National, Local Responders Overwhelmed in Katrina's Wake, Report Finds

National responders overwhelmed by the task of providing relief to hundreds of thousands of Hurricane Katrina victims shifted a significant burden onto smaller, locally based relief agencies, a new report commissioned by the Nonprofit Sector and Philanthropy Program at the Aspen Institute finds.

According to Weathering the Storm: The Role of Local Nonprofits in the Hurricane Katrina Relief Effort (48 pages, PDF), local groups received limited support and coordination from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the American Red Cross. Nevertheless, with more than one million people displaced by the storm, shelters sprouted up throughout the Gulf Coast region, often under the auspices of a church or human service provider. Little of the federal assistance or charitable support contributed in the hurricane's wake filtered down to these organizations, however, leading many of them to reduce their services or close their doors altogether.

The report recommends the creation of a high-level coordinating body that includes a wide range of private agencies positioned to respond to a major disaster, as well as the creation of a special congressional designation — to be used during exceptional crises — that, once invoked, would mandate the American Red Cross to contribute 5 percent of the funds it raises to locally based agencies. Written by Tony Pipa, a former executive-on-loan at the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation, the report also urges greater flexibility in the reimbursement and grantmaking policies of both FEMA and private foundations, with an eye to channeling funds and providing more general operating support to local organizations.

"With a disaster of this scale, every nonprofit becomes a disaster responder," said Melissa Flournoy, president and CEO of the Louisiana Association of Nonprofit Organizations. "It's the smaller organizations that are so vital but that also need the most help."