Wednesday, November 13, 2013


So I learned a new term today. Although the phenomenon has been around for years, I had not heard (or perhaps just not registered) the term SWEDOW (Stuff WE DOn't Want). So often, upon seeing pictures like the ones coming out of the Philippines this week, we feel the need to do SOMEthing. To be useful. To make a difference. And if we get to clean out our closets some in the process, well, that's just a happy bonus!

I'm am pleased to hear, more and more, after every disaster the plea to donate money rather than goods. Money travels easier. Doesn't have to be sorted or sized. Doesn't need to be warehoused. Can be used in multiple ways. And on and on and on. But, you may ask, what if there are no goods to be bought with all that cash in the disaster affected area? That may well be the case. But that still does not make truckloads of used household goods the right answer. So what to do. Here are my few suggestions:

1) Think first about supporting the national or international response agency of your choice with monetary donations to be used in the way they best see fit. For a list of just some of the great partners, you can start here.

2) If you do hear of an organization asking for donated goods, do a little homework first. Is there a plan for warehousing and distributing the goods in the disaster area? Have the goods been specifically requested by a reputable organization? (That already has a presence in the disaster area?) Are the requests for specific goods rather than "anything helps"? If you cannot find a satisfactory answer to these questions, see #1.

Disaster recovery depends on the support of good-hearted people from around the country and the world. I don't ever want to witness the day where people are not moved by the sight of other people in need. To make the most of your compassion, do your research. Ask some questions. And find ways to help that really help.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

What about the Children?

This week there have been lots of stories covering various aspects of Super Storm Sandy--a Year Later. Yesterday, I caught a story on NPR about a support group for Sandy survivors. They talked much about the challenges of dealing with the emotional fall-out that comes from a significant life event like experiencing devastating disaster. And they talked about helping their children process those same emotions.

Children experience the same scary traumas from disaster that adults do. Only they don't have the life experience to put it in perspective. Or the words to even describe what they're feeling. After both Tropical Storm Allison in Houston and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita along the Gulf Coast, I was privileged to be a part of bringing Camp Noah to children who had experienced these storms. Camp Noah is unique in it's ministry of providing a place for children to find ways to talk about and understand what they have been through. To my knowledge, they are the only ones in the disaster community offering this type of program. (I would love to be proven wrong!)

As I think about the important ways faith communities can serve after disaster, I always come back to encouraging them to find ways to support children. Not only by providing a place for them to be as their parents navigate the red tape of recovery, but by finding intentional ways to engage in the ministry of helping children heal. I encourage you to check out Camp Noah and learn about the great work that they do. And then start the conversation within your community about finding ways to support the youngest of disaster survivors.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Tents After the Storm

Last week, Bishop Mike Rinehart of the Gulf Coast Synod of the Evangelical Church in America led our quarterly HIDRA roundtable conversation. Each conversation always takes on a life of its own, but this one was primarily focused on how to be ready to do ministry when our usual means of doing ministry are compromised. (You can find the outline of his presentation, along with some of his suggested resources here).

One story he told stuck with me. It was about driving through Baton Rouge after Hurricane Gustav and noticing that the churches seemed to fit into one of three categories. (I'm paraphrasing here, so I apologize now for any misrepresentations). First, there were those that had empty parking lots and locked up doors--the assumption being that members of these communities were busy taking care of their own households. The second category was those churches that had some activity going on at their location--primarily dealing with whatever the needs of that building might be. And the third category were those churches that had tents set up in the parking lots handing out water or food or electricity--finding ways to meet the immediate needs of the community in which they found themselves.

Each of these categories is a legitimate place to be, but the Bishop challenged us to think about how our faith community can move from being in the first category to being poised to be in the third. How can we be prepared to set up the tents after the storm? It takes some intentional planning ahead of time, but if we're serious about being places of sanctuary and hospitality, shouldn't we do precisely that?

Who, in your setting, is thinking about these things? Who COULD be thinking about these ideas? What are some of the more creative ways you have seen faith communities "set up tents" after a disaster?

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

When No News is NOT Good News

I have spent this morning watching the news unfold around yet another episode of school violence. I have been particularly paying attention to HOW the story is unfolding. What is the news media saying? What's happening in social media? What are the perceptions of the parents waiting for news? The first news conference played just a few minutes ago...about three hours after the event itself. The school district spokesperson said that as soon as the incident happened, they had two priorities: 1) restoring safety to the school and protecting the students and 2) preserving the integrity of the investigation. Only after those two priorities had been accomplished did they begin to communicate to the families.

I was impressed by a couple of things I heard this morning. At one point, one parent noted how well previous lock-downs had been handled by this school. What I heard in her voice was confidence in the leadership of the school--and that seemed to have a bit of a calming effect on her. The second impressive comment was from the school administrator, who was able to very clearly articulate the priorities noted above. Many people may disagree with those priorities, especially those parents who were craving information about their children, but the priorities were clear and were followed according to plan--did you catch that? According to PLAN. 

So why this post on a blog about faith communities and disaster? No organization is immune from these kinds of situations. Handling communications and in some cases, the media, are key. In the absence of information, people will fill in the gaps--with varying degrees of accuracy. When people are worried about loved ones, no amount of information will ever be enough--but no information creates fear and panic. How do you set and manage priorities around communication and message management?

When people are afraid, often the first reaction is to point fingers and criticize those charged with managing the event. So scratch that off your list right now--you will not avoid criticism in the short run. But how do you balance the need to communicate with the need to get a handle on what is going on? Just a couple of thoughts:

1) Have a plan. Who can speak for your organization? How do you reach your constituency in a hurry?
2) Share your plan. The woman who was confident in the leadership of the school because she knew their plan for lock-down was able to be calm and confident. Do your constituents know your plan? What can you do to develop trust---before you need it?
3) Come to grips with social media--it's here to stay. We can either fight it or learn to use it and get out in front.

I'm sure there are other things about communication and media management that others have learned--perhaps the hard way.  I would love to hear about it!

Monday, August 26, 2013

A Natural Combo

I have the best job in the world. Most days. It is my responsibility to find ways to engage "the faith community" (insert your definition here) in the disaster preparedness and response activities of the greater Houston area. Some days this means lots of meetings. Some days it means getting to meet with an amazingly diverse variety of people. And some days it means sitting at a computer trying to figure out what the heck my job is.
Disaster response and "the faith community" seems like a natural combination, right? And really, it is. Every major world religion has some understanding of hospitality. Of embracing the stranger. Of helping those in need. Of working for something larger than ourselves. Where does all of this come together if not in disaster response?
Why then, is my job so difficult? Why does it feel like herding cats? Why is it so challenging to convince "the faith community" of the need for preparedness and the need to plug in during the down time rather than wait? I have some theories, but I'd much rather hear yours. What do you think?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Are you ready?

Here on the Gulf Coast we are right in the thick of hurricane season. And September is just around the corner, which is National Preparedness Month. Is your house of worship ready? Does any one even know what it means to be "ready"? A great starting point is this newly released guide from FEMA. Check it out, and then gather a group of people to work through it for your house of worship. Even a little preparation is better than no preparation.

What should be the top priority for a house of worship in terms of disaster preparation? Join the conversation in the comments.