Preparing Your Church for Natural Disasters
Churches must prepare for severe weather with plans for every type of weather emergency that could happen in their location. Also, they must prepare as a receiving facility during a severe weather event. Here's important information on the major types and preparation tips.
Preparing for Natural Disasters
Don't be caught unawares. If civil authorities require evacuation, you should already have a plan in place for how to safely evacuate. Include children, people in poor health, the elderly and mobility-challenged in your plan. Refer to this post for information on evacuations that can help.
Vital in preparing for natural disasters is stockpiling three days' worth of supplies. The National Red Cross and American Red Cross recommend the following supplies:
- whistle to signal for help
- NOAA weather radio
- first aid supplies
- clean water (1 gallon per person per day)
- nonperishable, ready-to eat food (granola bars, canned goods)
- manual can opener
- hygiene items (toilet paper, feminine supplies, moist towelettes)
- infant supplies such as bottles, formula, diapers
- flashlights (we recommend at least one crank-operated flashlight)
- Extra batteries
For under $20 a self-powered (crank) flashlight that is also a NOAA radio. This is a great investment for churches in areas prone to bad weather.
Church records may be destroyed during a severe weather situation. Have an offsite backup of all important information. The CDC recommends the following:
- Insurance policy types and numbers, and contact info for insurance companies
- Church inventory lists
- Bank account types and numbers, and contact information
- Utility company phone numbers
If your church uses computers for records, consider an online backup stored offsite in the cloud. This part of preparing for natural disasters is commonly forgotten.
The American National Red Cross in its 2016 "Earthquake Preparedness" defines earthquakes as "sudden, rapid shaking of the earth caused by the breaking and shifting of rock beneath the earth's surface." There are around 30 earthquakes in the US annually, with most scoring 5.9+ on the Richter Scale.
No warning system for alerting people of an imminent earthquake exists. Falling furniture such shattered glass from windows cause the majority of injuries (American National Red Cross, CDC).
Include in your earthquake emergency plan and train your congregants on earthquake safety.
- Upon feeling an earthquake people should immediately drop to the floor, find cover under sturdy furniture and hold onto that cover (Red Cross, CDC).
- Go to interior rooms if possible. Avoid bracing in doorways (Southern California Earthquake Center).
- If outdoors and unable to get inside, get low to prevent a fall. Avoid buildings, sinkholes, power/fuel/gas lines, trees and streetlights (Red Cross, CDC).
- People in wheelchairs should know how to react to an earthquake. Lock the wheels, remain seated and cover your head and neck with your arms (CDC, Department of Homeland Security).
- Once the earthquake has passed, be careful. Do not turn on the gas, use matches/lighters/camp stoves/grills, do not use telephones unless there is a medical emergency or fire. After an earthquake it can take time for emergency responders to get to you (United States Geological Survey).
- Aftershocks can be just as dangerous as the initial quake and happen for months. Drop, cover and hold on during these (Red Cross).
- Earthquakes can cause landslides and tsunamis (Red Cross). Know your risk.
Every year the Great ShakeOut Earthquake drill helps individuals and organizations prepare for earthquakes. Register your church for the next drill as part of your preparing for natural disasters.
If your church is located on a flood plain or in an area prone to flooding, prepare for floods and flash floods.
Heavy or steady rains cause floods (Red Cross).
Heavy or excessive rainfall, dam or levee failure, or the sudden release of water by an ice jam causes flash floods. (National Weather Service)
Your congregants may not know the danger of floods but they cause nearly 100 deaths in the US annually (National Weather Service). Only heat kills more people in the US. Six inches of fast-moving water knocks people off their feet. "Two feet of rushing water can carry away most vehicles, including SUVs and pickups" (National Weather Service). Floods should be part of the discussion when preparing for natural disasters.
Include these definitions from the Red Cross in your plan:
- Flood/Flash Flood Watch: possibile
- Flood/Flash Flood Warning: occurring or imminent
Learn more about this topic and several others with our Certified Safety Member Course. It is available as an online video-based training that can be taken anytime and from anywhere using your own computer. Each section ends with a short test to demonstrate an understanding of the material. Once you've completed all 7 sections, you will be certified for 2-years with Sheepdog Church Security.
