Prepare to (Not) Die
  • Tuesday, October 29, 2013

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

When Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, knocked out power and left thousands missing in 2005, Christ Church Cathedral Dean David duPlantier wanted to help his parishioners but was not sure where to begin.

“He wondered: How do I reach my people?” said the Rev. Tommy J. Dillon II, then a priest at St. Augustine’s Church in Baton Rouge, who welcomed Dean duPlantier as a house guest during the disaster.

The episode highlighted for Dillon how important it is for all congregations to have a current disaster preparedness plan.

Now rector of St. Aidan’s Church in earthquake-wary San Francisco, Dillon is putting lessons from Katrina into practice by leading an effort to see that all 81 congregations in the Diocese of California are ready for the worst.

“When we do have a big earthquake, it will change everything,” Dillon said. “And we know that after Katrina the neighborhoods that came back and are doing well in New Orleans were those that had a resilient community.”

At the Diocese of California’s convention Oct. 25-26, delegates unanimously approved a resolution for all congregations, institutions, and diocesan offices to have disaster plans in place by October 2014. Most congregations have work to do, Dillon said, and will take steps that make sense for faith communities everywhere, not just in an earthquake zone.

Preparedness involves helping households, congregations, and surrounding communities have essentials in place before they’re needed. Families, for instance, should have all they need in order to shelter in place for 72 hours: nonperishable food, water, cash, and plans for meeting up with loved ones at specific locations.

A congregation, Dillon said, needs to store contact information for all parishioners in a location where it’s accessible even if a building is severely damaged or destroyed. St. Aidan’s, for instance, stores its files in the cloud.

Neighborhoods need spaces where volunteers can set up camp and establish shelters, including places for pets. Sometimes congregations can team up with nearby businesses and offer spaces for such purposes, as St. Aidan’s does by partnering with a next-door veterinarian.

Helping neighbors prepare is an outreach ministry, Dillon said, and can be a means for newcomers to discover church life. St. Aidan’s offers an information session on emergency preparations as part of its annual holiday festival.

“This has an evangelism goal as well,” Dillon said. “We’ve gotten new members here in the parish, based on our work in the community around disaster preparedness.”

Many preparation steps make sense whether a congregation is located on a fault line, in a hurricane zone, or in Tornado Alley, Dillon said. Resources for a preparedness ministry are available from Episcopal Relief and Development.

Another major quake in San Francisco “is going to happen at some point,” Dillon said. “We have to be prepared.”

TLC Correspondent G. Jeffrey MacDonald is a freelance journalist and author of Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul (Basic Books, 2010).

Image: The first day of St. Aidan’s food pantry in 2007. Courtesy St. Aidan’s Church.


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