Get ready, be ready
(Appears in the Spring 2014 edition of The Record magazine).
If the empty seats in the pews weren’t enough of a sign, a show of hands confirmed to the Rev. Kit Carlson that there was a crisis going on.
“I asked people to raise their hands if they lost power,” said Carlson, rector for All Saints, East Lansing. “Of the 61 people who managed to get out after the ice storm, two-thirds raised their hands.”
An ice storm hit the Lansing area Dec. 21, 2013 – the Saturday night before Christmas – causing great hardship. Fortunately, All Saints was prepared to help its parishioners, plus other local residents who needed it.
In a time of crisis, the All Saints community knew there was a means to deal with it. That’s crucial, according to Glenn Morrison, disaster preparedness and response coordinator for the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan.
First, it’s up to churches to take the time to plan in advance. This begins with individual churches making an overall self-assessment.
“Each and every one needs to discern the need for their individual disaster preparedness plan,” said Morrison, a member of St. Andrew’s, Waterford, who is also a candidate to the diaconate. “It provides them a guideline in case something were to happen.
“When you draw up your individual plan, say a tornado hits or an ice storm occurs, you look at the big picture. You look at what your parish’s gifts are. When anything happens, you can resort back to your plan and say, ‘We have this lined up, or we know how to do that.’ That’s where you start.”
In the case of All Saints, the church knew what it already had in place. First and foremost, it had power – something with which many living nearby were without during the ice storm. It also had a large gathering area and industrial kitchen, among other useful resources.
Being open regularly from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays, it wasn’t a stretch to stay open throughout the weekend. While some residents knew the affects of the ice storm would only be temporary, others realized they were in a bind. Regardless of the situation, All Saints was able to accommodate its East Lansing community.
“If you’re cold, or if you want to charge your cell phone or cook in the kitchen, from that Saturday until the Saturday after Christmas, we were open,” Carlson said.
As it turned out, fixing the power outages in the Lansing area took quite longer than most anticipated. Still, All Saints was able to accommodate during this time of need.
Families moved into various available rooms for a night here and there; even the family of the Rev. Ronald Byrd from St. Katherine’s, Williamston moved into the rectory for the night. His family included a young baby.
One family was forced to move in for five nights because of its own special member.
“A lot of the hotels wouldn’t let them have dogs,” Carlson said. “So they came here.”
Sheila Wiitala, All Saints’ coordinator of children and youth, was also without power. Her family spent Christmas at the church; she also helped coordinate a Christmas dinner for about two dozen people who were without power. Also, the Rev. Andrew Shirota opened his nearby home to those who needed a warm shower.
Carlson said what All Saints did was simply fulfill its duty as Christians. She acknowledged East Lansing is a middle-class community, but occurrences like this are obviously stressful. The thought of losing their Christmas dinners to a power outage and not knowing when normal life would resume was very stressful.
“I knew personally what it would be like by day three,” she said. “I knew emotionally where people were going to be on their journey, thinking about the power. It must be coming back today.
“Now what are we going to do? It’s 40 degrees in the house.”
Carlson explained how All Saints – like most churches – has various emergency plans in place. These can include events happening in a church (a medical emergency or an intruder), acts of nature and community emergencies (shootings, riots or other unrest). No matter what happens, she stressed the importance of having good pastoral care in place beforehand.
Advanced preparedness is crucial, Morrison said.
“A disaster plan is also more of a long-range plan,” he said. “It’s not so much an immediate need at the time of a disaster. It talks about gifts, such as outreaches or a place where people can sleep, but also people who can help.”
Not every individual church has all the resources needed to get through every type of emergency situation. But collectively – perhaps a cluster of Episcopal churches in a deanery, or churches of various faiths in a town or region – it’s easier to find more available resources.
“We have to lean on each other. You’re not walking through this alone. Nobody does,” Morrison said. “A disaster plan will more or less make you look real hard at how you communicate with your Episcopal churches, but also with our Catholic friends and Presbyterians and Baptist churches.
“Once you start talking with your neighbors you learn what they are going to do and what can they do. You need to talk with them. Tell them we’re putting together our plan.”
Ideally, through the course of conversation and networking, churches learn about the unique resources available. For instance, one church could have extra cots or mattresses; knowing this would allow another church to not spend their money on matching resources, but perhaps for other unique items of need.
Once these conversations are had and contacts are established, “This shows you’re on top of things,” Morrison said. “And that goes in the disaster plan as well.
“So when you look at your plan, you already know they can do this, and here’s the contact person. You can’t really do it afterwards, it’s a lot harder.”
This sort of planning is crucial when the need arises to contact an organization such as Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD). Although it doesn’t have a bottomless supply of money, ERD is able to help in times of crisis.
“Believe it or not, they do have money and can assist,” Morrison said. Once ERD sees a church community needs help, but also has the means to oversee funding and the connections to be successful, it’s much easier for the organization to provide its financial backing.
As the diocesan disaster response coordinator, Morrison is able to help churches take the steps needed to get a plan in order. He says his role is not to oversee, but to serve as a facilitator in helping churches get the planning underway. He’s also able to serve as a liaison to help churches work with ERD’s resources to handle whatever situations arise.
“That’s where we come in,” Morrison said. “When we need to help our communities, we have a plan in place.”
Episcopal Relief and Development offers knowledge, hope
• Alleviate hunger and improve food supply
• Create economic opportunities and strengthen communities
• Promote health and fight disease
• Respond to disasters and rebuild communities.
The efforts of ERD are not limited to local or foreign response. Rather, ERD offers insight and assistance throughout the world.
In terms of how it can help locally, ERD works with church agencies and other organizations after natural disasters (tornadoes, floods, earthquakes and hurricanes), acts of violence or domestic unrest and other related emergencies. In times of need, ERD and its partnerships are able to provide essentials such as food and water; but ERD is also able to provide pre-emptive intervention, too, by helping develop preparedness and response programs at the diocesan level.
According to ERD, “we may also provide emergency financial assistance to supplement these resources, enabling churches to reach out to their most vulnerable neighbors. Emergency funds are distributed through the local bishop’s office, often with the help of a diocesan disaster coordinator, who communicates with Episcopal Relief & Development’s US Disaster Program Manager.”
Disaster response also is not limited to the window of time where an emergency takes place. As was the case with a March 2012 tornado, St. James, Dexter continued to minister to the needs of its community long after debris was cleaned up and hauled away. ERD recognizes the need for follow-up care. All this is why the organization is willing to help dioceses help craft response plans.
For those unsure of where to begin, the organization even has a resource library on its website, allowing visitors to see what other churches and dioceses have enacted.
Learn more about ERD online at www.episcopalrelief.org.