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The Disaster Prepared Church

Every Church Needs a Plan

"To not be involved is not an option," said Marion Sortore, area representative for the Florida Conference Storm Recovery Center. "Every church needs a disaster plan."

The Florida Conference began revising its plan  in November 2006, to take into account lessons learned during the previous season. The plan includes specific steps churches should take when preparing for a storm, such as designating a member to put church records in a locked file on the church Web site or giving information to an out-of-state congregation for safekeeping.

"Even though you may know what's in every room of the church, take pictures. If your building blows away, you won't remember what you had," Sortore said.

Every church should keep an accurate schedule of what activities or events are going on in the building, day and night, so if a storm hits, the church knows who is where and when.

It's important for churches to shut down utilities, such as gas and electric power, and make sure there's access to existing and emergency water supplies for the fire department. Communications also should be established between the church and local emergency response authorities, and churches should set up formal emergency procedures for safe and orderly evacuations.

Communication Is the Key

Sortore says communication is key during a hurricane. Before the storm hits, churches are encouraged to get lost cost FRS radios, cell phones and batteries and develop a list of essential people who need to be contacted before and after the disaster.

"Every church should have a phone tree to reach members, neighbors and vulnerable populations," Sortore said. "We say, 'inform, prepare and protect your community.'" After a storm, churches should not be used as shelters, due to liability concerns, unless they have already worked with the American Red Cross to become a designated Red Cross shelter.  Then the Red Cross picks up the liability.

If the church building sustains damage, churches should file an insurance claim, call the district office and then call the conference's risk management department, she said.

"Lone Ranger" Action Invites Waste

Sortore said many churches learned from past disasters, that being a lone ranger is not the most effective way to help communities recover from a storm. "We saw duplication of services. We'd send a team to a site and find that another team had already been there," she said.

Every weekend, the storm recovery center holds training sessions for churches in counties throughout Florida. Care and Case management training are at the top of the list as churches work long-term with hurricane survivors to help them reach a "new normal." The center also works with churches to set up early response teams that can respond to disasters.

"Churches can be distribution centers for nonperishable food and baby items, but they need to plan now and start getting their pantries stocked," Sortore said. However, she added that churches must take care of their own congregation and building first, so they can effectively serve others.

"If the pastor's home is blown away and things are in turmoil, that detracts from the church's ability to reach out to the community" Sortore said. "We want to be able to help the community at 100 percent."