To Really Make a Difference, Get Prepared Well Before Disaster Strikes

Barry Shade | September 4, 2013

September is National Preparedness Month, a good time to consider how to be prepared to care.  I write as someone who has been involved in disaster preparedness for more than 30 years, as a volunteer and as a professional in the Air Force, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and now Church World Service.

Start by taking a personal inventory.  How would you like to help?  What are your skills?  What skills would you like to acquire or refresh?

Before disaster strikes, pick an organization to volunteer with.  It can be a secular or a faith-based organization or a government agency.  Start by considering the service-minded organizations with which you are already connected.  Maybe they include your local house of worship, or the Red Cross, or the Kiwanis.  Ask them about their role in disaster response and what help they need.  Many different skills are needed early in a disaster, ranging from donations and shelter management to more physical labor.

You can also contact your county’s Emergency Management Office.  In Kansas, where I live, there are 35 such offices.  They coordinate search and rescue, emergency food and shelter, muck out, damage assessment – all that needs to be done in a disaster’s immediate aftermath.

Ask that office how you can take the basic community emergency readiness training.  This free training includes a wealth of detail on who does what in an emergency, and who needs volunteers in your community.  Ask about opportunities specifically for teens.

Local houses of worship, and the national bodies with which they are affiliated, are often involved in disaster response and recovery.  If yours isn’t, you can help get something started.  Most congregations will welcome both members and non-members as disaster response volunteers.

At my own St. Andrew Christian Church in Olathe, Kansas, we support the CWS Blankets+ program and we regularly assemble CWS Emergency Cleanup Buckets and CWS Hygiene, School and Baby Care Kits for CWS’s response to emergencies year-round.  You can help CWS keep its warehouses well stocked and ensure that it is able to respond quickly to pending and future disasters, whether limited in scope or large like Superstorm Sandy.

St. Andrew is a member congregation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which supports disaster response and recovery through its Week of Compassion.  We’ve contributed volunteers to Disciples work teams to help rebuild New Orleans, La., and Joplin, Mo.

In addition, my church is working on a congregational disaster plan.  Every congregation should have a plan for how to help its members and its neighbors in the event of a disaster.  Plan for the possibility that your house of worship could be affected directly.  If people come to your church seeking food, water or shelter, are you ready to provide help or tell people where to find it?

Last but not least, have a disaster plan for your own household.  If disaster hits your community and you are scrambling for your own survival, you won’t be available to help others. Go to for information on Family Emergency Plans, kits and much more.

I live in Kansas so our biggest threats are tornadoes and extended power outages due to storms. We have ample water and food on hand for seven days. We also have a first aid kit and a battery powered weather radio (don’t count on your cell phone to work). We’ve also identified the safest place in the basement to ride out a tornado. And we have blankets and hand warmers to keep warm. We also have ample supplies of batteries for flashlights and the radio. If we do have to evacuate, we keep the car’s gas tank near full. Our important documents are kept in a safe deposit box and copies are available to take with us.  I also keep copies of important documents on a memory stick that I can grab in a hurry. Also, don’t forget to be prepared to take prescription medicine.

In short, to be truly of help to yourself and others in the event of disaster, be prepared.  This means thinking before disaster strikes what you want to do – whether that’s offering your skills and labor, or preparing your own household, or preparing your congregation.  Become part of a team before disaster strikes; that’s much more helpful that just showing up unsolicited in disaster’s wake.

Are you ready?

Barry Shade is CWS Associate Director for domestic disaster response