The words of Amos, who was among the shepherds of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of Uzziah king of Judah and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel, two years before the earthquake. ~ Amos 1:1
And you shall flee as you fled from the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah. ~ Zechariah 14:5b
Burn, Shake and Blow
In 1Kings 19, Elijah fled from Jezebel to Horeb (Mt. Sinai), where he holed up in a cave. Standing outside the cave (v. 11-12), he witnessed a fire, an earthquake, and a strong wind. For church safety ministry, these represent three of the kinds of natural disasters which can destroy churches and threaten the people in them (a fourth one is floods). All of these are in the news every year.
Many of us remember seeing photos of the ruins of the cathedral in Port au Prince, Haiti after the disastrous earthquake in January 2010. The one at the left shows the rosette window over the main entrance to the church building, now rubble. Not only the cathedral itself, but the clerical residence next door collapsed, killing the archbishop.
Earthquakes can range from annoying to devastating. Just a few major earthquakes in this country include the Good Friday Alaska Quake (Mar. 27, 1964), Puget Sound (Seattle) Earthquake (April 1965), San Francisco (1906), and the New Madrid Quake (1811).
The verses above refer to a devastating earthquake during the reign of King Uzziah of Judah. As reported by Steven Austin of ICR, it is estimated to have been magnitude 7.8 to 8.2, and was centered along the Great Rift in eastern Phoenicia (modern day Lebanon) about 750 bc. This was strong enough to topple part of the city wall around Gezer in Judah, as well as splitting the altar in Bethel, Israel, and probably doing some damage to the Temple in Jerusalem.
This is not the only earthquake mentioned in the Bible. Earthquakes happened in the Sinai Peninsula during Israel’s travels, including several at Mt. Sinai and a later one that opened a fissure which swallowed the rebellious Korah and his supporters. Earthquakes are named in prophecies as forms of God’s judgment on nations, but they are also natural phenomena in a sin-cursed world – like sunshine and rain, they do not distinguish between the “just and the unjust” (Matt. 5:45).
Earthquakes in North America
The location of the New Madrid Earthquake shows us that earthquakes in the United States are not confined to the western states and Alaska and Hawaii. This was along the Mississippi River where Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee meet, and it was felt as far away as Boston, Massachusetts. More recently, an earthquake shook Central Virginia, damaging several buildings, and there is seismic activity in the Great Smokey Mountains in Tennessee.
What this means for us in church safety & security is that we dare not take it for granted that our church will never experience a major earthquake, no matter where in this country we are located. Therefore, we should see to it that our buildings will be safe, at least in a moderate shaker. At least, we should definitely know what to do just in case an earthquake does happen. Of course, this is critical west of the Rockies as well as in Oklahoma.
Don’t Let That Fall!
Making sure that shelves, cabinets, and other tall items don’t easily fall is a good idea, even when the likelihood of an earthquake is remote. Heavy objects dropped on the floor have been known to jar objects on shelves loose to fall and injure people. So can someone banging into a wall with a heavy load.
The Earthquake Country Alliance lists Seven Steps to Earthquake Safety, which begins with “Secure Your Space.” Move objects that can fall (for example, bookcases), away from tables, sofas, pews – any place where people spend much time. Secure objects (such as computers) which can be knocked loose by a good shake.
Another recommendation by several agencies is to keep vital papers and records in a safe place. Duplicates may be kept in separate locations.
Not only can buildings be destroyed by a strong earthquake, but some that are still standing can be unsafe. Just because a structure is old doesn’t make it especially vulnerable, and being new does not guarantee earthquake safety. For example, in a recent earthquake in Italy, several newer buildings collapsed while many centuries-old churches survived.
How to make a church building quake proof is too technical and detailed to fully cover in this article. In the past century, much research has been conducted for designing buildings that can survive an earthquake. More earthquake prone areas, such as the State of California and the City of Seattle, have building codes developed for earthquake safety based on scientific research and testing.
There are measures that can be taken to make existing buildings quake safe. For instance, the Fairview Church in Seattle is located in an older school closed by the school district. They had reinforcements installed to keep the brick walls from collapsing in an earthquake. Reinforcing brick buildings is a good idea even if quakes are not likely.
If your church is constructing a new building, the local codes probably specify that it could remain standing in the event of a physical shock wave, such as from a vehicle hitting the building, a nearby explosion, or an earthquake. If the church building is an older structure, perhaps it should be evaluated for quake safety.
What Do We Do Now?
What if people are in the church when an earthquake hits? What do you do to protect everyone? That will depend partly on where in the church they are: sanctuary, classrooms, fellowship center.
First, get away from items that could fall, such as books on shelves and cabinets. In the sanctuary, the safest place would be under the pews. Chairs and theater seats would be harder to get under, so pews fastened to the floor would be a much safer option for quake-prone areas.
In a classroom, dining hall, or fellowship center, the safest place to go during an earthquake is under a table. Stay there until the shaking has stopped.
When it is safe to move, the building should be evacuated with everyone going to an open area outdoors, away from anything that could collapse. There might not be immediate danger, but there may be aftershocks. This also provides an opportunity, as with fire evacuation, to see if everyone is safe or search for the missing. It also keeps all persons in a safe area while the building is checked for damage. This is especially important for multi-storey structures.
There are resources to help your church prepare for many kinds of emergencies. Sheepdog Church Security has a Church Security Assessment to review your congregation’s readiness for threats to its safety and security. Your insurance provider and local building inspector can help in evaluating other risks, such as earthquakes (especially if you are in a high-risk location).
*Title of a song by Jerry Lee Lewis, 1957