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.

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