Landslides are "downhill earth movements that can move slowly and cause damage gradually, or move rapidly, destroying property and taking lives suddenly and unexpectedly" consisting of "rocky material, snow, and (or) ice" (American National Red Cross, United States Geological Survey).
They include debris flow, mudslides, mudflows, and debris avalanches (CDC, United States Geological Survey). Lahars are mudflows "composed mostly of volcanic materials" and are especially dangerous. Debris and mudflows can travel rapidly and far; they can grow by picking up "trees, boulders, cars, and other materials" (Department of Homeland Security).
The CDC and United States Geological Survey list causes for landslides:
- snow or heavy rain
- weight from rain, snow, rock piles, main-made structures
Landslides affect the US and claim around 50 deaths a year. They cause about $1 billion in damage annually (United States Geological Survey) including broken utility lines and downed transportation (CDC).
Contact local emergency planners to determine your church's likelihood of being affected by a landslide. Work with them to lessen damage (CDC, Department of Homeland Security). Check with your insurance company about debris flow damage (Red Cross). You may be eligible for the National Flood Insurance Program if not covered by your policy.
Emergency plans should include listening for instructions from officials and common clues:
- trees cracking
- boulders hitting each other
- tilted trees/fences/walls
- new cracks
- doors/windows sticking or jamming for the first time
- collapsed pavement (CDC, Department of Homeland Security, United States Geological Survey)
The United States Geological Survey recommends evacuation as the best course of action. If this is not possible, people should go to the highest floor, curl into a tight ball, and cover their heads (Department of Homeland Security, United States Geological Survey).
Other natural hazards cause landslides. Landslides cause landslides and flooding.
Hurricanes, also called typhoons and cyclones, cause "flooding, storm surge, high winds, and tornadoes (Red Cross). Make sure your plan begins with a definition of the types of advisories used when hurricanes are a risk:
- Watch: conditions are a threat within 48 hours.
- Warning: conditions are expected within 36 hours.
In recent years, hurricanes have increased in strength and frequency.
These huge waves (often incorrectly called "tidal waves") often come in series called "tsunami wave trains." They can often come within minutes after an earthquake and can last for days. They occur about twice a year and destroy property, and injure and kill people.
Your plan should include several evacuation routes if it is fewer than two miles from the shore to your church. Never shelter people during a tsunami.
Alerts include (Department of Homeland Security, National Weather Service):
- Tsunami Information Statement: an earthquake has occurred or a tsunami watch, advisor or warning has been issued for another part of the ocean. There is no determined threat of a tsunami in your area at this time.
- Tsunami Watch: an earthquake has occurred. While a tsunami hasn't been verified one could occur within an hour.
- Tsunami Advisory: a tsunami is expected or is occurring and is dangerous to those near water. Because and harbor areas face possible flooding. Officials may close areas near water.
- Tsunami Warning: a tsunami is expected or is occurring. People should move to higher ground or inland due to likely dangerous coastal flooding and strong currents.
Natural warning signs for tsunamis include (National Weather Service):
- strong or long earthquakes
- unusual ocean behavior (e.g. wall of water, sudden draining showing the ocean floor)
Of all the natural disasters and weather-related threats, thunderstorms are the most underappreciated.
The National Weather Service tracks these storms and their stats finding that:
- on average the US has 100,000 a year
- around 10% are classified as severe
- the biggest issue is lightning, which causes fatalities, injuries and over $1 billion insured losses per year
Other risks associated with thunderstorms, according to the National Weather Service:
- Straight-line winds and hail
- Flash floods and floods
Lightning is dangerous. Congregants who are outside should immediately return to the confines of the church if they hear thunder. Rain does not have to be present for lightning to strike.
- Severe Thunderstorm Watch: severe thunderstorms are likely to occur in your area.
- Severe Thunderstorm Warning: severe thunderstorms are occurring or likely to occur. Life and property are at risk.
Don't forget thunderstorms when preparing for natural disasters.
The Red Cross defines a tornado as "a violently rotating column of air extending from the base of a thunderstorm to the ground." Each year over 1,000 tornadoes kill around 60 people and cause over 1,000 injuries.
