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Enduring Katrina: A Firsthand Look at The Salvation Army’s Disaster Relief Efforts

Hurricane Katrina initially formed over the Bahamas on August 23, 2005. Though it ranked as a Category 1 hurricane when it crossed over Florida, Katrina quickly grew into a Category 5 storm over just a few days in the Gulf of Mexico. On August 30, 2005, Katrina made landfall as a strong Category 3 hurricane along the Gulf Coast of the United States, severely impacting areas of southern Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. The devastating effects of the storm were felt all along the coast, perhaps most notably in New Orleans, where the failure of the municipal levee systems caused severe flooding only hours after the storm moved inland. Hurricane Katrina and subsequent flooding caused hundreds of deaths and tens of billions of dollars in damages. It was the deadliest and most costly hurricane in the United States since the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane.

A Piggly Wiggly grocery store hardly seemed like the ideal location for a disaster response headquarters. But when Salvation Army Captain Joe Burton walked through its doors in Long Beach, Mississippi, two days after Hurricane Katrina barreled through the town in 2005, it was the best he could find. Amid the mess of groceries and food strewn about by 120-mph winds, Captain Burton immediately began to set up one small corner of what would turn out to be The Salvation Army’s largest disaster response operation in its 143-year history.

Across the Gulf Coast, other Salvation Army officers like Captain Burton left their appointments elsewhere in the country in order to lead efforts to help people and communities recuperate, often in makeshift locations like the Piggly Wiggly. The storm had destroyed many of the organization’s buildings and many of its on-site stockpiles of materials. But the agency surged into action, not only establishing a disaster relief operation that stretched across the three states—Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi—that had been directly impacted by the storm, but ultimately serving evacuees throughout the nation.

Not Just Bell Ringers

The Salvation Army is one of the largest nonprofit organizations in the world, founded in 1865 as part of the universal Christian church in London’s East End by former Methodist Minister William Booth. The Mission of the Army—both then and now—is to share the gospel and serve suffering humanity around the world without discrimination.

As both a church and an international social services organization, The Salvation Army operates in 115 countries largely through locally raised public donations. In the United States, 83 cents of every dollar collected goes directly to support the Army’s many services nationwide. Services include adult rehabilitation centers, senior community centers, food banks, homeless shelters, financial aid programs for underprivileged children, and emergency relief.

Although the Army might be better known for its Christmastime Red Kettles and thrift stores than for its disaster relief, its massive response to Hurricane Katrina was hardly the first time the organization had mobilized after a weather-related event. The Salvation Army was on the ground in Galveston, Texas, in 1900, when a hurricane killed tens of thousands of people. Six years later, the Army was in San Francisco when the Great Earthquake hit and the city burned to the ground. Since then, The Salvation Army has responded to thousands of natural and man-made disasters, including the recent floods in the Midwest, September 11th, the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, and 1992’s Hurricane Andrew.

The Salvation Army’s programs are specific to the needs of each community. Although there is not a single director who makes decisions for employees, The Salvation Army follows predetermined guidelines that flow from the National Headquarters to the four regional Territories, the 40 Divisions, and the local Corps communities nationwide. This structure allows local officers and volunteers the independence to act immediately in the event of a crisis. They are able to coordinate with other emergency responders without needing to wait for national approval. However, for a national disaster of great magnitude like Katrina, one or two Army units are not able to provide adequate support on their own, and the Army’s state, regional, or national resources and personnel are mobilized.

The Salvation Army’s primary mission in the wake of a disaster is to meet basic human needs—primarily food, water, shelter, and supplies. As a disaster operation progresses, The Salvation Army organizes the collection and distribution of critically needed commodities like cleaning supplies and reconstruction materials. Disaster personnel   set up case-management systems and liaise with other government and charitable organizations. In response to Katrina, Army personnel came in from all parts of the country as Salvation Army units in 5,000 communities nationwide launched donation appeals and organized volunteer trips.

Over the long term, nearly $400 million dollars was raised for the Katrina relief effort, and those funds are still being put to use to help rebuild and renovate homes, provide job training, build community capacity, and perform other operations. Three years later, the hurricane is still affecting the local population, as well as evacuees who left the region for good, and The Salvation Army is still serving.

