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Churches Play a Growing Role in Emergency Management

Faith-based organizations are being recognized for their vital position in emergency preparedness, response and recovery.

Recognition of faith-based groups as vital cogs in emergency preparedness, response and recovery efforts is on the rise. In 2009, faith-based organizations were formally recognized on a national level when President Barack Obama introduced the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The office was formed to support partnerships between governments at all levels and nonprofit organizations, both secular and faith-based, to better serve families and communities.

“Nonprofit organizations, including faith-based and community organizations, play a vital role in both preparing for disaster, and in ensuring an inclusive and participatory communitywide recovery from a disaster,” according to Partnerships for the Common Good, a toolkit produced by the White House office. “These organizations directly supplement and fill gaps where government authority and resources cannot be applied.”

Several states and local governments have paved a path for successfully including faith-based organizations in emergency management plans. Here’s a look at three such programs and what they have learned along the way.

Praise and Preparedness

The Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) formed Praise and Preparedness to provide congregations with resources to help reduce the impact of a large-scale emergency. But it took a while — and a major event — before GEMA turned its focus to faith-based groups.

The state first launched Ready Georgia to focus on individual preparedness, followed by Ready Business and Ready Kids. But when a dozen tornadoes touched down in Bartow County in 2013, several faith-based organizations jumped in and played a key role in post-disaster recovery, and GEMA officials realized these groups were a key avenue for disaster preparation that they had overlooked. 

“We noticed that houses of worship were really stepping up to the plate in times of need because they are in the community and they know the community very well,” said Janay Stargell, faith-based and nongovernmental organization coordinator for GEMA. “They’re the ones who are able to help with the start of the cleanup, and they can be there through the recovery phase.”

Praise and Preparedness strives to help churches on three levels: preparing the physical facility in case an emergency takes place during a service; preparing church leaders and volunteers to spread the word about disaster readiness among their congregation through information and readiness toolkits; and providing church leaders and volunteers the training required to help the community during disaster response and recovery.

“If a church or a house of worship is going to be involved in the response and recovery phases of a disaster, then we want to make sure they have the training to be able to properly do so,” Stargell said.

GEMA asks faith communities around the state to create or update their emergency operations plan and to complete a readiness checklist. Those who complete the checklist are recognized as GEMA Praise and Preparedness partners. As of press time, the program had two official partners, with several others in the works.

“We started promoting this about eight months ago, so we are still really getting the ball rolling,” Stargell said. GEMA also offers these organizations training in several additional areas.

“We leave it up to the house of worship to decide where they want to focus,” she said. “Some may want to learn how to do child care properly, or how to operate a chainsaw properly so they can send a team into the field after a disaster to help our community if needed. Not all houses of worship want to do every single service or can do every single service. If they have a team of people that are great cooks or a team of people who love children, we can give them additional training in those niche areas.”

Stargell said the involvement of local and faith-based organizations is increasingly important because federal assistance is harder to get as the number of natural disasters has risen in recent years.

“Not every tornado or flood that comes through a community is going to get state or federal dollars to assist in recovery,” she said. “There are so many resources that houses of worship hold. That’s why the community looks for churches to help respond.”

Supercell Sunday

An average of 58 tornadoes touch down in Oklahoma each year. Supercell Sunday was formed to encourage faith-based organizations in the state to develop and pledge to practice a tornado response plan to better prepare the staff and individuals that occupy a facility at various times of the day.

“In Oklahoma, churches have been increasing in size and numbers,” said Wendi D. Marcy, program manager for preparedness and public outreach with the Oklahoma Office of Homeland Security. “They’re required to have fire drills and fire plans, but there’s nothing requiring them to have an emergency plan.”

Recognizing this shortcoming, Marcy reached out to the National Weather Service and together the two organizations — along with the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, the American Red Cross and local emergency managers — formed the Supercell Sunday program.

“Supercell Sunday is designed as a starting point for churches, because the hardest part of writing a plan is knowing where to start,” Marcy said. “If that’s not something you do for a living, then you’re really at a loss.”

Volunteers developed a template tornado plan that faith-based organizations can customize to their facility. They also encourage organizations to form relationships with their local emergency managers and first responders.

“We encourage them to sit down and have a planning meeting, assign roles and responsibilities, and work through facility logistics,” Marcy said. “For example, we have a sign on the bathroom door that says it is a designated tornado shelter, but how are we going to put 1,200 people in there? Often we find that nobody ever thought about that.”

Lastly, Supercell Sunday volunteers encourage participants to hold an annual practice exercise during a time when the facility is conducting services and a number of people are present to take part.

“You usually have about 13 minutes to seek shelter after a tornado warning is issued,” said Marcy. “If you look at the complexity of a large church or even a small church — and you’ve got the Sunday School classes, and the main sanctuary, and the day care section, etc. — getting all those people moved to a central location in less than 13 minutes is just not feasible. We want them to be thinking that stuff through.”

The state started Supercell Sunday simply by looking for people willing to participate. “We went to various community meetings and pitched our preparedness programs, and often somebody there who is actively involved in their church would say, ‘I bet my church would be willing to do that,’” she said. “It’s just getting the word out there, and once you start the ball rolling with one church, they kind of get competitive, so then soon you have more joining in. The initial reach out is the most difficult, but usually it doesn’t take very long for the rest of them to join in.”

Supercell Sunday also encourages churches to assign someone to monitor the weather on days that are deemed high risk for severe weather, as it can be difficult to know what’s going on when you have hundreds of people inside a church and multiple activities under way.

“It’s really about awareness and preparedness to keep them and their congregation safe,” Marcy said.

Faith Communities Disaster Planning

Thurston County, Wash., has actively involved faith-based organizations in emergency planning since 2006. In addition to quarterly meetings to discuss disaster planning, Thurston County Emergency Management conducts a multifaceted training and education program in disaster ministry and support for the long-term recovery process.

“The purpose originally was getting the faith communities to realize where they could help out in a disaster or prior to a disaster,” said Vivian Eason, the county’s emergency management coordinator. “We gave them preparedness training at the personal level so they could prepare their congregation, and then talked to them about how they can help others and educate them on what responders do and what the role of emergency management is. We had a church host the initial gathering for us, and we had booths with educational information and supplies. It was a way to bring them to the table and make them more of a partner in emergency management.”

Eason said the county preparedness training at churches, provides neighborhood training to faith-based organizations, and actively works to form relationships between faith communities and emergency management personnel and first responders. The county also provides a wide array of education opportunities, such as ham radio training and shelter training in coordination with the American Red Cross.

“We have to be ready to take care of the whole county,” she said. “Faith communities are often in select areas, so we are trying to give them ideas on how they can be better prepared to help the folks in their community, or maybe just stand up to be a shelter if needed. The more hands on deck, the better.”

Eason recommended that counties looking to launch a similar effort start by reaching out to chaplain groups or other faith-based organizations within their area to get the ball rolling.

“People think FEMA is going to ride in on their white horse and save the day,” she said. “But that’s just not the case anymore. People rely on the faith community during times of need, so they are increasingly important partners in emergency management.”

Justine Brown is an award-winning veteran journalist who specializes in technology and education. Email her at