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Congregational preparedness for disasters is a ministry itself

What would members of your congregation do in the face of a disaster?

Immediately after a major domestic or international disaster, many people commit to developing a plan to be prepared to respond. These plans can be for the individual, the family, or the workplace. Increasingly congregations and even denominations are developing infrastructure for when a disaster — be it natural or human-induced — inevitably takes place.
“You don’t want to be figuring out your disaster response plan while you’re clearing debris off your roof,” says Perri Graham, director of the Minnesota office of Church World Service. Graham has been involved with numerous disaster response efforts in Minnesota, including the 1997 Red River Valley flooding and the 2000 Granite Falls tornado.
Cindy Johnson, director of disaster services for Lutheran Social Service/Lutheran Disaster Response agrees. “The most important thing for congregations is to have a plan,” she says. “Identify the decision makers and set up a phone tree, so people can be mobilized immediately.”
Lutheran Disaster Response has three core components according to Johnson. “We offer case management, spiritual and emotional care, and volunteer coordination” in times of disaster, such as the current ongoing effort in southeastern Minnesota. One important aspect is to provide retreat and respite for care givers, especially pastors, as congregations are called on to meet numerous needs in emergencies.
“Churches have a long history of working together to respond to emergencies,” Graham explains. “Local congregations are often the front line in responding to local disasters. They provide a gathering place in times of uncertainty and they serve as a center for spiritual care, and for volunteer, financial, and material resources.”
But, she adds, it is important for the congregation itself to be prepared. How will members check in on each others’ safety? How will the ministries of the congregation continue or change? How and where will worship take place? “If a congregation recognizes this role ahead of time and has a plan in place, it can be that much more effective in those critical first hours after a disaster strikes,” says Graham.
Preparing can be a form of caring. With that in mind, Metro Lutheran is reprinting with permission material from the January and February issues of “The Water’s Edge,” the newsletter of Minnetonka Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Minnetonka, Minnesota.
Family Communications Plan
We spend most of our waking hours away from our family members at various work places, schools, daycare, recreation, and organizations (even church meetings). When emergencies arise, the first concern is where are those I love and how can we get back together? There are various scenarios to think about and prepare for.
1. The first line of communication is the phone. Be sure each member of your family always carries the contact numbers of every other member. Put an index card with numbers in each child’s backpack and every adult’s wallet. Leave a complete list with daycare, schools, coaches, close friends, and relatives, as well as posting it at home. Remember you may be the one not reachable and others need to help your family. Include everyone’s email too. Sometimes land lines will work when cell phones don’t. Satellite communication is even better.
2. If you have a cell phone, one of your contact entries should be the person you would want called In Case of Emergency. List it as ICE, plus the name or relationship. Authorities have devised this strategy and look for it in situations like accidents or medical emergencies.
3. Every member of your family should also carry the numbers of an out-of-town contact. Local lines get flooded in a large disaster with everyone trying to call each other. Out-of-town calls will often go through when local lines are overloaded. If everyone calls the same person (for example, Aunt Sophie in Idaho), she can relay to others who has already called in, where they are, and where they are going.
4. Make sure you talk to all family members about your plan. Certainly talk to your out-of-town contact! You may want to broaden this plan to include extended family. Choose a first and second contact in case the first is not reachable. What about older relatives? Do you have a neighbor’s name and number who might look after them? These are surely family reunion topics.
5. If you need to evacuate your home, neighborhood, or vacation spot (due to chemical spill or flooding, for instance) be sure to tell your family contact where you are going. If you are not all together, report where and how you will reunite. Letting people know ahead of time saves a lot of worry and communication problems.
Evacuating and Reuniting
Now that you have phone numbers for all local family hangouts, plus an out-of-town contact, there might be times when no phone or e-mail works. In that case you should have some planned meeting spots for you and your family members.
1. If you have to evacuate your home because of a fire, gas leak, or the like, you should have a spot close to home where everyone meets to confirm that everyone got out. A mailbox away from the house, the neighbor’s front steps, the big oak tree across the street could all function as the meeting spot.
2. There may be storms, floods, or accidents that close off roads to your neighborhood. Pick a spot out of the neighborhood that everyone could get to easily — including kids getting off a school bus. A neighbor a few blocks away, a community center, police station, or congregation might be good temporary choices. This is just a rendezvous point. Then you can go someplace for the night. If you need help with emergency lodging, clothing, food, or medication, call the Red Cross day or night.
3. Large chemical spills, nuclear accidents, terrorist acts, wildfires, or large floods can create a situation where it is required that you evacuate farther away. If you don’t have a place to go, the Red Cross would be setting up shelters, but it is more comfortable if you have a couple alternatives of friends or relatives who live a bit outside the area. Think about which way the winds usually blow; you aren’t going to continue in the path of something moving in the wind.
4. Tell extended family what your evacuation plans might be, and that you will call or e-mail them when you are able. Remind them, no news is good news.
5. In any emergency, register online at the “Red Cross Safe and Well” Web site. This gives out-of-town folks the chance to see that you are okay. Did you have relatives worry about whether you were on the 35W bridge on August 1? If so, tell them that you will register in a disaster and they can check to see if you are there! Of course, you need power to do that, so they need to be patient. There is a link on the national Web site: (click on “Register as Safe and Well”) or go directly to the site at Look there now and you can see the current disasters listed where you can register yourself or search for someone. This is fairly new, so you are on the cutting edge of preparedness.
“Congregations should be prepared,” says Tom Davis, disaster response specialist with Church World Service, “because it is not a question of ‘if’ but of ‘when’ there will be a disaster.”
Resources can help a church council or nurturing committee prepare. Davis says Church World Service has a strong curriculum called “Community Arise” that is available at www.communit
Johnson suggests visiting the Lutheran Disaster Response Web site before a disaster happens. Visit for a Minnesota connection or for information about the collaborative disaster ministry of the ELCA and the LCMS.