Afterwards, driving around town, I could see some houses of worship were flooded and some were not. Some of the congregations who were not hit by the flooding seemed to be inactive, while others were bustling with activity, passing out food, water and supplies, offering shelter and helping in other ways. What made the difference?
I had seen the same differences in congregation activity after Katrina, and had done some homework. Three things emerged in congregations that generously served their communities after a disaster:
1. Actively serving congregations were prepared.
Congregations that were out serving already had a plan for such a time as this. Some had dormant teams waiting to move into action. Others always kept supplies on hand.
Much has been said about disaster preparedness, but many disasters come like a thief in the night. Tornadoes may come without warning. Floods can come in a flash. Even hurricanes, which can be seen coming days in advance, thanks to satellite imagery and Doppler radar, may change course, and weaken or strengthen. No one is ever completely prepared for a disaster. Nevertheless, a written plan that ties to the mission of the congregation can make a big difference.
2. Actively serving congregations had an outwardly-focused mission and congregational DNA.
Congregations that were out serving knew their own survival was not their mission. They exist for the sake of the world. Congregations like this are looking for ways to engage people in need. A disaster drops needy folks all around you. If your mission is not the survival of your building or your community, but the healing of the world, what to do in a disaster becomes clear.
3. Actively serving congregations had capacity.
Some of the serving congregations were large, but not all. Still, they had to have access to resources, either through large budgets, generous members or a link to a wider community of support. This is where your judicatory or your organization’s national body can make a significant difference.
How the judicatory can partner with the congregation
The judicatory (synod, district, diocese, presbytery, annual conference, etc.) can be a tremendous support, or it can be indifferent and ineffectual. In some cases it might, in an effort to be helpful, create more problems than it solves. Here are some possible ways to engage.
Set up a Disaster Response Team. The team may consist of some of the following people:
- Chair: a recognized leader in the organization
- Communications: someone who can handle email, webpage, phone calls and social media to find out what's going on, network and rally the troops for response.
- Needs: someone who will actively listen for the needs of the community in the wake of a disaster, and keep track. This person will work with communications to fill those needs.
- Donations: an individual who will hailed calls of good Samaritans wanting to donate, and who will handle donations (solicited and unsolicited) when they come in, working the the needs person to get them where thy need to go.
- Logistics/Admin: an organizer who will work with the chair to handle administrative details, lists, securing locations, helping plan response.
- Volunteers: a person who will keep a list of all who have offered to volunteer, and who will put out the call for more volunteers, assisting with implementation.
- VOAD liaison: someone who will register your organization with the Volunteer Organizations Assisting in Disaster, read their email updates and participate in the phone calls
Note: This is a rough and fluid list. It's hard to manage a disaster from ground zero, so who you tap to be on this team may shift depending on the location of the disaster and who is affected.
Gather the team and let them know they are on call. When a disaster occurs, call them up and re-secure their commitment. If you have advanced warning of an impending disaster, call the team together as the storm approaches. These meetings can be by phone. Have a standard conference call number that everyone has on file.
If you are in tornado alley, a flood zone, or a hurricane-prone area, gather evacuation information from your team and key congregational leaders beforehand. Where will they go? How might they be reached? Give everyone information on how to check in after a disaster. When people are dazed they may not think to check in regionally to let others know they are okay. It's immensely helpful when you're trying to to reach people, to have them also trying to reach you.
Give your constituents some guidance on how to prepare their congregation for a disaster. Encourage them to have a team, a plan for checking in, and a strategy to serve in the wise of a disaster.
2. Don't jump the gun.
When a disaster hits, it's rough and tumble for the first 72-hours. Internet and phones may be down. The area may be inaccessible. Some disasters last longer than others. An explosion or an earthquake may be over in seconds, but a storm can last days. Be careful. If you get into trouble, you could become part of the disaster, becoming one more person in need of rescue.
Then there is a period of search and rescue. Visitors trying to get into the area may be a hindrance to first responders. They also mean additional mouths to feed and beds to find. If you're in the midst of a disaster, the last thing you want to do is host guests. If houses are flooded, hotels will be full.
