Guidance for ministries in the wake of a devastating natural disaster.
Editor’s Note: as Hurricane Harvey—which has been called a “landmark event for Texas”—brings devastating rain and flooding damage, many are grieving and unsure of the practical steps of what to do next. This article was initially created for churches affected by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and those wishing to help in the recovery effort, and its insights and concrete guidance still apply today.
If your church was hit
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.
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
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 redcross.org or salvationarmyusa.org 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.
Responding to the community’s needs
When considered with the profound loss associated with the personal and emotional toll of the superstorm, the needs of affected communities and churches are truly staggering.
Here is a brief overview of donation handling and pastoral care principles to help guide your efforts in the disaster's aftermath.
Perhaps the best way churches and members can donate to help the victims of a disaster is through financial gifts. This may seem callous and impersonal, but a monetary donation to one of the many voluntary organizations providing disaster relief is a sensible and efficient way to help those in need.
These organizations have a great deal of experience in disaster relief and know what is most needed. Financial gifts allow them to make purchasing decisions and help ensure the flow of support that these organizations provide. Time that would have been spent unloading, processing, organizing, and repackaging goods can be directed toward more critical areas. Also, when these organizations are able to make purchases in the community affected by the disaster, they help spur the recovery of the local economy.
If you decide to send physical goods instead of a financial contribution, first find out what the voluntary organization needs. Many of these organizations have toll-free numbers you can call to find out what items are needed most in the disaster area. Be wary of claims that "everything is needed." In previous disaster relief efforts, countless goods were wasted because donors did not coordinate with relief organizations.
Donated clothing is rarely useful in disaster relief situations because they are difficult to organize and distribute. Early on, relief workers will focus on basic necessities like food and water, so clothing takes up valuable space in warehouses. Especially in flood relief efforts, stored clothing can mildew and is rendered useless long before it can be distributed.
After learning which items are needed, package the items to be donated in easily accessible ways. Label each package clearly, and tape a list of specific contents to the side of the box. Consider the efforts of relief workers who will unload the box, and pack accordingly.
Addressing emotional and spiritual needs
Focus on the people
Concentrating on physical needs of disaster victims is often easier than addressing their emotional and spiritual needs. But these are the needs that most often go unmet. Find opportunities to show God's love to the individuals whose lives have been touched by this tragedy. Search for those who need a word of encouragement, a heart-felt prayer, or someone willing to really listen. As the relief effort drags on, people will naturally become irritated. Many individuals will be tired of telling stories of their hardship, and they may lash out in frustration. Pray for patience and put yourself in their shoes.
Learn to tell the difference between signs of normal stress and grief, and signs of unhealthy grief. Many victims will feel sadness, guilt, anxiety, loneliness, emptiness, fatigue, helplessness, disbelief, numbness, and anger. They may yearn for the way life used to be or feel like God has abandoned them. But quickly respond to signs of unhealthy grief: avoiding and excluding friends and family, prolonged feelings of the worthlessness of life, thoughts of self-harm and self-destruction, and abuse of alcohol or drugs.
Churches are uniquely equipped to tend to the spiritual needs of disaster victims. Hold special services to pray for those affected and worship God in the midst of tragedy, especially if your church is acting as a shelter for victims. Damage to your church building can be devastating, and it may take years to return to a new normal. But church fellowship extends beyond physical structures. Worshiping God as a dislocated body will bind your members together in community that will outlast any damaged building. And once a new normal is in sight, hold a special service to celebrate and thank God for his preservation and care.
Adapted from When Disaster Strikes and Serving as a Disaster Relief Team. For more on caring for your community in the midst of disasters, read our columns from disaster ministry expert Jamie Aten.