Parishes learn to prepare for disaster


By Emmaline Jurgena
The Catholic Messenger

BETTENDORF — FEMA recently held a faith-based disaster preparedness workshop at St. John Vianney Parish to raise the level of preparedness at places of worship. More than 150 representatives from different houses of worship in the area gathered to tackle the issue. Preparedness experts, law enforcement officers and faith leaders outlined strategies to prepare for events ranging from floods and tornados to active shooter situations.
FEMA developed workshops specifically for places of worship after the 2014 active shooter incident at a Jewish community center in Overland Park, Kan. The Bettendorf workshop, held on July 26, was the third such event. The daylong conference covered four topics: individual and family preparedness, creating an emergency operations plan for houses of worship, identifying opportunities for a house of worship to participate in mass care and preparing for an active shooter event.

Sharon Crall Volunteers clean up the Catholic cemetery in Albia following a tornado last year.
Sharon Crall
Volunteers clean up the Catholic cemetery in Albia following a tornado last year.

Beth Freeman, regional administrator for FEMA Region VII, emphasized familiarity with disaster resources as a first step to preparedness. “We have a saying at FEMA, ‘You shouldn’t be exchanging business cards at a disaster,’” she said. For a faith community to have an effective response to a disaster, its members should make individual and family preparedness their first priority. Put together a kit with useful tools, have a clear communication plan and an understood procedure in case of a disaster such as a flood or tornado. Responding to a disaster, Freeman explained, is a partnership between the community and disaster response resources.

“To be prepared, you have to start at a personal level, and we tell people your personal preparedness is the most important.” If you take care of yourself and your family first, that’s one less worry for somebody else to take care of, Freeman said.


Reverend Bill Engferh, a Red Cross disaster preparedness specialist, explained why houses of worship are critical players in emergencies and natural disasters. Patterns of behavior indicate that after a crisis people seek help from family and friends first, and clergy or spiritual leaders second. Conse­quently, people seeking help look to the church before engaging other resources such as family physicians or mental health professionals.

Rev. Engferh pointed out that faith communities often know their surrounding communities well. They are a rich source of volunteers, a good source for donations, and have access to specific populations that may not be obvious to others. These attributes give parishes and other faith communities a unique advantage when preparing and reacting to a disaster or emergency.

Workshop attendees were also advised to consider emergencies such as an active shooter situation. Detective Bruce Schwarz and Sergeant Jeff Nelson of the Bettendorf Police Department suggested a “Run, Hide, Fight” strategy during an emergency involving an armed person. These types of situations are unpredictable and can evolve quickly. Individuals in danger are advised to exit the space if possible and to discourage others from going inside. If it is not safe to leave, individuals should hide, blocking entrances to their hiding space if possible. As a last resort, individuals should fight back, improvising weapons and attempting to detain the dangerous person until law enforcement arrives.

“Hopefully we’ll never be in that situation, but to know what the best way to react is, and what you could do is very good,” said Jeanne Jacobs, Red Cross volunteer and member of Holy Family Parish in Davenport.

House of worship planning

Putting together a collaborative team is the first step to making an effective preparedness plan for a house of worship.

Workshop participants brainstormed types of team members to be considered, including health professionals, individuals with knowledge of the area, such as maintenance workers, and administrators who can assist with continuity of services after a disaster. Preparedness teams shouldn’t necessarily be built around the priest or pastor, workshop leaders cautioned. After a disaster or emergency situation, the faith leaders affected may need to seek care or may be too overwhelmed to effectively assist in recovery efforts. Finally, parishes and other houses of worship should identify unique aspects of their communities that require specific preparedness planning, in addition to general guidelines suggested by organizations such as the Red Cross.

Reverend Greg Smith, who serves on the National Response Team of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, suggested the following components as part of an ideal formal response plan: a statement or purpose, an understanding of most likely situations, a clear assignment of responsibilities, a concept of operations, details on available support resources, and a process to follow. Even without a formal plan, parishes will benefit from coming together and beginning the preparedness discussion.

“Get the low-hanging fruit. Take care of what you can take care of immediately. Take advantage of the resources you have … you’d be amazed at the some of the talents in your parish community,” encouraged Pat Monahan, chair of St. John Vianney’s emergency response ministry.

After establishing a preparedness plan, houses of worship can turn to mass care. Faith communities should evaluate the space and resources they have to offer and determine their most effective role in a disaster. Mass care opportunities include sheltering, feeding and bulk distribution of supplies. Does a facility have space to be a shelter? Does it have appropriate kitchen facilities to serve those in need? Does it have access points for supplies to be unloaded? Or can the faith community deploy volunteers to help in other locations?

During the wrap-up, workshop leaders emphasized the importance of beginning a conversation about preparedness within each faith community. They encouraged collaboration with organizations such as FEMA and the Red Cross to develop a disaster preparedness plan. Houses of worship seeking a guide for developing a plan can visit for more information. In addition, the Red Cross offers a “Ready Rating” system that can help assess a community’s level of preparedness; this assessment can be found at

“[Preparedness] is probably one of the most important things in the world today, to be prepared for any event, not just natural disasters,” said Lynn Curtis of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Davenport. “We must be prepared and we’re going to be prepared. I think it is very forward thinking on the part of this community.”

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