Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano surveyed the damage of the tornado-ravaged South this weekend, promising federal supplies and aid to help victims of one of the deadliest storm systems in U.S. history. But before FEMA or government leaders stood in the wreckage, local community groups and church congregations were on the streets, assessing victims’ needs and providing emergency supplies.

From organizing donations to setting up makeshift shelters in church basements, faith-based organizations, churches, and community leaders became unofficial first responders in the days after the tornadoes wiped out houses, municipal services, and whole towns.

The response of local churches to the recent natural disaster is just a larger extension of the support many of these places of worship continually provide to their communities. For many small, Southern towns, churches are in a week-long business of serving their neighbors by hosting sports games, bake sales, prayer services, and community group meetings. As Heritage’s Jennifer Marshall and James Carafano have illustrated, it is that intimate knowledge of the lives and needs of the community that makes churches and local faith-based organizations invaluable to disaster relief efforts. The situational awareness and physical proximity to ground zero during disasters allows local community organizations to swiftly begin meeting their neighbors’ needs.

Many congregations and local chapters of faith-based organizations also have a national network of readily available supplies and volunteers to help in disaster relief efforts. The Salvation Army, partnering with local units in states hit hardest by last week’s tornados, has already served tens of thousands of meals and helped funnel monetary donations to the disaster response effort. The Southern Baptist Disaster Relief organization was immediately on the ground after the worst tornadoes hit, helping in search and rescue efforts and praying with people—regardless of faith background—for comfort and strength. On Sunday alone, over 1,000 volunteers were working through Samaritan’s Purse in Alabama to deliver food, water, and spiritual hope to thousands of displaced individuals.

On Sunday, volunteers put down their shovels and slipped off worked gloves for a few hours to gather in makeshift sanctuaries to thank God for saving their lives and ask for the strength and perseverance to continue rebuilding their communities. Faith-based organizations are well-positioned not only to provide physical aid to disaster victims but address the emotional, spiritual, and mental anguish that often follows a tragedy.

In addition to local religious leaders offering solace and encouragement to devastated neighbors, national faith-based organizations sent crisis-trained chaplains to the disaster areas to help victims emotionally process their loss. Local churches and ministries also have staying power, allowing congregations and volunteers to continue meeting the long-term needs of the community long after federal and state help has receded.

With unique awareness of immediate community needs, local and national infrastructures for providing material aid, and the ability to address the emotional and spiritual needs of victims, faith-based community organizations should be an integral disaster relief ally. As Marshall and Carafano point out, government agencies should acknowledge the essential relief capacities that local churches and community groups possess by partnering with faith-based institutions to more effectively plan for and respond to victims’ immediate needs in an emergency situation.