By Jessica Brodie
After more than two years in the making, S.C. Conference disaster response leaders are about to roll out a comprehensive disaster response plan that will help churches across the state effectively respond when the unthinkable happens.
And whether the unthinkable is a flood, hurricane or tornado, or simply a building demolished by fire, the church can play a huge role in the preparation or the aftermath, leaders say.
The Rev. Gregg Varner, coordinator of the Conference Disaster Response Team, told the Advocate the plan is virtually finished and needs just a few more tweaks to be complete. In the spring, the team will begin implementing the plan in every district across the state. Twelve district disaster response coordinators will work with local churches in their area to teach them the main components of the plan and help them develop personal disaster missions of their own.
“If we don’t prepare and we go marching in thinking we’re the cavalry, we can be more of a nuisance,” Varner said. “We can actually do more harm than good.”
Varner said the conference can “do good” by offering a well-developed plan that reflects partnerships with emergency services groups and by teaching people and churches how that plan can help.
“When we prepare ourselves, we’re much better at helping others,” Varner said. “This whole program is 80 to 90 percent education.”
The Rev. Kathy James, Connectional Ministries director, said she is pleased that the plan will soon be rolled out.
“I believe the emphasis on equipping our churches to respond locally to disasters shows an important shift in thinking for the purpose of the disaster response team,” James said. “I look forward to seeing them in action in the coming year as they work diligently to help churches and pastors understand the opportunity they have to make a difference in their own communities when disaster occurs.
Disaster response leaders say it is important to have an updated plan because The United Methodist Church is among the first groups on the scene after a disaster, but S.C. currently has an outdated plan that has not been updated since Hurricane Hugo in 1989. The outdated plan has left many churches unsure about what they can do when smaller-scale disasters arise in their areas—and worried about what their role would be if a major disaster struck.
The new plan reflects modern partnerships and practices utilized by emergency management experts around the world, Varner said, with many components, from education to communication to technology and more.
Matt Brodie, conference communications director who is working with the disaster response team to be sure the plan is effectively communicated when the time comes, said a good plan can both guide the volunteers who are responding and help the general public, who need to know about scams or how the church can assist.
“With a conference disaster response plan, we can combine our efforts to respond quicker and meet the needs of the community better,” Brodie said. “Without a good plan and coordinated effort, you basically wind up with people doing their own thing, and they become more of a hindrance than a help.”
Jim Crews, director of information technology for the conference, said technology can be used in a variety of ways to disseminate information, which is particularly necessary after a disaster. He thinks it is important for the church to have a presence in disaster response, though that presence might not always be hands-on, helping with recovery and rescue.
“Our presence might just be to remind people of God’s grace in a disaster situation,” Crews said, noting a proper plan can help people understand that.
An opportunity to serve
And Varner said it’s not just about the Big Event—the next Hugo or other major storm. It’s the way the church can respond in everyday disasters, if only volunteers know what to do and how to help.
“The disaster is not so much the big event. It’s more so the person’s house that burned. That happens every day, and if we’re not answering that call, we’re missing the boat,” Varner said. “We have an opportunity in the conference to take a bad thing and make it better.”
Currently, Varner said the conference has some excellent advantages, not the least being the United Methodist Volunteers in Mission’s Early Response Team, headed by Billy Robinson. ERT volunteers respond in the aftermath of disasters, such as last winter’s ice storm, to help repair homes and other tasks.
But most local churches don’t have any sort of worst-case-scenario plan. And Varner said it is critical that people know what the government is doing regarding emergency planning, search and rescue, sheltering, public safety and infrastructure restoration. Churches with a disaster mission of their own can be extremely helpful after a disaster, whether by helping with rebuilding, providing water and shelter or communicating about scams or where to go for help.
He said churches can first start by taking a look at the unique needs of their own communities. Some communities are more prone to hurricanes than tornadoes, for example, or could be served best by a water or pet care ministry.
“We are visible witnesses of a loving God, and we do that when we serve others in this way,” Varner said, noting sometimes the best thing you can do after a disaster is ask someone if you can pray with them. “While we may be there to put a tarp on their roof, we’re also there to be Christian witness.”
In the spring, disaster response coordinators will begin dialoguing with laity and clergy in their districts to begin the ongoing task of educating people about disaster and the plan, and help churches develop disaster missions of their own.
Varner said the latest version of the plan is an evolution of the excellent groundwork laid by the Rev. George Olive, Varner’s predecessor as conference disaster response coordinator.
Check future editions of the Advocate for updates in the process.