Since Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast on August 29, the Salvation Army has been on the front lines of ministry in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. To date, Americans have given a staggering $140 million to the Salvation Army for Katrina relief work.

Now with Hurricane Rita headed into the Gulf, Salvation Army Major George Hood, national community relations secretary, spoke with Christianity Today deputy managing editor Tim Morgan about their relief game plan.

With yet another major hurricane heading into the Gulf, what's on your heart and mind at this moment?

I said to somebody—running through the building—this has been the most stressful day for me since August 31, because we are up to our eyeballs in responding to the needs of people with Katrina. And we're now putting plans together on how we're going to respond to Rita. There's evacuation going on all over the coast of Texas right now because they anticipate a Category 4 hurricane to come in there, and they expect to have three different disaster sites if the storm stays as strong as they expect it to be.

We know always to pray, but what kind of counsel do you want to pass along?

The Christian community has just been phenomenal in supporting the Salvation Army over the last month. We've now received and been entrusted with almost $140 million from the American public. And we don't take that lightly, because it's an extension of our ministry and who we are. We believe the American public trusts us to respond with integrity and responsibility. And that's the burden we carry, that we never violate that trust.

There has been an outpouring from the Christian community wanting to be involved, wanting hands-on involvement in Mississippi and Louisiana. And we've tried to politely hold people off because it would just add to the confusion. There are still many areas without electricity, and contamination all over the city of New Orleans. It's just a dangerous area to be in. But if people could just hang on—we're just waiting for direction from FEMA—in the next few days there will be a shift in the Gulf region to more long-term, substantive, social service care. And I think at that point the logistical burdens of responding to the hurricane will start to lighten up a little bit and there will be room for individuals and churches to get involved in more substantive outreach. We think this stage will last for about four years.

Article continues below

So you are saying to the Christian community to hold off just a little bit, but maybe it won't be too many more days and weeks before those hands will be a necessary component to get the job done.

Correct. And it's going to be long term. We envision needing volunteers and people to help us, not just for the next month, but for at least four years. We've already determined that we probably will be feeding people out of mobile kitchens for a minimum of six more weeks.

That's just staggering in terms of just the logistical details. How are you all coping managerially?

We just sent the senior officer for Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi—who's been really driving his people down there from day one—on a two-week administrative leave. You've got to go refresh yourself and get away. And we've brought in some retired officers who had similar roles to his. We've engaged some of them give leadership to response for the short term. And I think if he can get away for a couple of weeks, he'll be refreshed, he'll be ready to get back here and get going.

We're doing that with our entire disaster response. We have resources of 5,000 officers across the United States who are all trained in how to respond to these things. And we rotate them on a two-week basis. And then of course, the backbone of everything we do are our volunteers. We won't allow any volunteer to stay there beyond a two-week window. And we just keep circulating people in and out. We're fortunate in that we have an infrastructure of 65,000 employees and 3.5 million volunteers, we can keep circulating fresh bodies.

That's one of the unique features of this whole experience, because it seems that so many of the relief workers have been exhausted and even traumatized.

We saw severe damage done to people from 9/11.

The first responders?

The Salvation Army personnel who were working there in that environment for days and weeks—marriages and emotional lives have been destroyed as a result of that. People are still carrying the stress of those days.

Our big concern right now is that while we believe we have the aftermath of Katrina under control, and we're developing a long-term response that we think is going to reach out for the next four years, we suddenly watch this new storm moving in that's wreaking havoc. We're evacuating evacuees out of the Houston area right now. So it's more complex.

And the other thing we're keeping our eye on is our traditional Christmas season, which is only weeks away. Then we put 20,000 volunteer bell ringers on the streets of America to raise money to make sure that the poorest of the poor are taken care of during the holidays and throughout the year.

Article continues below

We're picking up from other charitable groups that they're really nervous about the fall giving period. And you share that concern?

Yes. You have no idea how it's going to come out. Our primary fundraising season, as everyone knows, is November and December. And I mean nobody has a clue about the impact of this hurricane season upon the annual giving that many nonprofits and religious organizations depend upon at the end of the year.

Just how do you prioritize spending the resources that people have given, particularly since Katrina?

We have a policy that we do not mix operating dollars with disaster dollars. Every donation that comes to us designated for a disaster is isolated and committed to that disaster. None of our ongoing administrative costs are taken from disaster funds. There are disaster-related administrative costs, but we don't mix the annual operating money with disaster money.

All of the money that comes dedicated to Katrina will be used on Katrina.

Now, as we're working, we know that 30 percent of the population in that region lives in poverty. So these are the people who we're already serving on an ongoing basis. Now their lives have been devastated, and the whole region has been turned upside down. So the American public is entrusting us with this money, that we will focus the recovery efforts upon that population, making sure they're served.

