Tag Archives: hurricane harvey

Faith Communities Shouldn’t Be Part of the Storm

Lakewood Church, Houston, TX

By Katherine Kerr, APR

Since Lakewood Church Pastor Joel Osteen’s jaw-dropping response to Hurricane Harvey by initially not opening up his megachurch to Houstonians seeking refuge from the storm, he has been all the talk on religion news and mainstream media websites.

As a public relations practitioner who has taught crisis communications training to various faith communities, I have been asked what could have and should have been done differently.

Commandment #1: “As a faith-based organization, you WILL be held to a higher standard than other organizations.”

That is because faith organizations profess to operate under a high moral code that we teach and preach and, to avoid being hypocrites, should adhere to. Always. It might not be fair, but we are not promised fairness in the secular or religious realms.

If you claim to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ who commanded his followers to take care of the hungry, the sick, the poor, the incarcerated, then you better do exactly that. Every day and especially during and after a major disaster.

Always lying in wait are the “Gotchas,” the people (and often the media) who are just waiting for a teacher, a preacher, a scout leader or a law officer to screw up. These are the folks who gleefully leap up, point fingers and shriek, “Hypocrites! Can’t be trusted! They’re all in it for the glory/power/money, etc.”

So, knowing that the Gotchas are lurking, I cannot understand how Pastor Osteen, who has taken lobs for years for his humongous worship center, multi-million dollar mansion and astronomical net worth, did not see this coming.

Pastor Osteen has singularly created his own eye of a hurricane that will continue to strike over and again. Or at least until he “gets” that the optics during a disaster are just as important as the optics on Christmas and Easter when we all want to feel warm and fuzzy and dazzled by over-the-top production values.

An amendment to Commandment #1 is to quickly, humbly and genuinely admit when you make a mistake. Acknowledge the error in judgement or action; don’t try to spin it. And, then, say what you are doing now to rectify the situation and what you will do in the future to make sure the crisis doesn’t reoccur.

Commandment #2 is “Have a plan.” God has a plan. As a faith leader, you should too.

“Leaving it up to God,” is lazy and an insult to God, who has blessed us with brains and resources and expects us to use them. You’ve heard the oft-told joke about the foolish man who clung to a tree while waters rose above him and he kept waiting for God to take care of him. Several people’s attempts to rescue him were rebuffed because he expected God to make an appearance. The fool did not see God in them.

Yet how often do we hear and say that God is within each of us and that we are His hands and feet? He has granted us powers, albeit limited, to fulfill our work here on Earth. So get to it!

Every faith community should plan for natural and human disasters of all types. Pastors, governing boards and lay leaders should at least once a year spend time playing “what if” and work through various scenarios. Take a page from current events and ask, “what if this happens to us?”

  • “If our community floods and our facility is operational, can we be a shelter?”
  • “If our community floods and our facility is not operational, what process can we implement to help those who might show up at our door?”
  • “How do we help our members, our neighbors?”
  • “Are we prepared to house people overnight? Feed people? Collect and distribute food, clothing, etc. How would we manage it?”

The plans should not have specific names assigned to them, but rather positions with responsibilities. If your plan says the head pastor will make the call in a disaster, that doesn’t take into account that the head pastor might not be accessible when a call needs to be made. If her own house has been swept away like Dorothy’s in the Wizard of Oz, who is next in line?

Third Commandment: “Have a communications plan and execute it.”

First, leadership should come together and determine what the message is for every audience and every channel. The message should be consistent. The level of detail might differ from what you share with your governing board compared to the local media, but the basics should be the same. And, you should always be truthful.

That plan should cover every possible channel your organization uses including a phone tree, your website, social media, newsletters and media outreach. You should prioritize your audiences and channels and designate and equip people to carry out the communications with specific deadlines.

You shouldn’t be telling your members that if their homes are flooded they can come hang out at your church and then turn away the neighbor-who-is-not-a-member across the street. That is bad form. And, it is hypocritical.

Folks will remember longer the bad stuff you did or failed to do than the fact that you opened your doors in their time of need. Do you want to be the Joel Osteen of your community trying to rehabilitate your reputation?

Fourth Commandment: “Evaluate what you did before, during and after the disaster and improve your plan for the next time.”

It’s tempting to think that whatever you’ve just been through will never happen again. Tell that to congregations who live in hurricane zones, tornado alleys and wildfire regions. Make notes during the disaster and convene a debrief when the worst has passed. Have a plan for when, not if, the next crisis occurs.

Good luck and God bless.

Helping in a Disaster Should Not Be About You

Credit to CNN

By Katherine Kerr, APR

Before going to help in a disaster zone, here are some things you should know.

First, it isn’t about YOU. Being a volunteer in a disaster zone should not be about YOU. Don’t plan on taking selfies of yourself doing hard work and posting them on social media. Don’t exploit disaster victims to make yourself feel better. Don’t go because you want to talk about how hard it was, how God called you to do it and to let other people know what a good person you are. None of those are good reasons to go into a disaster zone.

