With Hurricane Florence churning toward the east coast, I joined county leaders and employees in an emergency planning meeting as a representative of the area’s faith community. It’s remarkable to see how emergency services personnel, school administrators and teachers, county facilities workers, healthcare professionals and social services agencies come together at a time like this. Churches are often wonderful in terms of mobilizing volunteers after a storm, but Florence got me thinking: How can my church be a presence for good in the lead-up to the storm? Here are a few practical suggestions for congregations anticipating a hurricane or other weather-related event:
Encourage staff to take the time needed to make preparations for their families and homes. In the event of a crisis, church staff may be serving the community around the clock, and they deserve to take some extra time on the front end of a weather event to make personal arrangements for food, evacuation, shelter and even childcare.
Secure outdoor items around the property. Many houses of worship have a variety of things that could become dangerous projectiles in the event of high winds. These include picnic furniture and benches, outdoor trash receptacles, lawn equipment, lightweight playground equipment and banners. Encourage your properties committee to do a walkthrough of the facilities and the grounds to prevent unwanted damage and injury.
Reach out to every widowed person, extremely elderly congregant, shut-in, disabled person and other vulnerable church members. Many people will not need anything during a storm, but some may feel incredibly isolated from the rest of the world, and if they are already in need they will likely need more help than most. Lay leaders should be encouraged to call these folks, but for some, nothing will mean more than a call from the minister. In a small congregation this is an achievable goal. In some cases, the elderly may also need assistance with evacuation.
Stay up to date on weather conditions by keeping in contact with local emergency personnel. Most counties have an emergency services department that has a master plan of what to do in case of catastrophe. Many emergency services departments have early warning notification systems that you can sign up for, and you’ll be among the first in your county to learn of weather patterns and needs in the case of emergency or disaster. As you receive alerts and warnings, pass them along to congregants by sharing accurate information on social media and e-mail.
Get a ministry team together and offer debris cleanup. Simple acts of service and kindness go a long way. Many people in your community may be unable to cut limbs or pay someone to do it. It will give you a chance to meet the neighbors and provide a meaningful service at the same time. Many elderly people are at risk of falling and injuring themselves, and helping with cleanup can help ensure their health and wellbeing.
Offer to open the church as a shelter. Other than public schools, churches are often the largest and best equipped buildings in their communities (especially in rural areas) to serve as shelter. With kitchens, ample seating and bathrooms, churches can offer space to evacuees, members and first responders from out of town. If your church serves as a shelter, bring board games and cards and give people an opportunity to entertain themselves while simultaneously taking their mind off power outages and flood damage. In addition to space, other considerations for serving as a shelter include power, security and staffing. Explore the process for creating a memorandum of understanding with your county’s emergency services department. Knowledgeable personnel there can help you think through appropriate issues.
If you’re going to cancel services or activities, communicate early and often. Safety should always be the primary concern for any church event. In our community, flooding can be a problem along the river, which is a coastal waterway near the Chesapeake Bay. Many members may be homebound due to washed out roads and impassable bridges. Also, the general age of our congregation plays into our decision of whether to cancel a Sunday morning or Wednesday night gathering. Make sure to have a phone tree in place before making such a decision, because some people (especially among elderly members) do not have email.
These are just a few reminders for churches and congregational leaders to consider during severe weather events. You may have your own checklist with additional items, but if you have never considered these issues, the above list may be a place to start.