Congressional testimony of service
Major Todd Hawks details Army’s response to Hurricane Katrina and recommends changes for future at congressional hearing.
On Tuesday, December 13, 2005 Congressman Jim Ramstad (R-MN), the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight of the House Committee on Ways and Means, called to order a special hearing to review the response by charities to Hurricane Katrina.
The hurricane caused unprecedented destruction along much of the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. In response Americans reportedly gave or pledged nearly $2.6 billion in donations to charitable organizations aiding its victims.
In announcing the hearing, Chairman Ramstad stated, “We are grateful for the charitable organizations that have played such a critical role in responding to Hurricane Katrina. The subcommittee has a responsibility to examine the lessons learned so that charities can improve their efforts to prepare for and respond to disasters in the future. We also want to ensure that Americans who have given so generously have confidence that their contributions have been and will be used effectively to help people in need.”
Invited witnesses included members of Congress and representatives of the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the American Red Cross, The Salvation Army, and other groups involved with the response to the hurricane.
Major Todd Hawks, public affairs secretary and associate national community relations & development secretary for The Salvation Army in the U.S., was invited to testify as the Army’s representative at the hearing. The following is an edited version of his opening remarks to the committee.
The Salvation Army
“Mr. Chairman, The Salvation Army is a part of the Universal Christian Church. Our mission—our fundamental purpose—is to provide aid and comfort, without discrimination, to those in need.
“More importantly, our people live and work in the communities that they serve…Our officers, staff and volunteers have first-hand knowledge of their individual communities and they are on-site when a disaster strikes. Not only does the Army have people spread out across the country, we have buildings and equipment in those communities too….our decentralized infrastructure is the single most important factor in our ability to respond to a disaster very quickly and on a large scale.
Role in disaster response
“The Salvation Army has been at the site of every major natural disaster in America for more than a century….I do not know of any single charitable organization that is capable of providing the full range of disaster response services required to put communities back on their feet.
“Charitable organizations coordinate their activities with one another and with official government agencies. The Army has Memorandums of Understanding with secular and faith-based organizations, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the American Red Cross and others.
Role in the National Response Plan
“Despite our established role in responding to disasters, The Salvation Army is not mentioned in the National Response Plan.” Hawks continued, “Since many states and municipalities have tailored their emergency plans after the National Response Plan, we are often without a seat at the table at the state and local level during disasters.
“In Louisiana the Army wasn’t permitted to have a liaison in the state’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC). As a result, we had to obtain critical information second-hand through Voluntary Organizations Active in a Disaster (VOAD).
“This is an untenable situation. To deliver our disaster services effectively and efficiently, our local partner must always be the emergency management personnel, and that means inclusion in their disaster response plans.”
Major Hawks further testified about the importance of the training that Army response personnel receive and the specific services The Salvation Army offered in the wake of Katrina. (See side bar – Being Prepared)
Hawks then highlighted some of the major differences in the type of assistance the Army will continue to provide.
Ultimately assisting with long-term recovery
“Typically at this stage—we’re now at Day #101— the Army is operating in what is known as a “recovery phase.”
“The Army employs case management…We sit down with each family to determine what social services they need. These social services are the muscle that allows the Army to make a lasting contribution to communities. At this time, we’re assisting more than 269,000 people through case management.
“Mr. Chairman, we don’t come into a community, help out for a few weeks, and then leave. We don’t make exit plans because we live in those communities. Our presence is permanent.”
Thoughts and observations on Katrina response
“Congress is obviously and rightly concerned about the quality of the preparations for and response to Hurricane Katrina.
“The Salvation Army has identified four items that we would like you to consider:
National Response Plan
“The Salvation Army should be explicitly mentioned in the (FEMA) National Response Plan as a support agency. Inclusion in the federal disaster response plan would clarify our role to state and local governments and, in our opinion, help the Army to more effectively deliver our services.
Training for Non-Governmental Agencies (NGOs)
“If the Federal Government is going to rely upon tax exempt organizations and other NGOs to deliver disaster services, then standardized training is needed. All NGOs must understand the government’s emergency management systems and the language of those systems. We believe that FEMA should take the lead role in providing this training.”
Frequently, people and corporations, motivated by goodwill, send unwanted goods to a disaster site. The arrival of these contributions at a disaster site is problematic. Volunteers who were directly assisting victims must stop that work to sort through truckloads of clothes and other items. Further, storage space in a disaster is scarce.
“I don’t want to sound cold, but the simple truth of the matter is that the best response is to send cash and stay out of the disaster zone, particularly when personal safety and health are at risk.
“The Federal Government could help to channel the generosity of the American people through public service announcements or by making prominent statements to that effect at the time of a disaster.
“To date, the Army has received $295 million for hurricane relief efforts in the affected areas and to assist the evacuees from coast to coast.
“Obviously, there is a direct correlation between the generosity of donors and the extent of the Army’s ability to help people in crisis.
“Consequently, any government policy that makes it more difficult for potential donors to contribute will impact our ability to deliver services. Therefore, we ask that Congress make it as easy as possible for donors to contribute to charitable organizations.
“Mr. Chairman, this concludes my testimony.”Compiled by Jeff Curnow