LAKELAND – A devastating hurricane has not made landfall in Florida for several years, and experts say that fuels complacency about disaster preparations for residents and institutions, including churches. All it takes is one disaster, however, to destroy property and jeopardize a church's ministry.
Normally by this time of year, Pam Garrison, disaster recovery coordinator for the Florida Conference, has conducted 10 to 12 basic training sessions in disaster preparedness for churches. This year, however, she has had far fewer requests. She calls it “hurricane amnesia” because people forget about major storms if it's been a while since one hit.
"Everyone gets excited and wants to do storm planning when something is already on the horizon," says Garrison, who is also state chairperson for Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD). "Unfortunately, by then, it's too late."
Garrison emphasizes that it's not just hurricanes that can disrupt church operations. "In our basic training sessions, we begin by asking what would happen to your church if there were a fire," she says.
Having a written disaster plan in place is imperative for churches. Garrison says it doesn't have to be elaborate but needs to address simple questions:
• Are records backed up? How often and where are they stored?
• Who is in charge of securing electronics, such as those used by the praise team?
• How will the church minister during recovery efforts?
She also has tips for preparing a church long before storms are predicted, such as trimming trees to reduce potential damage from fallen limbs and keeping lists of valuables for insurance purposes.
"A great way to get youth groups involved is to have them videotape each room," Garrison suggests. "A video is a great record and shows insurance companies exactly what was in each room."
Test the plan
In addition to having a written disaster plan, First UMC, Plant City, has conducted a practice run to make sure everything is covered.
"We used that opportunity to let members and staff know what they are responsible for as soon as we get a warning or watch," says Jeremy Rhodes, response team leader at the church. "We also have a designated box for things we would need in case of a disaster, and we made sure it was up-to-date.”
Keeping a backup of records off site is important, but Rhodes also recommends thinking about things such as historical artifacts as well.
"We have a historical committee that is assigned with saving those things that can't be backed up," he says. "They use that window of time when a storm is approaching to secure those items."
The Plant City congregation has a 15-member response team that recently renewed its early responder training in a three-day advanced class with Garrison. "If we get hit, we can still take care of others around us," Rhodes says.
Garrison emphasizes that being prepared to help with disaster recovery is also important.
"After you have focused on protecting your church building, what are you going to do to minister to the community?" she asks. "And is the church down the street doing the same thing?"
She recalled hearing a story about how several churches in close proximity were all giving out bottled water while other needs went unmet. She recommends talking to other churches, including other denominations, ahead of time to determine what each can do.
"How can we translate our ministries in the community?" she asks. "Maybe the church could be a resource for communication, letting people know how to register with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and providing phones and computers. Possibly the church could provide day care while parents register with FEMA."
Al Tomek, a member of Ocala First UMC, has seen what a hurricane can do. In 2005, he was visiting his daughter in New Orleans a few days before Hurricane Katrina made landfall. He helped her evacuate, but she lost her home and its contents in the storm.
"My story and desire to help began with Katrina," he remembers. "At that time, I was working and unable to do much." In 2007, Tomek joined his congregation’s disaster response team and later became the North Central District response coordinator.
He likens a disaster plan to a three-legged stool: "There should be three pieces to a plan. The first is asset protection and getting the church ready for a storm."
Next, he says, is caring for the congregation. Encourage the elderly and others who may need assistance to register early with the local Emergency Management office or the sheriff. If the church runs a food pantry, stockpile nonperishable items so that ministry can continue.
The third leg involves what the church can do for the community. "Work with local agencies ahead of time so that you know who is out there and what they can do," Tomek explains. "Be friends with other churches and do mutual aid plans."
Garrison says that "it's a beautiful thing to watch" when churches connect with one another during her workshops. She encourages them to pull them together during blue skies, not just when storm clouds are gathering. And just as the Florida Conference works with other agencies and denominations through VOAD, so should churches.
"It's not about competing but rather about helping the community," she says. "Go down the street and talk to other churches so there can be a whole community response."
Church leaders interested in hosting the basic disaster preparedness workshop should call Garrison at (800) 282-8011, ext. 148, or email email@example.com. A disaster planning guide for churches and a comprehensive preparation checklist are available at www.flumc.org/getprepared.
Basic disaster training classes are planned for Saturday, Aug. 15, at First UMC, Inverness, and Saturday, Aug. 29, at Cypress Lake UMC, Fort Myers. There is no cost to attend but participants must register in advance. The basic training is required before taking specialized training in early response and/or spiritual response. For a complete training schedule and information, click here.
– Mary Ann DeSantis is a freelance writer based in Lady Lake.