3. Begin checking in with those affected.
During this time, a judicatory or national body can begin trying to make make contact with its constituents in the affected area, and assessing the situation. Check in with leaders. Keep notes. Are all leaders in the affected area safe and accounted for?
Your primary responsibility is to your congregational leaders. The congregation may have trouble responding to a disaster if its leader is down for the count. In last month’s Louisiana flooding, we had three congregations in the hardest hit areas. Phone lines were either busy or out of order. We reached some leaders by texting, a small amount of data that can sometimes slip through clogged phone lines. One leader was able to find a computer and post on Facebook.
4. Start daily phone calls.
For the first week or two, have daily calls to check in. These will run 30-60 minutes. Longer at first; shorter as things progress. In some cases, a check-in first thing in the morning is best, before those on the ground go out into the field. In other disasters it may be helpful to schedule the calls later in the day, after the VOAD call, so you have up-to-the-minute information. The best thing is to have the check-in at the same time at the same conference number every day, to avoid confusion.
The first calls may be your team only, as those in the affected areas are still scrambling. As soon as they are able, invite 3-5 key leaders on the ground to join your call. They will supply you with the best information and help to determine the most appropriate response. In our situation, the calls were sometimes chaotic as people jumped on and off due to responsibilities and clogged phone lines. We nevertheless had a basic order:
- Roll call
- Updates from those on the ground and VOAD
- Updates on donations
- Updates on needs
- What response is called for?
- What do we need to communicate today?
- Anything else?
4. Put out a call for financial support.
It may be too early to determine your response. Whatever you do, you're going to need resources to do it. People around the country will want to respond. Some will send stuff, even stuff you don't need. After Hurricane Katrina, well-meaning people mailed us winter clothes from their closets. You don't know what you need yet, and even if you did, you might not have a way to get it to the affected area. Money is fungible. It can be used for whatever is needed.
Be careful asking for in-kind gifts. You don't know what you need, and even when you do, those needs will shift from day to day. You may end up with mounds of clothing, more than you can manage, with no place to store it.
Open a designated/temporarily restricted fund specifically for this disaster. As funds come in, make sure you record them well, and apply your organization's financial controls. Nothing is as disappointing as misappropriated disaster gifts. Afterwards, you will want to thank donors.
Determine and communicate your priorities for funds. Our first priority is to get our leaders on their feet. Then we tend to flooded members of our congregations. Next we look for those in need in the neighborhoods our faith communities serve.
People will ask if they should give to the congregation, the judicatory, the national body, or to other groups such as Red Cross. We always say, there is plenty of need to go around, and then be clear on how we are using funds. As a judicatory, our mission is to help congregations serve their communities. We work through congregations. We will help pastors, congregations, and their communities.
Our denomination, like most, has a disaster organization. Lutheran Disaster Response is a reputable organization that focuses on long-term recovery. They move in when others move out – when the media loses interest, the photo ops are dull, and the slow, hard slog of long-term recovery sets in. They work through local service providers, like Lutheran Social Services, Catholic Charities, or whichever organization has the most capacity in the affected areas. These groups do case management among the most needy. Lutheran Disaster Response, served by need and not by creed. This is important work. Helping people know how organizations use their funds will help them know where to direct their gifts.
In our case, we immediately gifted each congregation with $1,000. First Lutheran in Lafayette, Louisiana was giving out gift cards to those who needed hotel stays, food or gas. After a disaster, sometimes ATMs don’t work. Lutheran Church of Our Saviour was considering hosting volunteer groups. St. Paul Lutheran in Baton Rouge was providing meals for Red Cross volunteers. Working with First Christian Church down the road, who were providing overnight accommodations for the Red Cross volunteers, St. Paul made the decision to provide dinner each night for anyone in need – anyone in the neighborhood whose homes had flooded. Some funds were used as a platform to stage groups mucking out homes. Resources left over could be used to support salaries of volunteer coordinators or given to Lutheran Disaster Response for case work. After Katrina, resources were used to pay pastors’ and some other staff salaries when the congregation members had evacuated and congregations were not meeting.