Disaster response work is hard. And nasty. And difficult. And dangerous. And expensive. It requires you to be flexible and adaptable. If you’re worried about breaking your nails and make-up or you have special dietary needs, you probably are not cut out for disaster work.

If you decide to go into a disaster zone, get a tetanus shot.

The reason is that you are going into a place where there is ALL kinds of nastiness. That water you’ve seen people wading through on TV? It is full of gasoline and a stew of other chemicals, sewage and critters including fire ants, snakes and other live and dead creatures including human beings.

That cute video of the guy catching the catfish in his living room? My first thought was “Ewww! I hope to he doesn’t plan to eat it because who knows what that catfish is contaminated with.”

You will not be staying in a five-star hotel or even a one-star hotel unless you are really, really lucky. All the people who are now homeless are in those places. They deserve to be there.

So you need to plan to be self-sufficient. That means staying in your own car, RV or tent in whatever dry spot you can find and figuring out how you’re going to feed yourself, keep yourself hydrated. Don’t expect to have access to Starbucks or Wifi. This is really roughing it.

Right now in disaster zones that is what people who live there 24/7/365 are trying to figure out. The last thing they need to worry about is how to “host” you.

If you have friends or family in the disaster zone, first ask if they want you there. Or, could you be of greater help by giving them a place to stay far outside of where flood waters have made their living room furniture float and their roofs have been bashed in by trees. Really listen to what they say and how they respond. Remember, they are in shock and are trying to determine how they are going to make it through the next few days and weeks. You might be more helpful later.

And, since it is Texas during August/September and beyond, expect it to be hot. Very hot. And humid. And there will be mosquitoes and all kinds of discomfort. And since you’ll be self sufficient, that means you need to accept that you are not likely to get daily showers or be able to wash your clothes on a regular basis. \

If you really feel like you need to go into the disaster zone, please connect with one of the many experienced and established disaster response organizations, including the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and various faith-based organizations sponsored by many of the Christian denominations and other faith traditions. While it might seem bureaucratic to fill out forms and wait for assignments, they know what they are doing.

Go knowing that you will be moving heavy soggy furniture and refrigerators and freezers full of rotting food. You’ll be busting out water-damaged sheetrock and insulation and shoveling out several feet of nasty silt and icky stuff that has floated into homes and businesses. If you’re not physically able to do that, please think carefully about whether you can help or if you’ll be a hindrance.

If you’re convinced you can help by cooking and making sandwiches for volunteers, first responders and disaster victims, check to see if there is a place for you to do that kind of work and if your help is really wanted or needed. Can you bring your own food and cooking equipment? Do you have a health certificate required for people who work in food service? The last thing that is needed is for a bunch of people to come down with food poisoning.

Disasters bring out the best and worst in people. Right now, there are sham fundraising sites promising to raise money to help disaster victims and instead the money is going into the pockets of unscrupulous individuals. While Harvey was still churning in the Gulf, people were buying up domain names for Hurricane Harvey disaster response because they knew that most of us would be moved to respond to the heartbreaking images now streaming across our TVs, computers and cell phones. If you really want to help, your best bet is to donate to established disaster agencies.

Also, unscrupulous people move into disaster zones and further victimize people already traumatized by disaster. You’ve probably heard about the fly-by-night contractors. They will be heading into the impacted areas offering their “services” to help people move, clean out and repair their homes. Too often they require payment for services ahead of time and they and their trucks move on to another neighborhood without doing any work.

Also, sexual predators show up in these kinds of events. These are people who prey on naïve volunteers and disaster victims. If you are not asked to complete a form that requires a background check, you should avoid aligning yourself with that group. Legitimate organizations invest in checking out volunteers to protect all volunteers and clients.

If, for whatever reason you think you need to go, please go well prepared.

Gas up your car as close to the disaster zone as possible. And, take additional fuel with you, which is dangerous to transport. Take nonperishable food that can be easily opened and is packaged for maximum protection for two or three weeks. Take lots of bottled water. Some for you and some to share with others. Take a first aid kit and stock up on your medications.

Take tools that will be needed like shovels to muck out homes that have been flooded, gas-fueled chainsaws to cut tree limbs, wheelbarrows, trashbags, trashcans and cleaning supplies. Take gloves, galoshes, masks to protect yourself from mold and other germs. Take heavy-duty rain gear. Wearing all that stuff will be extra warm, but you need that protection.

Take cash. With all the flooding, electricity is out. Credit and debit cards will not work. Cash is always good. That, of course, creates a different type of risk of which to be mindful.