Responder of First Resort

A day before Katrina made landfall and hundreds of miles away from the Piggly Wiggly, Salvation Army Major Dan New was sitting in his office in Houston, Texas, nervously monitoring the storm via several independent sources, including NOAA and the National Hurricane Center (NHC). Major New, then the Area Commander for Austin, Texas, had been deployed to Houston a few days earlier, when computer models were suggesting landfall for Katrina along the Texas Gulf coastline.

During hurricane season, Salvation Army officers rotate weeks monitoring weather patterns on a 24/7 basis until a possible storm is recognized. Usually, as soon as NOAA or NHC identifies any disturbance threatening the U.S. coastline, Salvation Army disaster personnel at all levels begin activating internally, readying disaster response equipment and personnel and communicating with local, state, and federal emergency operations centers. 

As Katrina veered toward Louisiana and Mississippi, the Army issued orders for Major New to lead a team of trained disaster workers behind the storm to assist local Corps in setting up what they expected to be a major relief operation in Louisiana. A day after Katrina passed through the state, Major New was already in Baton Rouge, coordinating with local Salvation Army units in a response effort for thousands of storm evacuees.

Major New was acting on the authority not only of The Salvation Army but of the federal government. The Army, along with the American Red Cross and the Mennonite Disaster Service, is one of the agencies recognized as a primary first responder by the new National Response Framework (NRF), which grants several charitable disaster organizations the authority to provide immediate assistance. These agencies are collectively known as VOADs—Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, of which the Army has been a member for years. With this authority, local Army units or national personnel can respond to a catastrophe immediately.

“The Salvation Army doesn’t have to wait for something to be declared a disaster or wait to be asked to come in. We’re already there,” Major New said, referring to the Army’s continual presence in almost every community in the country.
In crisis situations such as Katrina, The Salvation Army structures disaster response operations in accordance with the Incident Command System (ICS), which is the same standard emergency procedure that police, fire, and other government responders follow. ICS has established a chain of command through which resources and personnel are deployed to areas most in need of assistance. The core of a Salvation Army Incident Management Assistance Team is composed of specially trained and experienced Salvation Army officers, employees, and volunteers who might come from across the country to serve.

During Katrina, Salvation Army officers left their local Army units to provide support to the Gulf Coast for at least 14 days, transferring to different disaster areas to work at ICS units. Since most officers are appointed to an office as married couples, their spouses will assume the managerial work left behind.

Back in Long Beach, Mississippi, for example, Captain Burton and other Army officers stayed at the Piggly Wiggly for only two weeks, rotating through appointments and positions. Within those two weeks, however, the Army offered hot meals and shelter to as many neighboring families and individuals in distress as possible. The Piggly Wiggly also acted as the refilling station for canteens, which provided meals and hydration to people from Long Beach, Mississippi, to Slidell, Louisiana.

Soup and Salvation

The most recognizable symbol of the Army’s disaster program is the mobile canteen, which typically looks like a big box truck with a kitchen inside. These “kitchens-on-wheels” are often the Army’s first means of service delivery in an emergency response. Each canteen has the ability to distribute food and supplies to the epicenter of an incident. They are stationed around the country, ready to mobilize at a moment’s notice, and carry with them all the appliances, utensils, and supplies needed to prepare thousands of meals each day. A typical canteen is outfitted with a six-burner stove with griddle, a refrigerator, a freezer, convection ovens, a microwave, a generator, and the all-important double coffee urn. After Katrina, the canteen played a crucial part of operations in the Army’s relief efforts.    

Having established an Incident Command Post in Baton Rouge, Major New and his team pushed on, entering the city of New Orleans. Major New and other Salvation Army officers prepared hot food for rescue workers and survivors from a canteen. By the third day, they were preparing green beans, mashed potatoes, and hamburger steaks for more than 10,000 people. And by the fourth day, The Salvation Army was serving more than 16,000 people in the area.

In Mississippi, one of the Army’s first actions was to deploy a canteen to the city of Biloxi. The mobile unit parked on little more than a debris-strewn concrete slab—all that was left of The Salvation Army’s Biloxi church—and began to serve meals to survivors.

