Hurricane Katrina’s lessons for covering disasters

When Hurricane Katrina hit the U.S. Gulf Coast states in late August 2005, faith groups had a profound effect on rescue and recovery efforts. People of faith now say Hurricane Katrina permanently changed much more than the Gulf Coast: It changed the way religious groups help and heal in the wake of disaster. Interviews with religious leaders revealed that they have learned inspiring lessons about how to provide aid effectively. They’ve committed to long-term recovery efforts and preparing for future disasters. And they believe faith remains an untold story in the ways it has touched the lives of survivors, caregivers and congregations.

The initial shock of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation inspired talk of its “biblical” proportions. But as recovery efforts continued in the weeks and months that followed, religion, faith and ethics played bigger roles in the stories of how lives and cities are rebuilt. Here is a roundup of ideas, with links to background and sources, for covering the latest disaster.


Why it matters

Katrina was a wake-up call for the nation – a violent reminder of how fragile life can be, and a forced glimpse into the pain of those struggling to survive. Those images have not been forgotten. As future hurricanes bear down, they raise questions of how to mobilize a compassionate response and who’s responsible for making sure those in need are taken care of.

Evil and suffering

Katrina inspired talk of why such destruction occurs. Where is God? Why would God allow such suffering? Why do bad things happen to good people? Was Katrina a sign of the end times? With New Orleans, a city known for drinking, debauchery and licentiousness, there was an added factor. Some suggest that the city’s sins caused the storm to ravage it. These questions played out in the conversations of storm victims, relief workers, donors to relief efforts, clergy and political leaders, revealing much about the foundations of people’s beliefs.

Questions for reporters

Along the Gulf Coast, Katrina smashed houses of worship as well as everything else. How do congregations remain intact and in contact with members when buildings are destroyed? Do local congregations connect with each other in new ways as they attempt to rebuild and recover? How do congregations struck by disaster continue with the rhythms of worship and prayer and caring for those most in need?

  • Churches and other houses of worship mobilized throughout the nation to help storm victims by offering money, food, supplies and shelter. How do these missions mobilize and transform a congregation over time? Tell the human side of the stories of churches and other religious groups in your area that join other aid efforts and how that changes them.
  • For decades, denominational ties have been weakening among Americans, who switch faith traditions with increasing frequency. Nondenominational churches are one of the faster-growing traditions in the country. Disasters offer a lens through which to explore the strength of denominational ties. With buildings damaged or destroyed, how do churches that are part of a denomination fare, as opposed to those that are independent? Where do each receive help from?
  • Disasters also offer a window into how other faith traditions connect nationally. How do Jewish organizations reach out to synagogues and Muslims reach out to mosques in the area? Mormons are known for stockpiling emergency supplies as part of their faith; how does this help Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints congregations and congregants? How do Buddhist and Hindu organizations help each other?
  • What do church architects say about rebuilding religious spaces? Should churches re-create old structures or start anew? What were the most significant religious structures, and how did they fare?
  • New Orleans had some of the oldest congregations – Jewish, Catholic and other Christian denominations – in the nation. Much of this heritage went underwater. What treasures – such as Torah scrolls – were lost in the latest disaster? Religious ceremonies are laden with symbolism.
  • Many rural congregations struggle with shrinking budgets and a lack of clergy willing to work in rural areas with low pay. Do efforts to rebuild after disaster revitalize congregations or cause them to close?


Thousands were left homeless after the storm, and the struggles of those people and families were the focus of stories for months. Homelessness is an unfortunate side effect of natural disasters, and several trends can help shape these stories:

  • Homelessness and poverty are increasing in the United States, and most state budgets have experienced deep cuts in social services. Will populations left homeless by disaster stretch scarce resources even further? How will governments respond? Will the homeless relocate to other cities and states? Will they be able to find housing, or will they join the homeless populations in other cities?
  • Religious organizations are critical in providing shelter and food for the homeless in most cities. How do they respond to increased needs?

Philanthropy and charity

Workplace issues: As people struggle with questions, the Bible studies, prayer groups and chaplaincy services that have become popular in many workplaces can bring comfort and, sometimes, conflict if some feel excluded. If companies and organizations offer employees a way to give money to disaster victims through a religious charity, that can also spark debate.

