The Salvation Army's Big Save in Biloxi

The Salvation Army turned the disaster of Hurricane Katrina into a success in Biloxi, Miss. The relief organization is credited with saving many lives in the weeks after the storm hit.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Hurricane Katrina bruised the reputations of government agents like FEMA, showing them to be slow and bureaucratic, but other groups provided valuable lessons for managing future disasters, organizations from the Coast Guard to Wal-Mart to church groups. NPR's Frank Langfitt traveled to Biloxi, Mississippi, to see how a few Salvation Army workers turned disaster into success.

FRANK LANGFITT reporting:

Before Katrina hit, Wanda Lowe(ph) stored hamburgers and hot dogs in the freezer of a Salvation Army center in East Biloxi. Lowe worked there as a secretary and wanted to make sure people in the struggling community would have something to eat after the hurricane, but a 25-foot storm surge swept up the beach and washed the building away.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

LANGFITT: Walking across the site recently, she recalled the scene the morning after Katrina.

Ms. WANDA LOWE (Salvation Army): The whole slab was covered with debris but it wasn't all ours, it was neighbors'. Oh, there were beds, photo albums, pictures.

LANGFITT: But none of the food she had stored. So Lowe and her husband John, a disaster management coordinator for the Salvation Army, snapped into action. Using their daughter's cell phone, they dialed division headquarters in Jackson, the state capital, and called for more supplies. The phone line kept breaking up.

Ms. LOWE: So it was not an easy process to get the message across. It was very cryptic. You know, about the third time I was able to get through, I said it real fast, you know, before it could cut me off again.

LANGFITT: What did you say real fast?

Ms. LOWE: Yeah. I said, `Help! We need help, Biloxi,' and, I mean, I was--my sentences were real short. You know, I got straight to the point, told them what we needed and then after that I would just keep--every--I'd just keep dialing till I could get back in and then ask, `When is it coming? When is it coming?' And they would let me know where it was at, when it would be there and what I needed to do when it got there.

LANGFITT: That evening, a Salvation Army truck arrived from Oklahoma with bottles of water and cans of beef stew that had been loaded a day or two before. As hurricane victims straggled up to the slab, the truck's driver and the Lowe family gave them their first meal since the storm had leveled their homes. Virginia McGowen(ph) lives nearby. Slapping her hands together to make her point, she says the Salvation Army was a lifesaver.

Ms. VIRGINIA McGOWEN (Hurricane Survivor): This is what I'm saying, though. Without the Salvation Army, there'd have been a lot more deaths after that hurricane and I've got to say they were there.

Professor HANK SIMS (University of Maryland): These are teams that do have discretion and decision-making authority. When they see a need, they just move and they don't wait for authority.

LANGFITT: Professor Hank Sims uses Katrina in his MBA class. Sims teaches leadership and management at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. He says one reason groups like the Salvation Army responded so quickly is because they rely on small independent teams that make decisions on the ground.

Prof. SIMS: It seems to me that at least from the outside looking in that the FEMA organization in general is sort of the opposite end of the spectrum, and that is that they work from a very centralized kind of decision-making authority structure and they just have difficulty moving unless they have the authority to work.

LANGFITT: In addition to the Salvation Army, Sims cites other groups with similar management cultures that responded well to Katrina. They include the Coast Guard, which says it rescued more than 30,000 people in six days using boats and helicopters. Sims also points to church groups which rushed to the scene to feed victims.

Prof. SIMS: Basically they get in their truck with their equipment and their resources and they drive towards the problem and they go as far as they can to wherever the crisis is, and when they can't get any further, they stop, they set up shop and they perform.

LANGFITT: For the Salvation Army in East Biloxi, other traits like close community ties and flexibility paid off as well. After the truck arrived from Oklahoma, workers fed up to 500 people at a time. The next day, they ran out of food. So Wanda's husband John and their son Cody drove to a Winn-Dixie where Cody used to work as a stock boy. Store manager Joe Ducette(ph) picks up the story from there.

Mr. JOE DUCETTE (Manager, Winn-Dixie): They came up one day, like I think it's the day after the storm. They were running out of food already the day after the storm. So I said, `Well, we can help with that,' and I gave them a couple of pallets of water, just to help keep people going. They came one night and got spaghetti, spaghetti sauce. The next night I think they got a bunch of Hamburger Helper, things to make some goulash that the Salvation Army makes.

LANGFITT: With supplies from Winn-Dixie, the Salvation Army fed the neighborhood five more days until a Baptist relief team arrived with more food. Gary Stillwell(ph) says help from faith-based groups was critical. He lives across the street from where the Salvation Army center stood. Stillwell rode out the storm on his roof with his wife Valentina(ph). For the next seven weeks, they camped out on their property waiting for a FEMA trailer.

Mr. GARY STILLWELL (Hurricane Survivor): This is a Coleman tent.

(Soundbite of tent door being unzipped)

Mr. STILLWELL: And believe it or not, we've had it withstand probably 40- or 50-mile-per-hour winds. We had a weekend here where we...

LANGFITT: The Stillwells have tried to make the place homier, hanging wind chimes in the tree branches.

(Soundbite of wind chimes)

LANGFITT: They say FEMA workers and faith-based relief groups approached their jobs very differently. Valentina became so frustrated with delays in getting a trailer, she put a sign by the road that read: Mr. Bush and FEMA, God Is Watching You. Gary says FEMA workers often seemed more focused on meeting targets than addressing people's needs.

Mr. STILLWELL: Black-and-white issue. Is your name on the paper? Is this your number? Have you done this? They actually thought we were still in houses because I don't think anybody put a map up on the wall and said, `Lookit, this is the area that you're going to be working. This is how bad it is. This is what you need to know.'

LANGFITT: A FEMA official says comparing the agency with faith-based groups isn't quite fair. After Katrina, organizations like the Salvation Army were meeting immediate needs like food. By contrast, FEMA says it faces a more complicated task--meeting demand for more than a hundred thousand trailers across the Gulf Coast. And although it took about two months, the Stillwells eventually got their trailer.

Across the street from the Stillwells, Wanda Lowe of the Salvation Army is walking along the slab where she used to work. She's looking through debris, hoping to find something she might recognize. She picks up a bell, the kind Salvation Army workers jingle when collecting donations at Christmastime.

Ms. LOWE: This is--it's one of our bells for when we do the red kettles.

(Soundbite of bell)

Ms. LOWE: A little bit. Yeah, it does a lot of it actually. A little rusted, a little stiff.

LANGFITT: The Salvation Army won't rebuild here, but it's opened a relief center a mile away. Wanda Lowe works there now helping hurricane victims with new needs six days a week.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

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