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Prepare now for disaster, experts tell parishes
Disaster plans need to be living documents

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
[Episcopal News Service]  Having a plan when disaster strikes is the best way congregations can get back on their feet, insurance and restoration experts told workshop participants at the annual meeting of the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes on February 24.

Disaster planning for congregations needs to be about more than just taking care of physical damage. The question is "how do we stand ready not just to protect our buildings but to respond to people in need," said Matt Beahm of Church Restoration Group.

"What clergy are first called to do is to find our people and care for them," said the Rev. Donald Fishburne, rector of St. Michael and All Angels on Sanibel Island in Florida, a location that has been recently hit by hurricanes.

And it's not just congregants. "There's a natural instinct for people to migrate to a church because they know they will get care there," Beahm said.

Beahm and his colleague David Mistick as well as John Webster of Church Insurance of Vermont all stressed the need for congregations to develop simple disaster plans and have committees in place to go to work after disaster strikes.

Beahm said experience shows that the more time it takes for a congregation to recover from a disaster, the more members and thus income it will lose.

Beahm, Mistick and Webster said congregations should form an emergency planning team which can estimate the probability of various emergencies and put plans in place to deal with the most likely scenarios. The simple act of doing this planning can help the congregation respond more quickly and agilely to the unexpected.

Such planning will reduce the inaction due to the "shock and awe" of the disaster, Mistick said. It will help the congregation preserve and protect its physical possessions, and it will also reduce the potential for the greed and deceit that sometimes rears up after a disaster, he added.

The disaster team should always be recruiting members and should remember that a disaster plan "needs to be a living, dynamic thing," Mistick said.

The plan – he suggests compiling a manual -- "just needs to be very simple," easy to locate and easy to understand.

The teams should begin by looking at the "what if" scenarios and make an educated guess about which are most likely to happen.

It should then survey and inventory the congregation's building and contents, documenting by means of photographs and any recorded history the architecture, fine art, stained glass windows, liturgical furniture and vessels, electronics and computers, historical and business documents, library collections and music collections. Such documentation can help insurance companies fairly assess the value of items if they are destroyed.

The plan should make a prioritized list of what item should be removed if the buildings have to be evacuated.

The plan should suggest ways to communicate with staff and congregants if telephone or cell phones do not work. Beahm, Mistick and Webster suggested having people and locations outside of the immediate area for people to contact.

It should also set up procedures for continually backing up computerized data such as parish directories and financial information, and storing it off-site.

The team should get to know its vendors, insurance agents and local public-safety officials long before an emergency happens, Beahm and the others said.

The disaster plan ought to include:

  • a contact list of key people in the  congregation,
  • an evacuation plan,
  • a plan for contacting congregants,
  • designated meeting places and times (such as a certain number of hours or days after an emergency) if the church's buildings are not usable,
  • a list of key vendors and craftspeople and how to contact them (even during non-business hours),
  • the location of utility shut-offs,
  • a list of critical equipment and supplies (water, canned goods, batteries, blankets, clothing, etc.) on site and its locations,
  • information about fire detection systems and how to turn them off,
  • location of insurance policies,
  • a list of what equipment needs to be removed from the premises if possible, and
  • lists of other groups that use the congregation's facilities and how to contact them.

After a disaster strikes, people must be ready to act immediately "to preserve and protect your property," Mistick said. Damage should be reported to insurers as soon as possible.

People are often worried about spending money to do anything, but, he said, they must act to minimize more damage by water, mold, soot and other things that deteriorate physical property. Taking such actions sometimes means that the clergy or wardens have to act independently rather than going through the normal decision-making channels -- then loosen the reins once other congregation leaders appear on the scene.

Mistick suggests finding a restoration service that specializes in churches long before the need arises. "You want to meet those people now," he said.

All such pre-planning makes it easier for clergy and lay leaders to respond when emergencies happen, said Webster, especially because they will often have other things on their minds. "It's tough because everybody is worried about their family and their houses and rightly so," he said.