Difficulties of doing good: Reaching people in remote areas and working with governments unprepared for large-scale relief effort involves frustrations. The outpouring of aid after the 9/11 attacks reminded Americans that money does not always get to the places they think they’re helping. After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, information circulated quickly and widely on how people could make sure they were giving to reputable charities with effective plans for action. As aid efforts unfold, reporters can examine what is going well and why, and what new challenges relief agencies are facing. Many of these can be told locally, as local groups and organizations gather supplies and money.


Generosity abounded in the storm’s wake, with record donations to disaster relief. But so did fraud, with estimates of $2 billion misused. Katrina taught the nation’s nonprofits – including faith groups – another profound lesson about the fact that there is a long leap between people’s desire to help and the ability to deliver that help to those who need it in ways that they can use it. What will change in the future?


Across the country, thousands of Americans gave time and energy to help disaster victims. Here are some of the factors that played into the volunteer help after hurricane Katrina:

  • Volunteer service was limited after Sept. 11 by the locations of the attacks. Because Katrina affected a wider area and victims were evacuated to other states, more volunteerism occurred.
  • Studies show volunteerism is a value that is best instilled when people are young. Did Katrina’s recovery efforts inspire a new generation to volunteer and  shape their attitudes toward others?
  • More businesses have encouraged volunteerism and philanthropy as good for workers and good for business. How might that have benefitted relief efforts?
  • Older adults are a significant pool of volunteer energy that has grown as Baby Boomers age. How did they assist Katrina’s victims?
  • Studies often link religious and civic involvement. People who are members of religious organizations are more likely to be involved in volunteer efforts in their community. Did that trend hold true?
  • “America Gives: A Survey of Americans’ Generosity after Sept. 11”

    This 2002 survey from the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, found that of the 65.6 percent who said they gave money to help victims of the attack, the average gift was about $134 and half gave small donations of $50 or less. Also, 8.3 percent said they donated time – an average of 17 hours.

  • “Attitudes, Politics and Public Service: A Survey of American College Students”

    This survey, published in May 2004 by the Leon and Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy, interviewed 800 college students about their attitudes toward public and volunteer service, politics and more. 53 percent of college students said they had volunteered in their communities, a drop from 2001, when 68 percent said they did. Volunteering in community or public service, on average, ranked at the bottom of the list of students’ personal goals. Students who did volunteer said it made them feel better about themselves, enhanced their understanding of public issues, and increased their tolerance or changed their views on people of different racial, ethnic or religious backgrounds.

  • “OMG! How Generation Y is Redefining Faith in the iPod Era”

    This 2004 survey of almost 1,400 youth ages 18 to 25 that included Christian, Muslim, Jewish youth and a mix of races and ethnicities – explored attitudes about faith, politics and volunteer service. It found a “strong and intimate” connection between religious faith and volunteerism. 56 percent of those surveyed volunteered in their community in the previous year, but only 14 percent did so regularly. The survey was conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research.

  • “Volunteering and Civic Life in America”

    This report by the Corporation for National and Community Service in partnership with the National Conference on Citizenship, shows that Americans significantly increased their commitment to volunteering and civic engagement in 2011, with the national volunteer rate reaching a five-year high.

  • “Study Finds Boomers, Older Volunteers Serving On Their Own”

    According to a 2010 study by AARP, the number of baby boomers and older Americans volunteering outside of a formal organization increased from 34 percent in 2003 to 57 percent in 2009. Seven in 10 boomers reported they are engaged in volunteering either on their own or through an organization, a 20 percent increase over the number of people who say they volunteer through an organization alone.

  • “American Companies That Give Back The Most, 2012”

    The 2012 lists by The Chronicle of Philanthropy look at 2011 giving as a share of 2010 profits to determine which of America’s big companies are the most philanthropic.

  • “Volunteering in the United States, 2012”

    This 2012 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics study shows volunteer statistics by gender, race and age. The volunteer rate was 26.5 percent in 2012. About 64.5 million people volunteered through or for an organization at least once between September 2011 and September 2012.

  • “Giving and Volunteering in the United States”

    Independent Sector provides a useful list of recent studies on giving and volunteering.

  • “Youth without college education are less likely to volunteer”

    This 2007 report by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University’s Tisch College and released jointly with the National Conference on Citizenship found that 25 percent of young adults who have attended college volunteered in 2007 while only 11 percent of those with no college experience volunteered. This gap has remained constant since 2002.