5. Get boots on the ground.
Boots on the ground is leadership 101. You may not be able to do much, but your presence is symbolic and supportive. You will learn things you can't learn any other way. You will look people in the eye, and come to a deeper understanding of the situation. There is no substitute for showing up.
As a leader, your greatest gift will it likely be expertise in carpentry or mold abatement. You will add value by listening and being fully present. When you go, you might get accused of seeking a “photo op.” Let it go. What's the alternative? Not showing up at all? Don't miss the photo op. A picture is worth a thousand years. Pictures tell the story. Media attention means donations. Donations can save lives.
Don't go too soon. Wait for your leaders on the ground to give you the go ahead. Go as soon as it's possible. There is a window of opportunity. If you go too soon, you’ll get on the way. If you go to late, you miss the moment.
In our calls with leaders in Louisiana, it became clear we needed to bring people with us. Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said the number one need was volunteers to muck out tens of thousands of flooded homes. Mold sets in within hours of the water receding. Mucking involves carrying to the curb water-logged possessions, furniture, carpet, drywall, insulation and so forth. Then the studs need to be treated with bleach and mold-killer. The longer you wait, the worse it gets. Much worse.
At the request of the Governor and our local leaders, we began planning a day to muck out homes. Having an event grabs people’s attention and rallies them around the cause. At the direction of the local leaders on the ground, we planned a Saturday work day and put out the word. This took a lot of coordination that would have been difficult for the local congregation in the flooded areas.
We set up a registration site on our web page. You have to know approximately how many are coming if you're going to send them out into the field. We began by imagining six people per house, one house per church. We knew we’d have more than 18 people, but it gave us a starting point. Each house would need a team leader, so we recruited folks we knew could lead. As registrations flowed in, we added more team leaders. The local pastors lined up houses for us to muck, members of the church and members of the neighborhood. They also agreed to house people who needed to stay overnight.
CrisisCleanup.com has a handy site. Those with flooded homes can register to get help. Those volunteering to muck out homes can go online and select a home to clean. Our VOAD team member registered us on this site, so we knew we would not have shortage of houses to muck.
We needed supplies for volunteers. Many volunteers have never mucked out homes. We needed a short training, a release, gloves, masks for the mold, crow bars, some shop vacs, construction-grade garbage bags and more. The disaster funds were rolling in nicely, so this was not a problem.
When all was said and done, over 100 people showed up, mostly from Texas and Louisiana. They not only mucked, but they listened to the homeowners’ evacuation stories and how they were coming to terms with the loss of everything. The work that day just scratched the surface, but it prepared the congregations to receive volunteers and to gear up for the work ahead. It also gave volunteers an understanding of the work, and a place to serve in the future. If you want to go down and help, call First Lutheran in Lafayette, and they’ll help you plug in.
7. Stay connected.
Two weeks later, over 120,000 have applied for FEMA assistance. Shelters are emptying out, and consolidating as people are finding places to stay on a long-term basis while their homes are rebuilt.
The Red Cross has asked St. Paul’s to continue serving meals for another two weeks. One night we were there they had over 300 people. Those numbers are declining as well.
Our disaster team calls are moving to once a week now. Groups will continue to go out troughs the year, but with less centralized organization. How we proceed will be determined through consultation with our leaders on the ground. We will carefully steward disaster donations, again taking our cues from local leaders.
The more time passes after a disaster, the further it recedes from the minds of those unaffected. Leaders are the institutional memory. Remember anniversaries. Mark the dates in your calendar. Hold remembrances. Visit. Make calls. Know what stage of recovery you are in. Stay attuned to the realities of long-term recovery.
Disaster recovery is like spiritual care, but on a larger scale. It takes presence, intentionality, cooperation, and organization. Congregations, judicatories, and national organizations can do phenomenal work together. The regional body can give lift and resources to local communities seeking to serve their communities, if we are willing to work together and see caring for those in need as central to our mission.
ICTG Phases of Disaster Response