HOME ...Y2K HOME .. Simple Living Index ... Strengthening the Community Essay ...

Ways to Strengthen your Community

The Parish Emergency Plan

Does your parish have an Emergency Plan? If not, chances are the rudimentary aspects of such a plan are present. If you have a school, they do fire drills (and maybe tornado or earthquake drills, depending on where you live). When someone dies, there is probably a committee that goes into action to provide comfort for the family and a meal after the funeral. Somebody (probably the maintenance crew) probably knows what to do if the electricity goes off and the heat won't work in winter. Your diocese probably has a plan regarding sending priests to hospitals and emergency morgues in the event of a disaster causing a number of deaths.

So the idea of a "parish emergency plan" is not foreign to the Catholic Church system; if anything, given all that we have seen and experience in just this century, it would seem to be evangelically prudent.

If your parish doesn't have such a plan, offer to help coordinate its preparation. As a matter of practicality, it is easier to get a pastor to go along with something if you are offering to be the organizer; if you are merely telling him something "he should do", it is likely to get filed right behind the other 1001 things in his in-box. This kind of activity seems to me to be particularly an apostolate of the laity so go easy on your pastor. You can also approach this through parish organizations that you may belong to, or your parish council.

Parishes are responsible community organizations that have duties and responsibilities to their neighborhoods and communities. One such responsibility is to be a resource in a time of need or disaster. We see this happening all over the world in bad situations -- e.g., in Indonesia, the bishops have asked the parishes to open soup kitchens to help people deal with the economic disaster there, during severe weather emergencies, parishes often provide shelter and refuge, etc. It is part of our mission as salt and leaven and light for the world.

It is easier to think about such things in advance of the need, so a parish with a prepared emergency plan is a step ahead in the event it is ever needed.

Here are some aspects of preparing a parish emergency plan.

+ Threat assessment. What are the situations that could call for a parish emergency response, on either an individual family or community-wide level? Floods, fire, terrorist attack (think about the Oklahoma City or World Trade Center bombings), tornado, hurricane, earthquake, chemical spills, severe winter storm, heat/air pollution emergency.

+ Vulnerabilities. Who and what is vulnerable? How many old and frail elderly, and where are they? Children in parish or other schools? Property? Infrastructure (computer and communication systems)? Power and heating? School activities?

+ Communications. How would the parish communicate outside of Mass with its parishioners in the event of an emergency requiring a response?

+ Resources. What resources are available? E.g., parish organizations and institutions such as sodalities, altar societies, Knights of Columbus (or St. Peter Claver), youth groups, etc. What resources does the parish physical plant offer? Alternative heating for emergency shelter purposes? Emergency generator?

+ Spiritual health. How is the spiritual health of the parish? It is alive with joy and spirituality or dead with division and alienation, or somewhere betwixt and between? How can disasters affect the Sacraments administered through the parish? If the heat and electricity is off, where will Mass be held? As usual? In a different area where heat is available? In emergency shelters? What if people are prevented from attending due to weather disasters? Can the parish check on them and e.g. offer mass in neighborhoods?

The place to start is with a parish visitation program. This involves looking at the parish neighborhoods, recruiting volunteers, and developing a program to visit each family in the parish over a period of time. While ideally this is an evangelical visit, it can also provide the basis for a telephone "tree" to contact many people in a short time, or if the phones and electricity are not working, to communicate with the parishioners on an emergency basis. It also facilitates checking on those who are most at risk, including families with young children and the frail elderly.

A visitation program can also facilitate development of small faith-sharing groups in neighborhoods, which will greatly enhance the evangelical and catechetical work of the parish. Continue on to seek cross-cultural, ethnic, race, economic class connections between your parish and others. Solidarity and participation are two primary building blocks of stable communities. Anything you can do to strengthen and increase the practice of these virtues in your parish will be of invaluable assistance during any kind of emergency that you might prepare for.

Talk to leaders of parish organizations and staff members and civil authorities to develop a "threat assessment", i.e. make a list of possible emergencies, and then develop strategies and tactics to deal with those emergencies. E.g., parish buildings are in a flood plain; where do we get sandbags and where do we put them. Tornadoes are a risk; what do we do if a tornado hits during Mass. Severe winter storms can cause power outages. What do we do about the frail elderly and young children who may be at risk of death from cold in unheated houses? Heat/air pollution emergency -- again, what about the frail elderly. Where do we take them in such a situation? What happens if there is a strike in town and half the parish workers are suddenly out of work? What resources are necessary to effectively deal with these emergencies?

Consider that as a responsible neighborhood organization, usually with some assets and investment in the community, an argument can be made for equipping parish buildings with alternative heating/cooking abilities and electrical generators with stored fuel (not to heat and light the entire complex as normal, but rather to heat and provide electricity to certain areas within the physical plant in an emergency situation). Parish organizations such as St. Vincent de Paul and community organizations such as foodbanks should be well-supported and their pantries should be well-stocked at all times to meet emergency needs.

Prepare and write the plan, and then publicize it. Tell the parishioners (via the normal parish communications) about the existence of the plan and invite people to look over it. Mention it in the annual parish handbook. ("The parish has an emergency plan in the event of severe weather or other disasters. Please review the plan and offer to help with one of its aspects.") Send a copy to your local civil authorities (e.g. local versions of the Federal Emergency Management Agency). Maintain the plan, update it as circumstances change -- i.e., if Union Carbide opens a plant in your neighborhood, what happens in the event of a poison gas release? The parishes of Bhopal, India had to deal with that one.

Parishes in South Dakota have coped with floods. Parishes in Florida have had hurricanes and earthquakes happen too. I've had email from people in Canada saying that they experienced times where they were out of contact with their parishes during last winter's severe weather emergency, which caused the loss of power to large areas for extended periods of time, and they keenly felt this loss. One correspondent said it would have been a blessing if somebody from the parish had come by to check and see if they were all right. In their case, they weren't all right, because they had no heat and ended up having to leave their home and go to a relative's house who still had heat.

A parish emergency plan is a necessary aspect of our responsibilities as Christians towards our communities. Do your part, take the initiative, to help your parish prepare such a plan.

HOME ...Y2K HOME .. Simple Living Index ... Strengthening the Community Essay ...

Ways to Strengthen your Community