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Disaster ministry leaders say ‘time to prepare is now’

Disaster ministry leaders say ‘time to prepare is now’

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Disaster ministry leaders say ‘time to prepare is now’

May 25, 2007  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0678}

An e-Review Feature
By Jenna De Marco**

As spring gives way to the heat of summer in the Sunshine State, the Florida Conference Disaster Recovery Ministry staff wants United Methodist churches to prepare now for the upcoming hurricane season.
“We can’t do enough to encourage churches to put a plan in place now,” said Pam Garrison, manager of the Disaster Recovery Ministry (formerly known as the Storm Recovery Center). “If you know how to take care of your church, you are better prepared to reach out into the community. If we aren’t prepared, we cannot minister to the community. That’s the nature of a disaster — the time to prepare is now.”
The Associated Press recently reported forecaster William Gray of Colorado State University predicts a “very active” 2007 Atlantic hurricane season, with 17 named storms expected.
Disaster Recovery Ministry project director Marilyn Swanson underscored the need for all churches to take seriously the opportunity to prepare ahead for disaster response.
“I would like to share the importance of a district disaster team responding to disasters in their local areas and how it all connects back to the Disaster Recovery Ministry of the conference,” Swanson said. “Local churches need to be in contact with the district disaster coordinator so that they can complete a local church disaster plan.”
As part of the Florida Conference’s effort to support this, Disaster Recovery staff held a “Train the Trainer” gathering in April. Volunteers learned how to train and assist churches in putting together their disaster plans.
“We trained representatives from every district. They’ll work with the district disaster coordinators,” Garrison said.
Churches may schedule training for local church disaster planning by contacting Disaster Recovery or their district disaster coordinator. Volunteers who already completed training received a guide to help churches focus on how they should prepare. Members attending the 2007 Florida Annual Conference Event June 6-9 will also receive the guide so every church has one.
“Under each category, we put a list of questions for a church to consider — something to help jumpstart their thinking,” Garrison said. “Every plan is going to be a little bit different because every church is different and every community is different.”
Among the questions that should be considered are how a church ministers in its community and how other churches minister in the same community, as well as how to connect with the local emergency operations center on a county or city level.
“It’s really important for emergency managers to know in advance (that a church can help),” Garrison said.
A list of district disaster coordinators is also available on the Florida Conference Web site at
All about coordination
In the past, there has been some confusion about when churches should work through Disaster Recovery to provide assistance. Garrison said churches within affected areas can begin to respond locally as soon as emergency officials say it’s safe to go into those neighborhoods and have invited teams in to help.
“If it (a disaster) is in their local community, we expect them to respond,” Garrison said.
It’s also the expectation, Garrison added, that those churches will work with local officials and other relief groups to coordinate efforts, as well as let their district offices and district disaster coordinators know what they are doing and what needs remain in the community. This input is critical in helping the district and Disaster Recovery how to meet needs as the response progresses.
Provide help, Garrison says, “just don’t do it in a vacuum.”
Churches outside an affected area should work through Disaster Recovery, which uses information from local responders to mobilize the larger response. This ensures churches are being sent into the areas of greatest need and reduces duplication of efforts.

When to ‘go in’

Coordinating services through Disaster Recovery Ministry also prevents other problems, such as having volunteers who aren’t trained or needed onsite or legal liabilities, Garrison said.
“What is our motivation for serving?” she challenged. “(Is it) our interests or the needs of the community?”

Volunteers attending an early response team training sponsored by the Florida Conference Disaster Recovery Ministry May 18-19 at St. James United Methodist Church in Tampa participate in a teambuilding activity designed to prepare them for their role in helping “survivors be safe, sanitary and secure.” Photo by Pam Garrison. Photo #07-0581.

To that end, Disaster Recovery sponsored an early response team training May 18-19 at St. James United Methodist Church in Tampa that taught teams what they needed to know in order to go into communities after first responders — fire, rescue, utility company workers — have gone into an area to help survivors and make sure it’s safe for volunteer teams.
When early responders arrive depends on the nature of the disaster and how quickly first responders can secure an area. Early responders help “survivors be safe, sanitary and secure,” according to Garrison. Their role is to take whatever emergency measures are needed to help families remain safe until the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other officials can enter an area to assess damages. Early responders must be self-contained and trained because they enter the response when conditions are more hazardous.
Volunteer work teams typically move in after early responders to begin debris removal and cleanup.
Garrison and district leaders coordinating the response to the tornadoes that hit Lake and Volusia counties last February said the overwhelming response of people wanting to help caused some problems.

Unless people are trained, affiliated with a group and willing to coordinate with people already on the ground, “it adds to the burden of the system,” Garrison said.
Another role churches can serve is as a distribution point for supplies, but Garrison cautions those efforts also need to be coordinated with others working the response.
“If (churches) want to become a ‘neighborhood point of distribution,’ they need to work through their counties. Otherwise, they may end up way over their heads very quickly,” Garrison said. “The county will provide the protection and security necessary for this type of thing.”
Some retail chains, such as grocery stores, have made commitments to Floridians to reopen their doors within 24 hours of a disaster if the site is not badly damaged, Swanson said, but these sites would not be considered distribution centers. Their goal is to begin functioning again as quickly as possibly, but as a business. Churches and other organizations are needed as distribution points, serving as partners in the recovery process.
District disaster coordinators are encouraged to establish teams to cover the broad area of each district, as well as provide church disaster plans to district offices, so the availability of supplies and items such as generators are known, Garrison said. At the same time, the conference urges caution for churches that want to become shelters for storm victims.
“If they do want to be a shelter, we suggest that they go through the American Red Cross to get certified,” Garrison said.
Being trained and prepared is also important to maintain the credibility of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) because disaster relief and recovery organizations recognize all United Methodists as if they were UMCOR volunteers, Swanson said.
“We are UMCOR partners. They do not have a fleet of people that they send in — we provide the volunteers,” Swanson said. “Everybody views us as if we are UMCOR and we work with UMCOR … United Methodist churches are universally considered UMCOR. The cross and flame connect them to UMCOR.”
For storm relief, many flood buckets and health kits are already prepared and stored at locations throughout the state. Individuals interested in donating to Disaster Recovery may do so by writing a check to the Florida Conference, made payable to Florida Conference Treasurer, and adding “Advance #605” in the memo line. Donations may also be sent to UMCOR.
“It’s hard for people to understand, but if they really want to give something, it’s the financial contribution (that’s needed),” Garrison said.

More information about preparing for the season is available by contacting the Disaster Recovery Ministry office at 800-242-8011, extension 149, or visiting the conference Web site at and clicking on the Disaster Recovery Ministry graphic.


This article relates to the Florida Conference Disaster Recovery Ministry.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a freelance writer based in Viera, Fla.