When mass disaster strikes a community, church leaders want to help with everything from food and shelter to prayer. But being helpful after a flood, tornado, or other catastrophe requires more than good intentions.

That’s partly because agencies managing disaster sites have tightened standards in recent years to assure that volunteers are qualified. Congregations have also learned that without good maps and plans it can be hard in a crisis to identify greatest needs and deploy assets effectively.

Now congregations and dioceses are using a growing set of resources to prepare for emergencies.

Among the new tools is Pastors & Disasters, published in October by Episcopal Relief & Development. The 98-page packet is available as a free download. The toolkit guides institutions through steps of assessing risks and mapping both vulnerable populations and useful assets.

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Developed by 12 Anglican Communion agencies, the kit compiles insights from a range of settings, including Sri Lanka, Mozambique, Australia, and Brazil. From international experience comes a set of principles and best practices that can apply just about anywhere.

“A congregation should use its existing resources and assets to respond to community needs during a disaster, with particular attention to those most vulnerable or at-risk for falling through the cracks,” said Katie Mears, executive director of the U.S. Disaster Program for ERD, in an email. “The main priorities are to ensure the safety and security of the church, its members, and the community at large; and to care for the community according to assessed need and capacity to respond.”

Across the Episcopal Church, more than 60 dioceses are involved in ERD’s Disaster Preparedness Initiative, which helps them increase resilience and recover from a disaster. The program offers local training events and is building a national database of volunteers and skills.

Demand has also grown for training workshops that prepare clergy and laypeople to serve as volunteer chaplains at emergency sites. Ten years ago, the National Disaster Interfaiths Network (NDIN) offered just four to six workshops per year. Now the group offers up to 30 per year to satisfy demand, said Peter Gudaitis, NDIN president.

NDIN training is offered in denominational settings, where resources of particular faith traditions are discussed in depth. For Episcopalians, NDIN has a workshop scheduled for March 5-6 at the University of the South.

These workshops are intended for faith leaders who already have disaster-related affiliations, such as clergy who serve as chaplains to their dioceses, or to local fire or police departments. The certificate they receive can help open doors to serve alongside emergency management agencies when a large-scale disaster occurs.

“It’s not like a driver’s license that you can use anywhere,” Gudaitis said. “The purpose of training is to offer a credentialing organization an understanding of what you were trained in. Then they decide whether to take you on as a volunteer.”

G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Image of Filipino children courtesy of Episcopal Relief & Development

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