Homeland Security Chief Commends 'Instrumental Role' of Faith-Based, Community Groups

Faith-based and community organizations played an “instrumental role” in response to Hurricane Katrina, according to the chief officer for the Department of Homeland Security.

“… and they continue to be an essential partner in helping victims in the Gulf States region rebuild their lives and communities,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff added in a statement released after President Bush’s order for the department to remove barriers to funding religious relief efforts.

According to Chertoff, Bush recently signed an Executive Order that directs the Department of Homeland Security to establish a Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to advance the department's overall mission and strengthen its preparedness efforts.

“This Center will be a part of the Preparedness Directorate and it will help to advance several core elements of the department’s mission, in particular building a culture of preparedness in every community across America,” the department chief stated on Wednesday.

Chertoff said the Center would conduct a department-wide audit, as directed by the President, “to identify barriers to faith-based and other community organizations’ participation in our programs and activities, and propose ways to remove these barriers and to better integrate the community into our efforts.”

“As a result,” he added, “the department will more effectively channel the unique resources and capabilities of faith-based and other community organizations in times of crisis, and on an ongoing basis, in preparing for catastrophes of all types.”

The new move comes amid more recent reports criticizing the government's response to Hurricane Katrina and complaints from some churches that fed and sheltered Katrina evacuees of delays in receiving promised reimbursement. Last September, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a division within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said that it would use taxpayer money to reimburse churches and other religious organizations that opened its doors to the hurricane victims, according to a report by the Washington Post. FEMA officials said it would mark the first time that the government would make large-scale payments to religious groups for helping during a domestic natural disaster.

Many Gulf Coast residents have praised faith-based volunteers as being more effective than the Federal Emergency Management Agency in providing relief and reconstruction. Government officials, including Homeland Security’s chief, have also recognized faith-based organizations for their “essential” and effective aid work.

Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), at a news conference last Friday, said that if not for the faith-based organizations working in the Gulf Coast, the survivors of Hurricane Katrina would be in worse shape than they are now.

Not only have they been essential in relief efforts, Souder said, but faith-based groups have also been more effective than the government in helping people.

In his statement yesterday, Chertoff concluded by commending the service of faith-based and community organizations and said he “look[s] forward to building upon several long-standing relationships, as well as forging new ones, through the department’s new Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.”