Colorado Flooding, and How Not to Help in a Disaster
What churches should—and shouldn't—do in the midst of a state emergency.

Yesterday morning, my friend, Wes, a youth pastor in Longmont, Colorado, posted this update on his Facebook feed:

"I've got 4-wheel drive, a dog, and an open day. If anyone needs help with flooding issues, let me know. Would love to help."

The extreme flooding in Colorado this week has ravaged 130 miles along the eastern slopes of the Rockies from Fort Collins through Boulder, Denver, and Colorado Springs. At this point there have been three recorded fatalities. Cites are shut down, schools are closed, and people are being encouraged to stay home and wait it out. City officials in Longmont are calling this a "500-year flood."

It's easy to understand why Wes would want to jump in and help. But Dr. Jamie Aten, cofounder of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute, says jumping in too soon can cause more harm than good.

"Even though people want to help, I encourage them to connect with community members or affected churches to find out what they need."

How to Help

LifeBridge Christian Church is currently the command center for Colorado Search and Rescue, while many other churches and concerned leaders, like my friend Wes, have been told to stay put until it's safe to be on the roads again. Then they can serve as part of an effective, large-scale clean-up effort.

"After the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska," Aten says, "people sent clothes, including barrels of swimsuits. Swimsuits–when people couldn't go near the water safely. Their heart was right; they were trying to send things to help. But that community was stuck with a $200,000 bill to have all the clothes they couldn't use removed."

Aten says a similar problem hit Moore, Oklahoma. After tornadoes ripped through this area, Moore received an excess of relief supplies. Community organizers finally had to send out an e-mail pleading with donors not to send anymore. It was costing them too much to deal with all of the leftovers they couldn't use.

"Find out what the community needs," Aten recommends. "If a church says they need quilts, dollars, whatever–that's what you supply. Don't just blindly send, because you're likely going to overwhelm the local infrastructure."

Don't Parachute In

Similarly, Aten cautions churches from inundating disaster areas with people to serve.

"Churches in disaster zones need people on the ground," he says. "They need hands and feet that can be there to help serve. But don't just parachute in. If you do that, you're going to overwhelm the local capacity. The local church will have to figure out where to house you and how to feed you, instead of focusing on taking care of church or community members who are displaced."

Connect with a local church, but remember, Aten says, thousands of other churches may be reaching out to them as well. "If you don't have a local relationship, find a reputable, recognizable group to either volunteer with or to donate money to. Dollars can go a long way toward helping. Oftentimes we want to do more than that, but money allows the local community to figure out how best to solve the problems they're facing."

Church Law & Tax Resources

Here are some additional resources that may help your church know how to respond in the midst of a natural disaster:

Though the needs will be many following this epic flooding in Colorado, the greatest thing we can do for this region, and any area when it's been hit by a disaster, is pray.

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

Comments

Displaying 1–1 of 1 comments

Kathy Partridge

September 27, 2013  12:27pm

Thank you. And after the prayer, the second greatest thing you can do is contribute money. The OUR Center in Longmont is a multi-faith food pantry and service center - you can be sure that the donations will be well used to serve those in our community most impacted by the recent devastating floods.

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