Tornadoes occur during any season and at any time of the day, according to the National Weather Service. They are rated on the Enhanced Fujita Scale from EF0 to EF5 with 5 being the strongest. Tornadoes move at an average of 30 mph but can be still or speed up to 70 mph (Department of Homeland Security).
Include in your plans and training the signs of tornado formation:
- dark or green sky
- loud roar that sounds like a freight train
- large, dark, low-lying cloud (CDC)
- wall cloud, or an isolated lowering of the base of a thunderstorm
- cloud of debris
- large hail
- funnel cloud, or a visible, rotating extension of the cloud base (Red Cross)
A Tornado Watch indicates that tornadoes are possible. A Tornado Warning means a tornado has been sighted or indicated on radar.
Your church's plan for tornados should include the following from the Red Cross and CDC:
- An underground shelter, basement or safe room is the best place to be during a tornado.
- Move away from windows and glass doorways.
- Go to the innermost part of the building on the lowest possible floor.
- Do not use elevators.
- Crouch down and cover your head.
- Avoid big rooms that don't have roof structures other than outside walls. These types of buildings often collapse during a tornado
When sheltering people from a tornado, have them face an interior wall with their elbows on their knees and their hands over the backs of their heads (National Weather Service).
Winter storms last a couple of hours to days and may include dangerously low temperatures, strong winds, ice, sleet and freezing rain. Your plan and training should include different terms used in alerts.
- Winter Storm Outlook: storm conditions are possible in the next two to five days.
- Winter Weather Advisory: conditions are expected to cause significant inconveniences and may be hazardous.
- Winter Storm Watch: storm conditions possible within the next 36-48 hours.
- Frost/Freeze Warning: expect below-freezing temperatures.
- Winter Storm Warning: life-threatening, severe winter conditions have begun or will begin within 24 hours.
- Blizzard Warning: storm occurring. There is snow and strong winds, near-zero visibility, deep snow drifts and life-threatening wind chills.
If your church is sheltering people during a storm, running faucets and openning cabinet doors prevents pipes from freezing.
If your church is in an area with volcanoes, plan for them. Volcano explosions are dangerous, especially if the magma blasts into the air and breaks up.
Volcanologists cannot predict when a volcano will become restless. Once volcanic activity begins they can make educated estimates about when a volcano will erupt. In most places (not Hawaii) the most dangerous part of the volcano is ash and mudflows (lahars). Ash damages vehicles, machinery and utilities, and clogs water treatment facilities. It hurts infants, elderly and people with respiratory diseases. It scratches people's eyes and is hazardous to grazing livestock (CDC, EPA).
Lahars destroy bridges and buildings. They burn and smother people. Volcanic gases, like sulfur dioxide, cause acid rain. Other gases "cause rapid breathing, headache, dizziness, swelling and spasm of the throat, and suffocation" according to the Centers for Disease Control.
If your church shelters people during volcano eruptions the CDC advises you:
- close and lock all windows and outside doors
- go into an above-ground, interior room without windows
- turn off all heating and air conditioning
- close fireplace dampers
In addition to your usual supplies, have goggles and face masks available.
If people are outside of the church when an eruption occurs, they should cover their heads and get inside.
After eruptions, when authorities give the all clear to go outside, remove ashfall from the roof. Ash is heavy and collapses buildings especially if there has been rain.
Like many natural disasters, volcanic eruptions trigger other hazards: acid rain, floods, landslides, mudslides, power outages, contamination of drinking water and wildfires.
Acting as a Receiving Facility
If your church is considering sheltering people during severe weather events, the Department of Homeland Security (2014) provided information for churches planning to build "safe rooms" or other spaces for people to shelter in place during tornadoes, floods, and hurricanes.
One of the most important considerations for this plan? Know fire codes. How many people can the church hold? Also: how can you keep people secure, provide food, sanitary and janitorial service and store possessions including weapons (Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company).
If the Church is Destroyed
Sadly, these types of disasters can damage or destroy your church. Use this worksheet from Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company when creating a plan for continuing ministry even if the church is destroyed by a severe weather event.
For more information on natural disasters and how to teach your congregation and Church Safety Team, check out our book, Defending the Flock.