The power of prayer

In religious, political and social settings, millions of people prayed for Katrina’s victims. Here are some resources for adding context to stories on prayer:

Scientific studies: In the face of tragedy, people pray, sometimes despite uncertainty about whether anyone is listening. In recent years, prayer has become the subject of scientific studies that have attempted to prove whether or not it is effective. Results have been mixed.

  • “Long-Awaited Medical Study Questions the Power of Prayer”

    This March 31, 2006, article in The New York Times cites a long-awaited study that showed prayer offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery, and patients who knew they were being prayed for had a higher rate of post-operative complications.

Popularity: Statistics on religious membership, worship attendance and giving often show declines these days, depending on which group of people and which institutions are being studied. Belief in God and participation in prayer, however, remain high. An Aug. 29, 2005, Newsweek/Beliefnet poll found that 64 percent said they pray every day and 91 percent said an important or very important reason for practicing religion was “to forge a personal relationship with God”; the desire for community ranked lower (72 percent).

What people pray for: Read a Dec. 20, 2004, U.S. News & World Report story, “How we talk to God” and results of its poll with Beliefnet.

Laments: Worship often focuses on praise and thanksgiving to God, but Christianity, Judaism and other faiths also have rich heritages of expressing anguish and lament. After the Sept. 11 attacks, certain psalms and prayers took on special meaning for victims and relief workers. What psalms and prayers are people turning to now? Religious leaders of different faiths can talk about arguing with God and expressing anguish in their tradition. Seminary professors and professors of religious studies and comparative religion are good resources.

Race and class

While a storm does not discriminate by race and class, television footage and news photographs showed the seemingly disproportionate effects of Katrina’s aftermath on black and poor people, especially in New Orleans. People with the means to evacuate before the storm often did, but at least some of those who stayed behind did so because they lacked cars or money to leave.

  • “Hiring Illegal Immigrants for Katrina Reconstruction”

    Read a June 2, 2006, National Public Radio article about a surge in immigrant day workers helping with the demolition and rebuilding work in New Orleans. These immigrants – undocumented or contract workers – often lack decent housing and food.

  • “What Katrina Teaches about the Meaning of Racism”

    Read a report called “Understanding Katrina: Perspectives from the Social Sciences,” posted on the website of the Social Science Research Council. It examines issues of race and racism revealed by Katrina, and contains the links to writings on the hurricane by more than 35 academics.

  • “State Fact Sheets”

    The Economic Research Service offers state profiles that include income and poverty rates for rural and urban dwellers.

  • “State & County QuickFacts”

    Read the U.S. Census Bureau’s state facts, including age and race, and compare them to national averages.


Electricity is wiped out in many storm zones, but technology had a significant impact on the way information and money were exchanged in Katrina’s wake. That was particularly true in matters of faith, where sermons were downloaded onto iPods, prayers were sent as text messages, blogs ran ruminations about faith, and online prayer circles and worship services sought God’s help for the victims.

Like others involved with relief, faith groups tried to go high-tech. Katrina taught what works and what doesn’t when basic phone and communications networks go down. When phone calls didn’t go through, for example, text messages sometimes did. Faith groups learned that they needed the right kind of databases to track donations, volunteers and people who need help. Websites popped up to search for missing people and to link up those who had fled the storm with friends and family. Some dispersed congregations met virtually through message boards, blogs and conference calls.

How will these high-tech lessons change preparations for future disaster – or even daily congregational life?

  • “Faith Online”

    This April 2004 Pew Internet & American Life survey found that 64 percent of wired Americans have used the Internet for spiritual purposes.

  • “Letters to the Editors”

    Read an November 2006 commentary from Rabbi Jeffrey Kurtz-Lendner of New Orleans, published in Smartphone & Pocket PC Magazine, about how wireless technology helped him keep in touch with his congregation in the weeks after Katrina.

Funerals and burials

After Katrina, people were faced with handling and honoring the dead when bodies were missing or in horrific shape after floating for days or lying in the heat. There were also dead who were buried long ago in Louisiana, though above ground because of the sea level, who may have resurfaced. How do various religious groups handle the traditions of preparing, burying and grieving in unusual circumstances?


