Below are practical steps churches and families can take to prepare for and respond to emergencies, and lessons from churches in New York and New Orleans who suffered through natural and manmade disasters.
What churches have learned
Right after 9/11, Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City was flooded with requests for help—and with generous gifts from all over to help meet those needs. Because their church had an organized diaconate with trained leaders, Redeemer was able to distribute assistance much more efficiently than groups arriving after the event. "We saw many other relief efforts spend a great deal of money on hiring new staff and renting office space—very high cost items," says Tim Keller. This may be a good lesson to support existing churches and ministries when we can, rather than "build our own."
One lesson Redeemer learned from 9/11 was to watch for burnout among their staff. "We did not recognize the danger as much as we should have," Keller said.
After super storm Sandy, Redeemer again relied on its robust diaconate, but they encountered other problems because the disaster. "We had difficulty connecting quickly with the thousands of people in the Redeemer community to make sure everyone was okay," said Bruce Terrell, executive pastor. Large power outages compounded communication problems. "We also believe we can do a better job of partnering with the city to work in concert with the needs they identify," says Terrell.
Another church affected by Sandy, in a low-income area of New York City, was Infinity NY Church. They learned before the storm to put all church cell numbers on phones they could use whether normal power was running or not. This helped get news and requests for help to church members much more quickly. They also prepared ahead of time so they could bring much needed generators and pumps to flooded homes right after the storm and before government help arrived. Infinity NY Church's pastor, Dimas Salaberrios, helped organize church responses to 9/11, the Haiti earthquake, and Sandy, and knows first-hand just how vital the church's role is during disasters.
Ray Cannata, who started pastoring at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New Orleans just after Hurricane Katrina, dealt with its aftermath for several years. "We healed ourselves by becoming healers," he said. "Our focus remains mission not self-protection. Moving toward the pain." He said this has helped his church stay focused on service despite long-lasting challenges from the storm.
Because natural disasters are common in their area, Cannata says his church is always preparing: every year they buy one or two more generators to use later. During their last storm, they had five member homes with generators, which they opened to people in need.
More recently, Pastor John Crowder of First Baptist Church in West, Texas, told Leadership Journal about the struggles he and his church have had since that disaster. Doubt, frustration, and the day-to-day inconveniences brought (ironically) by relief workers challenge the church's witness. He and his congregation need to steward resources sent to help, while remembering that God is bigger than their disaster.
The difference spiritual preparation makes
Hurricane Katrina was one of the largest disasters in our nation's recent history. It killed more than 3,000 and left thousands more without food, water, and other services in New Orleans and other areas. After that disaster, Keith Collins, pastor of Lakeview Christian Center, realized how important their spiritual preparation was during and after that disaster:
"How helpful it was for the church to be 'theologically prepared' for suffering. Scripture presents to us a God who is sovereign over every detail of his creation, including the catastrophes, and that God is working all things for his glory and our good. One of the most encouraging things that I observed as a pastor was that in the midst of our people losing homes, businesses, and having to relocate, they weren't walking around asking, 'Why, God?'"
That kind of heart-preparation is vital. It will be even more important if God allows a much more serious disaster on American soil. A nuclear or biological attack could affect a city or region for many years, with much greater loss of life than Katrina.
Collins's final thoughts about what he learned through Katrina are worth remembering: "What informs our present thoughts about how we would face such a disaster again is what we experienced about how God is in the midst of disasters. He opens doors of favor, he provides in ways you didn't script, he brings wisdom that you don't have."
"What becomes clear," Collins says, "is that God already has a plan in place for the day of those events. So, if I could encourage any form of preparation before such a disaster, it would be to learn to live your life and to lead your church in the regular habit of 'God dependence.' "Don't grow dependent on your familiar and traditional ways of doing church to the neglect of receiving from the Holy Spirit," Collins says. "In the day of a catastrophe the old familiar script just won't work and there aren't any good books that will have all the answers, but if your ear is tuned to God, he will lead you through the rubble!"
Biblical examples of faith in the face of tragedy include Habakkuk (3:17-18), who saw a national disaster coming and could still rejoice in God. Job did the same thing in the face of personal tragedy that cost him everything (Job 1:21).
Teaching these truths is vitally important, and the time to take them to heart is before a disaster strikes. This is a point John Piper makes in his book Spectacular Sins, which encourages church leaders to prepare people spiritually for "global sorrows" that are coming.
Careful spiritual preparation has no downside: it prepares us for personal tragedies as well as national ones, whether they come or not.
Preparing for emergencies where you have to leave
Many of the preparations that families and churches should make for natural and manmade disasters are the same. Broadly speaking, it is wise to prepare for disasters where you have to leave (evacuate), and those where you have to stay in place.
Here are suggestions for preparing for emergencies requiring you to leave your area—but please carefully consult the FEMA website when making any plans (www.ready.gov/build-a-kit):
Make a family communication plan.
- Identify a friend or relative out-of-state that each family member can call and let them know you are safe. Local phone circuits may be jammed, while calling out of the area may be possible. Make sure every family member knows the phone number of that contact and has a cell phone, coins, or a prepaid phone card to call in an emergency.
- If you have a cell phone, program contact person(s) as "ICE" (In Case of Emergency) in your phone, which emergency responders will look for incase you are in an accident or need treatment. Be sure to tell family and friends that you've listed them as an emergency contact.
- Teach family members how to use text messaging (also known as SMS or Short Message Service). Text messages can often get through when phone lines are jammed. Twitter may be available if Internet service is running.
- Subscribe for local emergency text or email announcements.
Have a family emergency evacuation plan.
