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Jun 14
Misti McHatton

The Role of the Church in Disaster Management

Posted by: Misti McHatton

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By Michael Barrick

Disasters seem to be a daily news item now. There are reasons. More and more people are moving to hazardous areas. The earthquake in Haiti was devastating because of many reasons, not the least of which was the population density. Economic setbacks, incivility in our political discourse, and floods, famines and earthquakes around the world are all contributing to the unrelenting bad news. Add in a pandemic that rattled nerves for months, an eight-year old war in Afghanistan, religious terrorism and countless other challenges and it is apparent that we are living in some of the most challenging times of our lives.

All of this while headlines reveal that fewer Americans are finding church relevant. Any number of arguments could be offered as to why this is the case, but finding a solution isn’t nearly as daunting. If congregations and their leaders will fully engage with local emergency preparedness and response officials to offer themselves as resources, they would likely find that they are suddenly engaging the culture in a way that is not only relevant, but life-changing.

For that to be the case, there are a few things congregations need to understand about emergency preparedness, and some practical steps they can take to play an integral part in their community’s disaster preparedness and response activities. Congregations are a tremendous source of people and resources and are by nature compassionate. There is no question that the church - primarily through large ministries or denominations - does an outstanding job of mobilizing and delivering resources to disaster zones. But where it could do much better is in strategic emergency response situations within their own communities. The goal, then, is to coordinate with other churches and local response officials to integrate them into the overall response system.

Why? Why should a congregation link up with local emergency response officials? Because, all disasters begin locally. No matter its scope, a disaster - and the response to it - always begins locally. History - indeed, recent history - has shown that communities sometimes must stand alone for several days or even longer following a disaster. The inevitable unrest, unsanitary conditions, death and emotional trauma that will result from a local disaster can be mitigated when local congregations commit to filling functions identified by local emergency response officials.

First, congregations must understand the basics of disaster management - Mitigation, Preparedness, Response and Recovery. Mitigation is taking steps to prevent disasters or reducing their impact. Preparedness is identifying the tactics and tools that will be needed to respond to disasters and making sure the resources and people are trained and in place to implement them. Response is the dispatching and application of resources and people during a disaster. Recovery is the process of rebuilding and mending people and communities following a disaster. It is essential to remember that this is a cycle that is constantly evaluated and is not necessarily perfectly chronological. In short, some or all four phases can be in process at one time.

Where would a congregation fit into that cycle? In all four phases. But to share their capabilities with the community, church leaders must make contact with city or county emergency preparedness officials. Once the relationship is established, the leaders can work together through local emergency planning committees (to the extent allowed by law).

The congregation can offer its members as “players” for drills. The importance of such exercises cannot be overestimated. They are the key to proper response when the real event occurs. Therefore, having people willing to serve as victims, worried family members and other roles is tremendously helpful in making a drill more realistic. Offering facilities for shelters or alternate care sites can help fill a huge gap, especially if a church or a synagogue has a generator. Offering crisis counseling, offering to help plow hospital parking lots during snow storms, or taking the lead in maintaining good relations among those in the community are just a few practical ways to help in emergency planning and response.

Next, a congregation can do a risk assessment of its community. Certainly, it will want to work with emergency officials as much as possible, but the church can also develop programs and outreaches based on that assessment. Such efforts can help avert tragedy. For example, in Pittsburgh, local churches and others have joined forces. Family Guidance, Inc. and its partner ministry TWOgether Pittsburgh offer mentoring to some of the city’s most at-risk youth and guidance to help families stay together. In doing so, they are helping youngsters who might otherwise turn to gangs for their “families.” Thus, they are providing preventive medicine - mitigation - that will save futures and families.

Finally, congregations plus plan for the unimaginable - natural catastrophes, terrorism, mass murder and more. They must do so because we have learned that what we can’t imagine happening in our communities sometimes does.

Another option is to become part of a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). According to their website, “The CERT program educates people about disaster preparedness for hazards that may impact their area and trains them in basic disaster response skills, such as fire safety, light search and rescue, team organization, and disaster medical operations. Using the training learned in the classroom and during exercises, CERT members can assist others in their neighborhood or workplace following an event when professional responders are not immediately available to help. CERT members also are encouraged to support emergency response agencies by taking a more active role in emergency preparedness projects in their community.”

So, opportunities abound. Begin today. We do not know what tomorrow holds.

© The Barrick Report, 2010. Please direct questions or comments to

Note: To hear my interview with Marty Davis of the Congregational Resource Guide about the roles congregations can play in disaster management, visit

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