The New Testament speaks of “faith, hope and love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). The greatest of these may be love in the Christian tradition, but hope was in short supply after Katrina hit. Without hope, people were looting, stealing, “acting like animals,” according to one news report, and giving up on surviving the terrible conditions after the hurricane. Hope is a pivotal concept in the Christian and Jewish traditions, which both anticipate future comings of a messiah. How do people of faith hold onto hope when they seemingly have lost everything?

Katrina showed that faith – in the divine, in a better day to come and in the goodness of people – is a building block of recovery. Survivors, volunteers and religious workers told compelling stories of how faith provided hope to the hopeless.

  • “Southern exposure”

    The Gulf Coast region includes many religious influences – among them, evangelical Protestantism and strong Catholicism, intertwined with a deeply Southern sense of family rootedness and place. Read a Sept. 18, 2005, story from The Boston Globe about the “distinctively Southern” nature of Katrina’s impact, and about how some people have responded in religious terms.

  • “‘My Life Was Spared When So Many Were Lost'”

    Read an April 4, 2006, Beliefnet story from a Katrina survivor who writes that “the only thing that keeps me sane is knowing that God has a purpose for me.”


  • New Orleans is the turf of novelist Anne Rice, and its traditions of voodoo and other exotic religions have made the city a tourist destination. Now they have ghoulish overtones. What is voodoo about, and what would the high priestesses of the dark side say about all this grimness?
  • has a page listing the city’s ghost stories, links with voodoo (including an anti-hurricane ritual), information on Rue Morgue and vampire sightings.
  • New Orleans Voodoo Crossroads is about the practice of voodoo in New Orleans.

A teen's eye view

American children and teens saw their country scramble to deal with the effects of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, devastating hurricanes and war overseas. They have seen bitter political debates and polarizing protests. How have these events shaped their political views as they come of age? How do their religious views play into their political opinions and outlook on life? The National Study on Youth and Religion, the most comprehensive survey ever of adolescents and religion, found that four in five of the teenagers questioned said religion was important in their lives.


Corporate scandals have shocked Americans in recent years, and Katrina made way for plenty of unethical business practices, including price-gouging at gas pumps. As homes and businesses are rebuilt after disaster, many people stand to make lots of money. Much of that business know-how will be executed with good will; some will be aimed at making as much money as possible at any cost. Many businesses and business schools have put ethics training and standards in place. How are those lessons being used?

National sources


  • America’s Second Harvest

    America’s Second Harvest is a network of more than 200 food banks and food-rescue groups coordinated by Craig Nemitz. By the end of November 2005, America’s Second Harvest, based in Chicago, had sent more than 1,900 truckloads carrying close to 59 million pounds of food to survivors of Katrina and Rita.

  • National Council of La Raza

    Brenda Muñiz is author of the report “In the Eye of the Storm: How the Government and Private Response to Hurricane Katrina Failed Latinos,” completed for the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), a national Hispanic civil rights and advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. It was issued in February 2006.

  • National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster

    National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster helps voluntary organizations work together to train and plan for disaster response. NVOAD, based in Alexandria, Virginia, also helps build connections between the voluntary groups and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

    Contact: 202-955-8396.
  • American Red Cross

    The American Red Cross is teaming with African American religious and civic groups to train volunteers who will be ready to help when future disasters occur. The Red Cross has sent trainers to work with groups from the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Progressive National Baptist Convention and the NAACP.

    Contact: 202-303-4498.
  • International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

    The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is the world’s largest humanitarian organization.

    Contact: 212-338 0161, +41 22 730 42 22.


  • Douglas Brinkley

    Douglas Brinkley is a professor of history and director of the Roosevelt Center at Tulane University in New Orleans. He is the author of The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast (William Morrow, 2006), which tells the story of the great storm through the eyes of its survivors and examines the failures in the government’s response. Listen to a May 10, 2006, “Fresh Air” radio interview with Brinkley.

  • Ronald C. Kessler

    Ronald C. Kessler is a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School in Boston. He directs a project called the Hurricane Katrina Community Advisory Group Initiative, which is studying the psychological impact of Katrina on survivors of the storm.

  • Manuel Sprung

    Manuel Sprung, assistant professor of psychology with a focus on social-cognitive development in children. He was one of the researchers at the University of Southern Mississippi-Gulf Coast in Long Beach, Miss., who studied how Katrina has affected children’s thinking – including the impact of intrusive thoughts about the storm on their concentration levels.

