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Pastors gather emergency ideas

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Three Monett pastors attended a disaster preparation meeting for faith-based organizations, organized by Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, held in Springfield recently. Pastors looking over materials from the conference, from left, are: John Nipper, First Presbyterian Church; Paul Lanning, First United Methodist Church; and Ron Stair, First Christian Church. [Times Photo by Murray Bishoff]
Three Monett pastors developed new ideas about how to serve the community while attending the Missouri Governor's Faith-Based Organization Disaster Initiative Workshop in Springfield on May 1.

Paul Lanning, from the First United Methodist Church, John Nipper, from the First Presbyterian Church, and Ron Stair, from the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), attended the session at Remington's in Springfield. The five-hour program included presentations through lunch.

"This was part of disaster response planning started by Governor Matt Blunt in 1998," Lanning said. "What initially started with faith-based organizations was hit and miss. This is an off-shoot. It trains churches to make its own people responsive in case of a disaster."

Lanning had participated in Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (VOAD) while pastoring a church in the Kansas City area. He said a VOAD differs from a Community Organizations Active in Disaster (COAD). COADs are run by paid police and firefighters, and VOADs have a less clear line of authority or duties.

"A VOAD has to have police and fire support," Lanning said. "They are the experts; they tell us what to do. If a minister's association tries to organize people, it won't have much effect. If police and fire chiefs call a meeting, then pastors will come."

The Monett pastors found the meeting enlightening. They said the best presentation came from Randy Gariss, pastor of the College Heights Christian Church in Joplin, who spoke on what he and his colleagues learned following the May 22, 2011, tornado in Joplin. Gariss cited 10 roles that churches needed to fill:

1. Helping pursue their own people.

2. Someone who is devoted to agency coordination.

3. Dealing with housing for the homeless and arriving volunteers.

4. Coordinating volunteers.

5. Running a distribution center.

6. Managing food.

7. Overseeing money.

8. Someone in charge of communication.

9. Training advocates, including registering with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross.

10. Serving as counselors and pastors.

Lanning said VOADs conduct specific services during state-run disasters. One may handle all the clothing in town and needs space to operate. AmeriCorps manages volunteers. In larger communities with VOADs, Seventh Day Adventists take care of warehousing needs. The Red Cross handles shelters, and the Salvation Army provides meals, usually two or three days after the disaster. Local church congregations in the meantime have to address the immediate need.

"They told us one of our tasks as a congregation is to locate our own people," said Nipper. "If we were prepared, we could assign someone in a center area to check on six other nearby households."

Each of the pastors thought about the immediate needs for their congregation in light of their facilities. Nipper said the First Presbyterian Church has a partial basement with limited accessibility for those with mobility issues. He is considering running a disaster drill during services and would like to find a flare gun to alert the outside world of anyone trapped in the church.

Five members of the First United Methodist Church previously attended Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training in Mt. Vernon. They pointed out the spacious church building has no basement and many windows.

Lanning said his congregation has been trying to develop an effective strategy for making congregation members feel safe in the building in an emergency. Unlike most churches, First United Methodist has a significant food supply on hand as host for the Monett Community Kitchen.

First Christian Church, Stair said, had been on the city's shelter list, having a full basement. Lacking someone who can open the church on a moment's notice, the church had itself removed from the list. With an aging congregation, Stair said the church's current role in the big picture is now undefined. He planned to ask an engineer to look at ways to make the church building better prepared in a storm.

`At last Sunday's service at First Christian Church, Jeanette McAlexander, who also attended the session, asked fellow church members to learn how to turn off the electricity, water and gas services at their own homes as a first stop in dealing with a disaster scenario.

"We want to focus on our members helping themselves," Stair said, "what to do for your own family and how the church can help."

Emergency conditions are not limited to tornados. Lanning recalled his church sent people out in all-terrain vehicles to rescue homebound parishioners after the January 2007 ice storm.

The pastors each found a message relevant to their churches in the meeting.

"We got an invitation to attend from Monett's Office of Emergency Management," Nipper said. "That office will have planning for how to respond, and churches ought to be a part of that."

"The elders of our church are organized to follow up on the elderly now," Stair said. "We need to revisit that and revise our plan."

"Because of where Monett is, between Barry and Lawrence counties, we are a bit of an odd duck. We must respond on our own," said Lanning. "We must have VOADs funnel their efforts with the city."

The pastors agreed that in the long-run, churches naturally fill a role in providing counselors and helping victims process a tragedy. Stair recalled that when he and other First Christian members volunteered in Joplin after the tornado, one of the most helpful things they did was listen to a couple recounting their ordeal.

"The more trained we are for an emergency response, the better off we are," said Lanning.

"And the better we cope," Nipper added.

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