- In an emergency, it may be difficult for family members to talk with each other, except possibly by texting or Twitter (unless cell and internet systems are down). Before an emergency, sit down and plan where you will try to go and whom you will try to contact. This should include an out-of-the-area location if you know that your area around your home has to be evacuated. FEMA has a form that can be used to keep emergency contact information up-to-date: https://www.ready.gov/sites/default/files/FamEmePlan_2012.pdf.
- It is wise to carry three or more days of food, water, and other supplies (see "emergency kits" below) in your car in case you have to evacuate directly from work or school.
- At home, prepare a "bug out" bag that includes several days of supplies, as well as copies of important documents, so you can leave on short notice. Industrial accidents, train derailments, and fires can all force people to leave home with only a few minutes notice.
- Know how to shut off your utilities before you leave your home: https://www.ready.gov/safety-skills.
You should have at least three or more days of food, water, medicine, and other items in an emergency kit (or "go bag"), both in your home and car. Some items to include from FEMA's website:
- Water, one or two gallons per person per day for three or more days, for drinking and sanitation (store some to share if you can)
- Food, at least a three-day supply of non-perishable food
- Battery-powered or hand crank radio and a NOAA Weather Radio with tone alert and extra batteries for both
- Flashlight and extra batteries
- First aid kit
- Whistle to signal for help
- Dust mask to help filter contaminated air and plastic sheeting and duct tape to shelter-in-place (sealing your home or office from outside air)
- Moist towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties for personal sanitation
- Wrench or pliers to turn off utilities
- Manual can opener for food
- Local maps
- Cell phone with chargers, inverter or solar charger
- Copies of important documents (insurance, bank information)
Other items to consider bringing (clothing, blankets, extra eye glasses or shoes, books, games for children, etc.) are listed here: https://www.ready.gov/build-a-kit.
Preparing for emergencies where you stay at home
Although many emergency preparedness websites encourage households to have a minimum of three days of food, water, and other supplies, major storms like Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, and concerns about computer hacking of our power grid, all make it wise to have a several weeks of supplies on hand—and supplies to share—if at all possible. This includes food, water, and fuel since water and gas pumps may not work.
Below is a list of items to get you started. Consult the FEMA and Red Cross websites thoroughly when making these and any other emergency plans:
- Store 2,000 to 3,000 calories of food per person, per day, of nonperishable food, avoiding salty foods, and including some food variety for a longer emergency
- Store water (1 to 2 gallons per person, per day) off of concrete (which can leach chemicals), changing the water every six months
- Consider buying a large water filter from a camping or emergency supply store, which can purify outdoor or bathtub water for drinking
- Look for safe and affordable alternative energy sources for lighting and other needs (such as heat in cold weather)
- Consider storing easy to wash clothes, to minimize water usage
- Have items for reading, games for children, clothes, and other items listed on the FEMA website
- Prayerfully consider what security options you and your family want to take to protect yourselves and your home
How churches can prepare
To begin, churches should encourage their member families to prepare, both for their own well being, and so they will be better able to help others, whether in organized church efforts or in their neighborhoods. As they prepare, churches can encourage members to store food, water, and other items to share with others, which could make an enormous difference if an emergency lasts for weeks or months.
Churches should prepare their plans in conjunction with local disaster management authorities, and encourage willing members to get Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) and other emergency training, so they will have the necessary credentials to help others in a crisis area. People, including pastors, without such training may be turned away from critical areas during an emergency.
One organization that has helped network area churches to prepare for and respond to disasters is the Austin Disaster Relief Network (ADRN), which trains volunteers from member churches in and around Austin, Texas. They saw over 100 area pastors turned away from helping Katrina victims because they had no emergency response training and were un-credentialed. ADRN does not want to see willing Christian volunteers turned away for that reason again.
Local churches may also want to coordinate with the local chapter of VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters), which includes over 100 voluntary organizations such as the relief ministries of several denominations and organizations such as the Red Cross and Samaritan's Purse.
The Southern Baptists are among the best-prepared denominations for emergencies. Using mobile kitchens, they can prepare over 3 million meals per day—more than the Red Cross. They have programs to train church volunteers, to get them credentialed so that government agencies and the Red Cross can use their volunteers readily in disaster areas. The Southern Baptists also insure their volunteers—a wise idea for churches or denominations that can afford it. Other denominations, including the Brethren churches and the Presbyterian Church in America, also have disaster response ministries.
Local churches should also consider entering into agreements with their local Red Cross chapter, to offer part or all of the church's facilities to the Red Cross during a disaster, so they will know how many people a church can shelter. In our city, churches with such agreements can always refuse access at the last minute, but at least the Red Cross knows how many people a church can shelter if they are willing, under the terms outlined by the local church. Any damage caused by the Red Cross's use of the church's facilities is covered by the Red Cross's own insurance.
But in addition to facilities, church members can offer their homes. "Share with the Lord's people who are in need. Practice hospitality" (Rom. 12:13). If a nuclear or biological attack occurs in a large city, many thousands of people could need a new home for an extended period of time. As with our money, our homes belong to the Lord. Many of us need to open them to others more often.
For additional resources on responding to disasters, download training from our sister publication, ChurchLawAndTax.com:
Steve Hall is the Executive Director of Joseph’s Way (www.josephsway.org), a ministry that helps families and churches prepare for natural and man-made disasters, and the current and coming economic and social challenges related or our nation’s fiscal crisis. He is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and the University of Virginia School of Law, and is a contributor to World Magazine, Leadership Journal, and Crosswalk.com. He has served as both a deacon and ruling elder in evangelical churches.