At the peak of the Katrina relief effort, The Salvation Army had 178 canteens and 3 53-foot field kitchens deployed. The relief vehicles came from as far away as the Dakotas and New Mexico, and the disaster workers hailed from all 50 U.S. states and countries including Canada, Bermuda, and Mexico.

But food and hydration aren’t the only things survivors and rescue workers need to keep working through a time of tragedy. In a disaster, it is often just as important to meet the spiritual and emotional needs of survivors.

“I’ve seen that people need a connection to something, whether it’s faith or family, to make it through a disaster,” said Major Sue Dewan, a Corps officer in Cumberland, Maryland, who served as a pastoral care provider in New Orleans during Katrina.

As a church, The Salvation Army ministers to the whole person. While it is critically important to feed, clothe, and shelter disaster survivors, often it is the invisible wounds that cause the most misery. Disaster survivors have lost homes, careers, cherished family heirlooms, pets, and sometimes loved ones. There is a grieving process survivors must go through, and a comforting presence can be critical during this time.

Major Dewan and other pastoral care providers serve as a sympathetic ear or, in some cases, a shoulder to cry on in the wake of a disaster. Following Katrina, pastoral care teams helped individuals feel a connection with something other than loss and cope with the stress and enormity of damage left behind by the storm.

“A lot of people tend to cope with a situation or disaster right away but often fall apart later,” said Major Dewan, who made strong connections with several survivors of Katrina. “The key to getting someone to talk is not to approach them like you’re coming to give counseling. Most people just need a short break from the day, not a psychiatrist or couch to lie down on.”

The Long Haul

Because the devastation of Hurricane Katrina was so immense, The Salvation Army was not able to enter the recovery phase of the response until February of 2006. At that point, the Army began focusing resources on case management, reconstruction, and supporting volunteer teams as they worked to rebuild the Gulf Coast.

“It’s not easy providing long-term needs to people who were impacted in an area the size of England,” said Major Rob Vincent, who left his Salvation Army unit in Greensboro, North Carolina, to head recovery efforts as the South Mississippi Recovery Commander following Katrina. “Each person needs something different, and we try to operate as a well-oiled machine when it comes to serving
those needs.”

After Katrina, the Army provided thousands of short-term financial grants to individuals and families who were unable to purchase food, clothing, shelter, and other essentials. A network of trained Salvation Army caseworkers assessed claims and worked with each individual or family.

The Army also partnered with other nonprofits to meet long-term community needs. For example, the organization used one of its facilities, Yankie Stadium in Biloxi, as a volunteer village. The village served as a base of operations and quarters for volunteers from various social service groups visiting the Gulf Coast to serve. At Yankie, the Navy’s SeaBees built a basic temporary infrastructure, Southern Baptists helped in the meal preparation, and Habitat for Humanity set up job sites to rebuild homes.

Because so many homes were damaged or completely destroyed during Katrina, The Salvation Army allocated more than $90 million of the $382 million it collected in public and corporate donations toward construction, including significant money to support Habitat for Humanity’s reconstruction efforts. Notably, in May 2008, the Army gave $7.4 million to Habitat during the 25th Annual Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project, which erected 400 homes in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

For others who lost their jobs after Katrina, The Salvation Army partnered with a consortium of universities to provide job skills training and re-training to create a new workforce in the Gulf Coast.

Preparing for the Future

Following every major disaster, The Salvation Army analyzes and reviews what worked and what could be improved for future responses. Disaster training courses are offered throughout the year to enhance the skills of emergency personnel and to examine ways to improve the overall efficiency of the disaster program.

“The Salvation Army has a rigorous training schedule, but it helps volunteers to be ready when going into a disaster,” said Captain Burton, who attended two training conferences himself in the past year alone.

Looking back, Captain Burton is proud of what he and the volunteers he worked
with accomplished.

“It was a tremendous effort by all people involved,” said Captain Burton. “From volunteers to first responders, it was truly a team effort. I am very honored to have been a part of what was taking place there.”

JEFF JELLETS is the Southern Territory Disaster Services Coordinator for The Salvation Army. For more information about The Salvation Army and its emergency disaster services program, visit

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