When a tornado devastated Joplin in spring 2011, South Joplin Christian Church didn’t have a plan.
“The reality is that I remember no conversations where we said, ‘We could do this and this, and be prepared for part of our town being wiped off the map, for our church being damaged, and for many of our families losing their homes and businesses,” said Jill Michel, the church’s pastor. “There were no conversations that started that way.”
The lack of planning is common in churches. But in Missouri, faith groups are partnering up with disaster-related agencies to change that.
About 100 clergy and lay people attended a two-day training session in Columbia, Mo., earlier this month focused on how to become a disaster readiness coordinator for a church or faith-based organization.
The training also laid the ground work for a new organization: the Association of Local Faith Based Disaster Readiness Coordinators. The group will direct people to training opportunities and other resources, provide support and bring people together to share best practices. The website for the group, drc247.org, is under construction, and should be ready sometime in April.
One of the coordinators, Bill Rose Heim, pastor for the Northwest Area Christian Church Disciples of Christ of Mid-America, said it all started when he and others he works with saw a need that wasn’t being met.
“It became clear to us that not every denomination or faith-based organization has a program for helping congregations become prepared not only to survive a disaster, but to be active partners in serving their communities during and after a disaster,” he said.
They connected with the State Emergency Management Agency, the American Red Cross and other organizations to put together this pilot program.
As important as the big-picture plans are, they start small.
“It starts with individuals and families,” said Melissa Friel, the preparedness branch chief with SEMA in Missouri. She taught the group the concepts of “Ready in 3”: create a plan, prepare a kit and listen for information.
Plans like this one, she said, could be brought back to members of churches and other organizations to help ensure the safety of members at home.
Preparing the group
For group planning, Dante Gliniecki, the volunteer coordinator for Missouri SEMA, recommended that people start by exploring which potential hazards their communities face. Floods? Tornados? Earthquakes?
Then, he said, evaluate how each scenario could impact the faith community, and figure out what to do in each situation with both short-term and long-term plans.
Phillip Iman, the disaster specialist for the Heart of Missouri chapter of the American Red Cross, said about one third of businesses and faith-based organizations have no continuity plans for how to move forward after a disaster.
And about 40 percent of businesses hit by natural disasters fail to reopen. He recommended Ready Rating, a free online resource the Red Cross offers for those who want to make a readiness plan and get feedback on how to improve it.
Michel, whose church was damaged in the Joplin tornado, shared tips based on her experience: Know the church’s insurance policy. Keep a list of members’ main out-of-town contacts, or places they would go in an emergency. Make plans for your building – the sanctuary at Michel’s church had to be gutted, but they already had some long-range building plans drawn up for another reason, so they put those to use and moved back in within six months.
Gliniecki said that after evaluating the impact a disaster would have on the organizational level, the next step is to think about how it would impact the community, and which needs your faith-based organization can fill.
Several presenters stressed the importance of finding a niche, based on the strengths of the group, whether that’s becoming a shelter, helping care for displaced pets, cooking, providing children’s activities or helping remove debris.
“We need you,” Gliniecki said. “We need the faith community to help us in times of disaster.”
He and others emphasized the importance of collaboration with other groups and agencies – that way, everything is more organized, streamlined and supported.
One of the ways faith-based organizations can connect with existing efforts is through a VOAD – Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster – a network of groups found in every state that come together to fill disaster-related needs.
Many cities and counties also have a local version – a COAD, or Community Organizations Active in Disaster. Those who aren’t sure whether their area has a COAD or want to know how to get involved can reach out to their county’s emergency management director.
Michael Curry, the emergency management director for Jackson County, Mo., has been working to bolster partnerships in Kansas City, Mo., between the American Red Cross and area churches.
“The ability to use individual churches for shelter locations is tremendous,” Curry said.
Churches who become certified through the American Red Cross face fewer liability issues and can secure disaster resources such as food and cots, along with volunteer training.
John Pyron of Lutheran Family and Children’s Services challenged his audience to keep perspective amid all the logistical planning and collaboration. “It’s not about this process you’re trying to create,” he said. “It’s about the people you want to serve.”
These are just a few of the many disaster preparation and response resources available – check with your city, state and religious group for more.
- National Disaster Interfaiths Network
- National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (every state has a VOAD)
- Other state programs, such as the Missouri Governor’s Faith-Based Organization Disaster Initiative
- The book “Help and Hope: Disaster Preparedness and Response Tools for Congregations,” from Chalice Press
- (Coming soon) The Association of Local Faith Based Organization Disaster Readiness Coordinators will also list resources on its website
This story was produced in partnership with Columbia Faith & Values, mid-Missouri's source for religion news.