What Your Church Needs to Know About Disaster Sheltering

Experts offer tips on how your church can prepare now to better serve your community after disaster strikes.

Disaster strikes your community, and your church wants to help. You have a large, easily accessible building, and people need somewhere safe to go. Opening up your building as a disaster shelter is a great option, but it’s not as simple as opening your doors and inviting people in. Sheltering requires planning and cooperation with outside organizations to do it well.

American Red Cross is one organization that often partners with churches in post-disaster sheltering situations. It’s also helpful to develop relationships with your local emergency management organizations, who will be important contacts when disaster strikes.

Research shows that churches are often the first place people turn in the event of a disaster or emergency—even if they’re not a member, or even religious.

Research shows that churches are often the first place people turn in the event of a disaster or emergency—even if they’re not a member, or even religious. People know that a church is a place where they can find shelter, safety, and care, from people who are local to their community and who will be there long after the initial relief phase is over. Sheltering is a tangible, powerful way for churches to demonstrate their love for their neighbors.

The logistics of sheltering may feel overwhelming, but partnering with local organizations can help alleviate that burden by allowing churches to do what they do best while leaving the specialized details to experts. According to Curt Luthye, Regional Volunteer Services Officer at Red Cross at the American Red Cross of San Diego/Imperial Counties, “While a church offers its space, and sometimes its staff and volunteers, the Red Cross can provide resources to the shelter, such as cots, blankets and necessary food as well as a commitment to restock any items used by clients.” This arrangement can improve the impact of both organizations’ efforts. “This allows the church to serve its community while being supported by Red Cross resources and sheltering expertise,” says Luthye.

If you think your church may have interest in sheltering at some point in the future, begin the process now, before disaster strikes. Red Cross has a series of shelter assessments and agreements about the use of the facility, including clarity around liability and expenses, which, when signed and implemented, allows them to enter your church’s information into the National Shelter System (NSS). Members of the congregation can enter into ARC’s shelter training programs and other disaster training, so that your church can be ready to respond without delay when called upon.

Charlotte Hazel, manager of Government & Community Engagement Partnerships for the Northern Illinois Region of the American Red Cross, stresses the importance of church buy-in, since the success of the shelter would be dependent on parishioner support. She urges that interested churches “establish a team that can work toward understanding the responsibilities and capabilities of a shelter operation. Research training, church liability, security, accessibility for ADA compliance, etc.”

It’s important to consider these questions beforehand, according to Luthye. “The one thing that is important to remember is that shelters run 24 hours a day and can often stretch for more than a week,” he says. “While I strongly believe that churches are a key to meeting this need in particular, each church should consider the impacts to offering up their facilities. How will it affect our programs? How will it affect our services?”

If you think your church may have interest in sheltering at some point in the future, begin the process now, before disaster strikes.

In addition to space, one of the primary needs survivors will have is food. “In haste, we often forget to consider that if the shelter is needed for even as short as 24 hours, people that did not bring food with them will begin to seek assistance,” says Kevin Smith, director of the DHS Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives at FEMA. “For every hour that this shelter is housing survivors that need increases. This does not mean you have to provide this solution, but it does mean you need to build the plan for how to address these needs when they arise.” There are different ways to meet these needs, says Smith. “Consider non-traditional partners or a plan to prepare food in your house of worship to serve those in the shelter.”

One of the biggest challenges in disaster response is recognizing the immediacy of the need before it becomes a reality. But with disasters rising in both frequency and impact, it’s an investment worth making. “At first glance, there may seem to be more effort than you are willing to put in to make your facility an acceptable shelter,” says Smith. He adds, “However, there is such a great need to care for communities when housing is depleted or significantly damaged, the collective return on the time you invest outweighs the effort you put in.”

Through preparing to be a shelter, your church has an opportunity to demonstrate what it means to love your neighbor. These kinds of practical preparations not only train your members in important skills and practices, they also help form your members’ hearts toward demonstrating care for those outside your walls. Whether you decide to pursue sheltering or some other kind of disaster ministry, engaging your church in this kind of outward-focused response can have a lasting impact on your church and your community.

You can find more information about the American Red Cross at www.redcross.org.

Dr. Jamie Aten is an award-winning disaster psychologist and disaster ministry expert. He is the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and the Blanchard Chair of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College.

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