I don’t know what day of the week it is, but I know that it is Harvey +14, two weeks since Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Corpus Christi, Texas.
I am a part of 3 organizations that are responding to Harvey: Spirit of Joy! Lutheran Church, The Gulf Coast Synod, ELCA, and LEAD. In different ways, each of these organizations has been working their disaster plan and learning from this storm.
Let me say in no uncertain terms: You need a disaster plan.
I am grateful that all the organizations I am a part of have had a plan. But I am watching other organizations struggle post-Harvey because they did not.
So start now in the wake of this disaster, and make a plan for your congregation / organization. Here are some tips to help you on the way.
Who Is Your Disaster Team
Who will help you to communicate before, during, and after the disaster? Identify those people well ahead of time, and make sure they know their role.
Bear in mind that some of your communicators may themselves be affected. Do you have a team that can step up and fill the role if someone has to evacuate, or loses power?
Ways to Communicate
I know, this is all a part of your strategic communications plan. But bear with me 🙂
There are lots of ways that you will need to communicate before, during, and after the disaster. Take an inventory of how well you are set up for each of them.
- E-mail. Do you have an up-to-date email list of members and way to send to them?
- Phone. Depending on your congregation size, phone calls are a great way to reach directly to people. In a larger congregation, you may be able to divide that list among your staff.
- Text. Do you have a way to send text messages to everyone in your congregation? Text messaging is one of the few ways to reach people with near 100% open rates. During Harvey, we used the texting feature of our church management software / membership database.
- Social Media. Know which social media reach your members best. Remember: this is not for broadcasting to your neighborhood, but checking in with members. I found that a closed Facebook group worked best for us at Spirit of Joy!
Communicate Before the Disaster
Not every disaster will give you a warning. But for many disasters you will have some sort of notice ahead of time. A storm in the Gulf, a predication from the Weather Channel, a fire moving across the mountain.
That warning is a gift – use it.
Reach out to everyone in your organization NOW – before the disaster strikes.
There are a few things you need to say to people before the disaster comes:
- Tips for preparing
- How to reach your leadership team if they have a need
- How your congregation / organization will communicate during the disaster
- Helpful local sources of information about the disaster
At Spirit of Joy!, before Harvey arrived we sent out emails with things people may need to have on hand during the storm, how to reach me if something happened, and info on how our congregation would be communicating for the next few days.
When to Cancel
- Who has the authority to cancel worship?
- Who can cancel a special event?
- How will that decision be made and when?
Here are the principles I am currently working off of.
- Listen to the advice of local authorities.
If they ask you to stay off the roads, then it may be a good idea to cancel anything that people would need to drive to attend.
- It is easier to cancel earlier.
We tried to make a decision about worship by noon on Saturday, to give us time to reach everyone and get the word out.
Then, once the decision is made, get the word out about cancellations in every way possible.
During the Disaster
Every disaster is different. A tornado blows through in moments. Harvey dropped rain on Houston for four days.
You first job is to stay safe – whatever that looks like in your disaster.
If it is a longer disaster, you may be able to communicate with your members.
As you are able, reach out to your members and make sure they are weathering the storm – start to anticipate what the needs may be after the storm.
If the situation is one that changes throughout the disaster – as Harvey did – and you are able to do so, send updates to your members via email and social media. Use text messaging if it is an urgent update.
During a disaster, reliable information is currency. Communicating with the people in your ministry will lessen anxiety and help everyone be on the same page if something happens.
Immediately After the Disaster
As soon as you are able to, reach out to your members.
- Pray with and for them.
- Find out how they did during the disaster. Do they have any needs?
- Find out how their family and neighborhood weathered the storm.
- Let them know how you are, and how the facility came through.
As direct as possible for this important step. If a person to person phone call is too much, divide the phone list among your staff.
If you have a larger congregation / organization, you may want to create a spreadsheet or use your database to track any important info from this follow up.
We also did daily check ins with our Spirit of Joy! members in our closed Facebook throughout Harvey, so by the time the storm was over we had a sense of what was going on with about a third of our members.
After the Storm
The needs for clean-up and recovery appear quickly.
Use the same communications tools you used during the storm to share opportunities to serve your neighbors with your congregation.
As quickly as you can, mobilize to help your members in need and start caring for those affected by the disaster.
Move out of your disaster communications plan, and into a plan for serving during the recovery.
Note: Self-care before, during, and after a disaster is extremely important. Remember: when the oxygen masks drop from the ceiling, put yours on first before you try and help someone else put on theirs.
What are your best tips for disaster communications? Let’s continue the conversation on Twitter.
Want to contribute to Hurricane Harvey cleanup? Send a gift to Spirit of Joy! Lutheran Church as we work to care for our neighbors. Select “Designated Outreach” and your gift will be used for hurricane recovery.