding to the needs of vulnerable communities alongside courageous work from engaged citizens. The responsibility of citizens includes not only doing the bare minimum to recover from tragedy, but also working to shape the political community to conform to the demands of justice.  

As Christians citizens, there is much opportunity for us to serve our communities in the wake of natural disasters. First, we can find out how we can engage with our local emergency plans, beginning by asking several questions. Does our community have an emergency plan? How can we fit into that plan? How will our church or businesses respond, and what resources do we have to offer the wider community?  Do we have these plans in writing, and have we partnered with other local institutions to provide the strongest possible response? For many churches and businesses, the first work will be to build a relationship with the local community, particularly with our neighbors and local government.  We have a responsibility to make known our desires to help the community, and to communicate what assets we have to offer. As Christians, we must also ask the question of who might be left out of even a thoughtful Whole Community Approach. Are there vulnerable people that may be overlooked in our response, and how will they be mobilized to action or served?   

All communities will benefit when government works synergistically with civil society institutions. This is the strength of the Whole Community Approach - it acknowledges that we work best when every level of society is actively engaged in a common pursuit of justice. However, there is still work to be done in discovering and establishing best practices for Whole Community Approach movements. Some encouraging results have been seen thus far, such as nontraditional partners that are not typically associated with disaster relief preparedness, i.e. local chefs, arts councils, and faith-based institutions, becoming active members in Whole Community Approach plans and responses. We should be encouraged that federal, state, and local institutions are working together, as local institutions are learning from federal experts and federal emergency workers are taking time to listen to local people, who are the experts of their own communities. The result, hopefully, is that lives will  be saved and communities will bounce back from disasters stronger and faster. Ultimately, our hope is that we will all benefit from the work of listening to and mobilizing our local communities toward positive, unified action in the wake of disaster.

-Dan Carter is a husband, father, neighbor, reader, runner, and Senior Pastor of Calvary on 8th St. located in Holland, MI.