  • Beverly Wright

    Beverly Wright is founder and director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University in New Orleans. She is co-author of a report, sponsored by the Russell Sage Foundation and released in May 2006, which concluded that minorities and low-income residents have recovered more slowly after Katrina, in part because they have less insurance and less access to government relief. Listen to a May 2, 2006 National Public Radio “News and Notes” conversation with Ed Gordon regarding the report.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • National Disaster Interfaith Services

    National Disaster Interfaith Services, based in New York City, is a faith-based network provides training for clergy, religious leaders and faith-based groups, to help them plan for responding to disasters, and helps with recovery when a disaster does occur. Contact through executive director Peter Gudaitis.

  • Michael Eric Dyson

    Michael Eric Dyson is Avalon Foundation Professor of Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster (Basic Civitas Books, 2006).

  • Henry P. Sims

    Henry P. “Hank” Sims is a professor of leadership and management at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. He has done research on leadership and teamwork and can speak about how relief organizations, including faith-based groups, respond to disasters.

  • Havidán Rodríguez

    Havidán Rodríguez is former director of the Disaster Research Center and professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware in Newark.

    After the storm, the center sent researchers to Mississippi, Louisiana and Houston and made later followups.

  • Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now

    The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now is an advocacy group of low- and moderate-income families, with national offices in Brooklyn, N.Y. Contact Charles Jackson, press coordinator.

    ACORN has started a national Katrina relief campaign, helping to gut homes for people who want to renovate and creating the ACORN Katrina Survivors Association, which is pushing to give Katrina survivors a voice in the rebuilding efforts.

  • Twenty-First Century Foundation

    The Twenty-First Century Foundation (21CF), based in New York, works to support African-American philanthropy for groups involved with community organizing, advocacy and leadership development.

    Through its Hurricane Katrina Recovery Fund, 21CF has made grants to groups working for equality and racial justice in the recovery process.

  • Cheryl Townsend Gilkes

    Cheryl Townsend Gilkes is a professor of sociology and African-American studies at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. She is an expert on black churches. She has written widely, including If It Wasn’t for the Women: Black Women’s Experience and Womanist Culture in Church and Community (Orbis Books, 2000).

    She was a member of the Katrina National Justice Commission.

In the South

  • Andrew Billingsley

    Andrew Billingsley is a professor of sociology and African-American studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia and senior scholar-in-residence at the university’s Institute for Families in Society.

    In 2006 he was involved with a research project examining how African-American churches in the Gulf Coast are recovering after Katrina, what role they play in the community and how congregations (both black and white) from other communities are assisting them in coping with life after the storm.

  • Diana Jones Wilson

    Diana Jones Wilson is president of Faith Partnerships Inc., a network of congregations based in Raleigh, N.C., that works collaboratively to address issues of poverty.

    After Katrina, Faith Partnerships has helped train church leaders in how best to provide aid and has assisted congregations in the Gulf region.

In the Midwest

  • John A. Powell

    John A. Powell is executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University in Columbus. He also holds the Williams Chair in Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the university’s Moritz College of Law. Contact powell through Tara McCoy.

  • Robin F. Finegan

    Robin F. Finegan is regional administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Denver location. She oversees operations in Colorado, North Dakota, Montana, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. Finegan is highly experienced in crisis management and community preparedness.

    Contact: 800-621-3362.
  • Mark R. Rank

    Mark R. Rank is a professor of social welfare at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the author of One Nation, Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All (Oxford University Press, 2004). His focus is on poverty, social welfare and economic inequalities.

    Rank can speak about Katrina’s impact on the poor, the importance of having a safety net of social services and the role faith-based groups play in helping those in need.

In the West

  • Salvatore R. Maddi

    Salvatore R. Maddi is a professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine. He is the co-author of Resilience at Work: How to Succeed No Matter What Life Throws at You (Amacom, 2004) and has studied the quality of “personality hardiness” that allows some people to thrive even in stressful circumstances, such as natural disasters. He also is the founder of the Hardiness Institute.

  • Gilbert Reyes

    Gilbert Reyes is associate dean of the school of psychology at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara. His focus is on crisis intervention and psychological health after disasters.

Related source guides