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How Not to Bring Relief After a Natural Disaster
How Not to Bring Relief After a Natural Disaster
Dr. Jamie Aten, disaster readiness expert and founder of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute, gives guidance for churches that want to help in the wake of natural calamities.
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How did you originally get involved with trauma relief work?

Picture this:

We've just moved from Chicago area down to south Mississippi. Our cell phones have no signal. We live in the country, no TV signal yet. The cable guy is coming on Monday. We know a storm is coming, but it's supposed to hit on the other side of Louisiana. So we go to church on our first Sunday in Mississippi, and we know no one there. The pastor gets up that Sunday morning and says, "If you remember Camille, then you know what I'm about ready to say."

My wife turns to me and says, "Who's Camille?"

I joke and say, "Well, she must have been in the Old Testament."

And then he goes on to talk about Camille being one of the worst disasters to ever hit the US.

Then he talks about Hurricane Katrina, and how the storm has shifted and is actually aiming to come right over where we lived.

And it did.

One of the things that I saw from that firsthand experience was that the church was both uniquely ready and prepared to be able to respond to a disaster, but at the same time, not as prepared as they could have been if there had been more outside of them that was set up to help the local church respond to disasters. Getting to see that firsthand got me started doing research on the role of the local churches in responding to Hurricane Katrina. From there, throughout the US, and globally, I got to do research and help people. And then I received the opportunity to come to Wheaton College to start the Humanitarian Disaster Institute.

Our vision and mission is to equip the church and faith-based organizations to better prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters.

Church leaders tend to think about disaster readiness in forms of responding. What do you see as the strongest preparation that they can make for something before it happens?

If we're only thinking about response, we're probably not going to be effective. It starts with being ready and being prepared. Otherwise we're going to be less effective in our ability to respond. And I would really encourage every church to think prayerfully about what their church is called to do.

How does your church theologically understand disasters? Because that's going to help you understand how to best respond after disasters. Sometimes we almost disconnect our response from who we are as a church. Instead of looking haphazardly for something to do to help, ask your church, "What is it we already do well?" and start there. Think about what your church does well and how you can pivot during times of disasters, and take that gifting you already have—the skills, the knowledge, the relationships—and be able to adapt that to respond to a unique need in a disaster.

November 12, 2013


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