At the same time, in all of those communities in that area that were not directly impacted, we have this ongoing social service program. In the devastated communities, I'm not even sure that we'll be able to put bell ringers on those streets, or whether there are even any downtowns to have face-to-face contact with the giving public.

So those Salvation Army units are going to be really stressed for a long time until the recovery is fully in place.

I'm sure you have a number of Salvation Army facilities through the whole Gulf region. How have they been impacted?

We lost several. In Biloxi and Gulfport, the buildings were destroyed. Once the storm passed and we were able to get into Biloxi, the Salvation Army building was nothing but a concrete slab. And we turned it into an outdoor kitchen. We just set up equipment on that slab and started feeding and caring for the residents of Biloxi. We sustained a lot of damage in those coastal communities.

What about inter-agency collaboration?

I testified on the Hill the other day, and I made it clear that this is a sector response. There is no one organization capable of responding to the magnitude of this. The federal government needs the nonprofit sector, and we just have to pull together in a collaborative effort to make sure that people who have been impacted are going to be properly served.

Article continues below

This is not a time for aggrandizement from anybody's perspective. The magnitude of the disaster is so intense that everybody's involvement is going to be critical. Now it has to be a coordinate involvement, which is why we're being careful about where we go next. We're waiting for FEMA, who invites us into the area because we don't get any government money for what we do at disaster sites. But FEMA always gives up specific assignments that they know we excel in and are capable of performing. We're waiting for marching orders so we're driving the resources into the right areas and not overlapping the response. But certainly the entire sector is going to be involved in this for a long time.

I know the Salvation Army has been providing food, water, and some medical care, but what about housing?

We're talking now about where we're going to house several thousand people for the next three to six months, maybe longer. We're in dialogue with FEMA on that. There has to be coordinated temporary housing until contractors can get in there and start rebuilding homes. I think Habitat for Humanity is going to be extremely busy in the Gulf region for a long time.

How involved we get into the replacement of homes is still up for grabs, because that's not an expertise that we have. But we're certainly willing to bring in resources and partners to help do that if someone asks that of us. We do think there will be a significant period of time when people are going to be in temporary shelters, whether they're tents or trailers.

Can you cite any example of some unusual thing that an individual or church has done in recent days and weeks?

The openness of the Christian community, to open up their homes and allow strangers to come in a live with them, is pretty phenomenal. It's a risky step to take. Even as all of the violence was raging in New Orleans in the early days, still the Christian community said, Come live with us, we will care for you. That is the fulfillment of the Good Samaritan. I love you so much that regardless of who you are or what you may have done, come and live in our home and allow us to love you and help you get life put back together again. That's extraordinary.

Article continues below

It is quite a stunning example of Christian compassion, and it gives us all a lot of encouragement. How do you personally deal with just the weight of the responsibility that you have in your office?

(Laughter) That's a great question. I have to draw my strength upon the Lord, and I have to take quiet time aside every day just to ask him to refresh me and renew me and equip me and strengthen me. That's the only way you get through it.

Does the wellspring of hope ever draw down, or is it always there for you?

Today has been the most stressful day I've had in the last four weeks, and it's with the emergence of Rita on top of it. There was a day last week where I mentally was hitting a wall. I was physically fine, but mentally I found myself just saying stupid things. And I said, I just need to go home and get some extra sleep tonight. After a nine-hour sleep night, I was fine the next morning.

We've been going seven days a week for 15 or 16 hours a day, nonstop. On Sunday morning two weeks ago I was in California doing media stuff out there, and went to the Salvation Army worship service in Orange County. I was fully revived. And Sunday this week I was in my own worship center here in Arlington, Virginia, and was fully revived.

It's that wellspring of assurance that we're in this for ministry. It's not about proclaiming the Salvation Army; it's about proclaiming the glory of God. We do that through a practical ministry. That's what keeps us going. It's what sustains every Salvation Army officer. We don't do this for fame or fortune. We do this as an extension of our ministry to serve suffering humanity. There's a fascinating way that just constantly renews our vigor, energy, and spiritual bodies, because we know we're in the will of God and fulfilling his mission.

What kind of response are you picking up from the survivors and evacuees?

Genuine gratitude and appreciation. The stories just go on and on and on. People are embracing and loving the Salvation Army. They are so grateful for what we're doing, and willingly express it. The greatest testimony is that once they're served and feel like they've got themselves on the right track, they'll come back as volunteers and they'll want to help us serve the other ones, people who are still left.

Related Elsewhere:

Our full coverage of Katrina stories is available on our website.