Government has the muscle and manpower for quick rescue in the crisis phase of a disaster, a regional panel agreed Saturday, but after that, it is our churches that have the greater power to care for people and to put them back on their feet over the long term.
The regional panel on churches as disaster shelters was sponsored by the Blanco County Disaster Response Group, and met at the First United Methodist Church in Johnson City to review how church shelters worked in this and other hurricane seasons, and how they can work better.
The problem, said Mike McEuen of Broadmoor United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge, LA, is that no one church can do it alone. Any church needs to work with other churches, and with government and non-profit agencies, or it’ll quickly find itself overwhelmed.
“We’re the biggest UMC church in Louisiana with 4,700 members,” McEuen said, “many of whom have had shelter training and even shelter management training, but we still can’t do it alone. We rely on the American Red Cross for supplies and some manpower, and on other churches around the city for lots of support.”
Staffing and supplies were not a problem for the First Presbyterian Church in Kerrville when evacuees from Hurricane Ike arrived last month.
“The Red Cross provided shelter workers, food, cots, everything...all we had to do was unlock the building and get out of the way,” explained BW “Sonny” Payne, chairman of the church’s disaster response committee.
Of course, it wasn’t quite as simple as that. During the week the shelter was open, a lot of activities scheduled in the church had to be moved to a different space or date. With almost 800 members, the church is big enough to accommodate all the regularly scheduled activities and the surge of unplanned “house-guests” as well, he added.
Amy BeVille Elder, Executive Director of Texas Interagency Interfaith Disaster Response in Austin, said just being in a church is better for the evacuee than being in a school or other public building.
“Churches are kinder and gentler than school buildings,” said said. “They give even a stranger a feeling of protection and caring that a sterile school lacks.
“In addition, churches are full of loving people who want to help others in need, and are willing to volunteer their time and resources on the spur of the moment.”
Churches are also more flexible than government facilities, McEuen said.
“We are rated for 200 people in our shelter,” He explained. “After Hurricane Katrina, we had a surge of about 440! But we knew those people had to have a place to stay, so we opened sunday school classrooms and other space to accommodate them until the numbers went down.
“We were putting them in every nook and cranny we could find, but we found room for everyone.”
Having the space for that surge in people is good, but even a big church can’t do it all alone.
Jean Krohn of Fredericksburg managed the Fredericksburg shelter in the First Baptist Church during Ike. It wasn’t her first — Krohn has been working in working in Red Cross shelters for 65 years and is one of the most experienced shelter managers the organization has.
“Churches have a sense of mission, and mission begins at home,” she said. “In this area, the churches are the heart of the community in more ways than one.”
“We’re all small communities here in the Hill Country. We have a lot more churches than public buildings. We have to use our churches. Besides, you can only count on access to school buildings during summer vacation.”
But it’s not just for shelter space that churches are critical. In Baton Rouge, McEuen said, they’ve organized willing churches into a “Ring of Faith” to combine resources for disaster response.
“A large church has the space for a shelter. Another church doesn’t have that building space, but it has a kitchen and volunteers to provide one meal a week to the shelter. The next church provides another meal or two. Someone else has a big parking lot for aid distribution lines.
“Or just ask your congregation how many have chain saws, and mobilize them to go to clear downed trees in neighborhoods. Don’t have a chainsaw? Go door-to-door to see who needs help.”
The result, he related, is a disaster response that is quicker and more flexible than government can provide, and establishes connections with victims that will continue for years as the churches help with the long-term recovery.
“That’s what we need to build here in Blanco County,” said panel moderator George Cofran, “and in surrounding counties for mutual support.”
“We’ve done a good job establishing a core group of trained volunteers and basic supplies, but now we need to recruit other churches, civic groups and service clubs to bring their strengths to the job of helping our neighbors when trouble hits here.”