In Irene’s Wake, Diocesan Disaster Coordinators Play a Key Role

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August 31, 2011

Millions of people were impacted by Hurricane Irene as it blasted up the eastern coast of the United States over the weekend of August 27-28. The storm caused at least 40 deaths and billions of dollars in damage along 1,100 miles of coastline, from North Carolina to New England. An estimated 2.4 million people were evacuated from areas where flooding and high winds threatened to disrupt infrastructure and destroy property.

Although major urban centers along the coast were largely spared, flooding in Vermont, Western Massachusetts and upstate New York has reached historic levels. Roads and bridges have been washed out, and this limited access has hampered efforts to repair electricity and other services.

Episcopal Relief & Development has been in contact with a number of dioceses along the East Coast, as communities begin to assess hurricane-related damage. Katie Mears, Program Manager for Episcopal Relief & Development’s US Disaster Program, first reached out to Diocesan Disaster Coordinators in affected areas in the days before the storm made landfall.

“The disaster coordinators are the first line of defense, in terms of disaster preparedness and response,” said Mears. “These people are appointed by bishops to liaise with Episcopal Relief & Development and talk to churches about their needs and activities pre- and post-disaster. They’re the ones encouraging congregations to create preparedness plans, which can help lessen the impact of a disaster, and following up when a disaster occurs, to get an idea of the level of damage and see what can be done.”

According to Mears, there are no confirmed reports of damage to diocesan offices or parishes in the Northeast at this time, but there is property damage in a number of communities with an Episcopal Church presence. “Right now, we have a few churches helping with community-based assessments where possible, but in places where access and transport are still very limited, they’re just trying to make sure everyone’s okay. We expect there will be some community outreach programs in the coming weeks and months, depending on need and ability to respond. I’ll be working with disaster coordinators and other diocesan leadership to determine where the needs are and what kinds of ministries need support.”

Diocesan Disaster Coordinators receive training from Episcopal Relief & Development at regional meetings, helping them to become familiar with the US Disaster Program and understand how the organization interacts with dioceses, congregations and other agencies during each phase of an emergency situation. They are able to access the Ready to Serve volunteer database maintained by Episcopal Relief & Development, which allows individuals to enter information online so they can be called upon to help if a disaster occurs in their area. The Diocesan Disaster Coordinators can receive additional support from Partners in Response, a small corps of experts who can travel to an affected area to help organize response activities, and the Circle of Support, a larger group of former disaster responders who have general disaster know-how or experience in leading a particular kind of ministry.

In addition to providing training for disaster coordinators and keeping up the volunteer database, Episcopal Relief & Development maintains a library of resources that can help people and congregations plan for and respond to disasters. Individuals and families can get prepared with the help of a planning guide that includes content lists for emergency kits, as well as helpful tips and links to government websites with additional resources. Stories from the field and “how-to” guides can help a congregation provide assistance in their community, and three versions of a preparedness planning workbook for churches can be downloaded for free. By filling out the helpful tables and questionnaires, congregations can put together a disaster response plan that is specific to their needs.

“As an Episcopal organization, we wanted to create a resource for congregations that outlines best practices and ensures that there are people assigned to carry out the most essential tasks,” said Mears. “Each congregation has its own particular strengths and vulnerabilities, so the guide helps them tailor-make a disaster preparedness plan according to what is actually essential in their situation. The plan also helps churches figure out what their assets are, in terms of physical space or existing ministries, so they can use those assets to provide relief and help their communities recover.”

“I encourage every congregation to take a look at their level of disaster preparedness,” Mears continued. “September is National Disaster Preparedness Month, and there’s no better time than now to make sure you’ve got a plan in place.”

Episcopal Relief & Development launched the Disaster Preparedness Initiative in 2010. During this pilot year, representatives from 28 high-risk dioceses were invited to a regional training, and this opportunity will be opening to all US dioceses by 2013. Anyone interested in learning more about the Disaster Preparedness Initiative is invited to contact the US Disaster Program at

For more information, please visit Episcopal Relief & Development’s US Disaster Program page. You can also download “how-to”s and other helpful documents from the Resource Library, browse the archives of Lamplight, the US Disaster Program’s e-newsletter, and sign up to the Ready to Serve volunteer database.

Episcopal Relief & Development is the international relief and development agency of the Episcopal Church and an independent 501(c)(3) organization. The agency takes its mandate from Jesus’ words found in Matthew 25. Its programs work towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Episcopal Relief & Development works closely with the worldwide Church and ecumenical partners to help rebuild after disasters and to empower local communities to find lasting solutions that fight poverty, hunger and disease, including HIV/AIDS and malaria.