Responding to Hurricane Sandy: Part 1
What should churches do in the wake of a devastating natural disaster?

According to New Jersey news source, residents of Rockaway, New Jersey "might have wanted to close their eyes as they passed First Presbyterian Church Tuesday.

"Hurricane Sandy ripped the steeple off the roof, flipped it and stuck it right back in the shingles. The storm also tore into a tree in front of the church, breaking its branches and depositing them on the lawn."

Rockaway churchgoers aren't alone. Although many churches affected this week by Hurricane Sandy have not literally had their steeples turned upside down, the aftermath of the largest Atlantic tropical system on record has left pastors and parishioners feeling overturned. Many are confused, grieving, and unsure of the practical steps of what to do next. With this in mind, we have created a two-part article for churches affected by this disaster and those wishing to help in the recovery effort. Part 2 covers donations, emotional needs, and spiritual needs.

If your church was hit

Church closure

If power is available, create a special voicemail box and update your website with information about closures and other important disaster-related material. Distribute this information to staff and lay leadership who can pass it along to people in their circle of influence by any available means. Quickly send closure notification to radio and TV stations. If power is out in your community, a battery or self-powered radio can still provide listeners with necessary info.

Mitigating financial losses

You may be worrying about your church's loss of tithes during an extended closure. Fortunately, online giving and other alternative tithing methods are becoming more common. Be sure to communicate your church's needs and the availability of these options through the channels described above.

Federal help

Whenever possible, inform your insurance company, denomination, and other officials of any damage to your church. If necessary, churches can apply to FEMA for a loan, whether or not the church has provided essential services during the recovery period. The separation of church and state will not prohibit a church from receiving funds. If your building or property has been damaged by water or wind, FEMA may lend you money to help make repairs.

Using your church as a shelter

Your facilities

If you hope to use your church as a relief shelter, first ask these questions: Do you have enough willing volunteers to attend to the needs of your guests? Do your kitchens have enough space to store and prepare large amounts of food? Are your facilities large enough to set up cots for sleeping? Can your restrooms handle the increased use that comes with full-time residents? If not, do you have space for portable sanitation units?


If you'll be providing such services as medical care, crisis counseling, food preparation, or emergency housing, you will want to have these forms prepared:

• Medical and liability release forms

• Emergency contact forms

• Policies and procedures for staff and volunteers

• Sign-in (sign-out) registration sheets

• Rules for guests while in your shelter


Inform local emergency response officials, your denominational relief organization, and the American Red Cross of the services you are willing to provide to disaster victims. Use your communication channels to inform potential volunteers of your church's needs, and make sure members have channels to communicate their needs to you. If you are unable to provide your facility as a shelter, consider using it in other ways. Without power, many people may need a place to recharge cell phones. While many businesses frown upon public recharging, churches that have power may be able to provide this much-needed service.

Mobilizing relief workers

Ahead of time

If your church decides to send volunteers to aid in the recovery effort, always work through an organization that has experience with disaster relief, such as the American Red Cross or a denominational program. This prevents overlapping assistance, gets to people who might be missed, and increases efficiency. Contact or for more information.

Before leaving home, contact the organization with which you plan to work. Ask for a vehicle decal and personal identification that designates you as a part of the relief effort. Often, only authorized personnel are allowed to enter disaster areas.

On the scene

You'll need sturdy work shoes—not sneakers—to avoid puncture wounds and twisted ankles when walking over debris. Take a couple of pairs of work gloves, plus disposable facemasks. Bandanas can serve as facemasks or as cooling headbands when dipped in water.

For floods, you'll need flat shovels, buckets, mops, and rags. Take a basic tool set with hammer, pliers, socket set, and screwdrivers. Also take an electrical tester and a fire extinguisher. A couple rolls of heavy-duty plastic can have many applications. If you have room, take a wheelbarrow or containers to carry debris.

Stop working before dark. Never enter a disaster area for the first time at night, even if you have a map and are familiar with the area. Curfews, looters, missing street signs, and blocked streets may keep you from reaching your destination. Even residents have difficulty locating their homes in the daylight after major disasters.

This is the first of two posts on responding to Hurricane Sandy or similar disasters. The second post, which covers handling donations and caring for people's emotional and spiritual needs, will publish on Monday. Adapted from Church is Cancelled, When Disaster Strikes, and Serving as a Disaster Relief Team.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is published with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations."

Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

Recent Posts
Subscribe to Church, Law & Tax
Understanding Unrelated Business Income

Understanding Unrelated Business Income

Richard Hammar explains how to compute and report unrelated business income.
Increase Giving at Church

Increase Giving at Church

Develop practical and digital strategies to cultivate a culture of giving.