Even though you are a volunteer and people will be grateful for your help, no one is likely to pick up the tab for your room and board. The reason is simple: that money is needed to help people get back on their feet. If you really want credit, keep your receipts and claim it on your itemized tax form. If you’ve decided by now that boots-on-the-ground volunteering is not for you, thank you for recognizing that your gifts lie elsewhere.

Cash, checks and online donations are what is needed most now. Or, buy up some gift cards from HomeDepot, Lowe’s, Ace Hardware, McCoys, Walmart, Target and grocery stores and send them to churches and social service agencies in the affected areas. Giving disaster victims flexibility to determine for themselves what they need most is important.

Please do not collect clothes, toys and food to send to the disaster zone as getting that into the hands of people in need is a logistical nightmare. Tons of donated clothing sent to New Orleans were burned in parking lots because there was no plan for storage, sorting and distribution. That was a waste of effort for all involved and cash donations would have been more beneficial.

Don’t focus just on the major metro areas; remember the small rural towns that are outside the media spotlight. Go to Google Maps and find a county that you haven’t heard of and send them some help.

Thanks for giving of yourself for all the right reasons.

Editor’s Note:  Katherine is a former newspaper reporter who covered numerous disasters in her 11 years of journalism experience.  While working for nonprofit social service organizations, she oversaw communications efforts for flooding in Central Texas and Hurricanes Katrina and Ike and the long-term disaster response for each of those events.

Best Way to Respond to a Disaster

By Katherine Kerr, APR

The photos, videos and stories coming out of the Texas Gulf Coast are doubtless going to be heartbreaking and devastating. Homes, businesses, schools and government property will be damaged and destroyed and lives will be lost.

As a generous country, often the first impulses of people seeing those images are two things: 1) to donate stuff to help those affected, and 2) to rush into the disaster zone.

As a former reporter who covered several hurricanes, tropical depressions, tornados and floods and later a communicator for social service organizations that responded to disaster, please do not do either.

First, organizing a clothing, toy and food drive at your church or with your civic group becomes a logistical problem. It means someone has to transport the stuff to the disaster zone, which means it needs to be delivered some place and then someone has to assume responsibility for storage, sorting and distribution. That can become a problem in the midst of an already major problem. The folks reeling from the shock of a disaster don’t need more problems.

Also, clothing is personal. Not everyone shares your fashion taste. Or your size. People who have lost everything need underwear. New. And they want to choose clothes that will fit them and help get them through the next few days and weeks. Choosing their own clothes gives them some measure of control when their lives have spun out of control.

Donating toys and especially stuffed animals is a sweet and kind gesture. But storage and distribution are problematic.

Instead of donating food, water and toys, consider donating money to existing agencies have a track record in responding to disasters, such as the United Way, the Red Cross, Salvation Army Habitat for Humanity and various faith-based disaster organizations like Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and Lutheran Disaster Response.

Online, cash and check donations don’t require transportation and storage and are more efficient ways to help people.

If you don’t want to give money, consider gift cards from big box stores such as Walmart, Target, Lowe’s, HomeDepot and smaller retailers like Ace Hardware and McCoy’s. Again, this gives flexibility to people who are trying to recover and rebuild to buy exactly what they need. Send those to agencies and churches in the disaster zone to distribute to people on the ground. And, it contributes to rebuilding the local economy.

Second, please don’t rush into the disaster zone equipped only with good intentions and a trunk full of bottled water. You will probably take up a hotel or motel room needed by a family who has lost their home. You might run out of gas, food and water and because the disaster zone is lacking utilities, now you’ve become part of the problem.

Instead, connect with disaster agencies as recommended before for guidance on how you can best help. If you are skilled at construction, electricity and plumbing, your gifts of labor will be needed in the long-term disaster response because recovery will take months and years.

Finally, while most of the media attention will be focused on the primary disaster zone along the coast, Harvey’s impact will cover a huge part of Texas including Williamson County. There is still a family in Taylor, Texas waiting for their home to be rebuilt  after the 2015 Memorial Day flooding. That was over three years ago!

People living in other areas that are ignored by the news media are likely to experience flooding with the predicted sustained rainfall. Trees might fall on homes and high winds or tornados could damage or destroy homes. These individuals and families will be just as devastated and traumatized spotlighted by the news media. They deserve and will need your help.

In most every community there is a coalition of organizations known as VOADs, Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters. They are comprised of local agencies that are organized to respond to disaster and need your support and labor. Find one in or near your community or a community that is hammered by the storm.

If shelters are opened up at schools and churches, evacuees will need your help. But, check with those operating the shelters to see how you can best assist. Don’t assume you know what is needed and show up with stuff.

Many people will bring their pets, which creates an additional challenge. Pet crates and food will be needed to take care of four-legged evacuees. Again, ask how you can help.

Your good intentions are appreciated. You don’t want to  create more difficulties for those trying to help people struggling to figure out their futures.

Be part of the solution and not part of the problem. Please.