Nongovernmental organizations have played a central role in response and recovery in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast, said Pam Jenkins, professor of criminal justice and women’s studies at the University of New Orleans. The Lower Ninth Ward has been revived not by any one government agency but by community organizations that worked with residents. “There are important things to learn from NGOs that the government can use in planning and preparing for disasters,” Jenkins said.

For the past 4 years, Jenkins has been studying resilient NGOs that not only survived the storm but thrived. The first characteristic of these organizations that she noted was their leadership. Effective leaders understood that when the disaster ended, things were not going to be the same. These leaders understood the new context and did not yearn to return to the way things were.

The budgets of some effective NGOs grew dramatically. In these cases, the organization had strong ties to agencies and people outside the area. They also were able to forge what Jenkins called authentic partnerships with the state and federal governments. “This isn’t just a partnership on paper. This is a partnership where you meet every month, and during hurricane season you might meet more than that.”

Jenkins also addressed the lack of knowledge about what happens after a disaster, which was so profound in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after Katrina that people made poor decisions. In the aftermath of those decisions, groups got together and “mulled it over with their neighbors.” They talked about what went wrong and how the response to a disaster could be improved in the future.

One size does not fit all when it comes to the provision of information. Social networks, for example, may work for some people but not all. Some people need personal help to complete paperwork or navigate a process. Also, information needs to be accurate and complete. In New Orleans, people tend to worry about hurricanes from May to the end of October and try to forget about them the rest of the year. But resilience and mitigation need to be part of everyday life all the time. “That changes what we do as organizations. It changes what we do as individuals,” said Jenkins.


Before Katrina, certain aspects of New Orleans were very centralized, said Steven Bingler, president of the architectural firm Concordia. The city had one central public hospital. Power was concentrated with the mayor. The school system was run largely through a single unified district.

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