- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 30, 2014

By some biblical accounts, the first disaster was the flood that covered everything on earth except for Noah and his family, who survived thanks to faith and preparation — namely, the ark.

Catastrophes have hit communities for millennia, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the importance and preparedness of houses of worship during a time of need, emergency officials said Tuesday.

“Churches reach a lot of people no one else reaches,” said Dr. Tom Kirsch, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins’ Department of Emergency Medicine. “They have a very unique opportunity to reach large parts of the population and have a role in support at a difficult time.”

On Tuesday, Mr. Kirsch joined Federal Emergency Management Agency officials and emergency personnel from the D.C. area, as well as members of churches, temples and other houses of worship, at a workshop designed to help these places serve their congregation and community.

“You’re really the first responders,” said Lauren Sauer, associate director of the Johns Hopkins’ National Center for the Study of Preparedness and Catastrophic Event Response, which led the workshop training. “You’re the people who support the community to build them back up.”

That’s where FEMA’s Emergency Operation Plans for Houses of Worship can be used. Tuesday’s workshop dealt primarily with the first four steps of the guide: establishing a planning team, understanding the emergency situation, determining goals and objectives and development of the plan.

Father E. “Skip” Koritzer of St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, said he has been working in emergency services for 40 years, and has learned that “one of the places many people go to get questions answered is a house of worship.”

Conversely, many faith communities don’t have disaster plans worked out for themselves, he said.

Bruce McFarlane, inclusive emergency planner with Fairfax County’s Office of Emergency Management, said a good place to start building a plan within a church is to know the community. Congregations often have local council members who can serve as advisers for faith leaders, while office staff and even Sunday school teachers can help reach out to the congregation.

The Rev. John Wesley Moore, pastor of three United Methodist churches within the Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conference, said his congregations, as well as other houses of worship in the area, have had some kind of emergency plans in place for years thanks to the oceanside community being no stranger to bad weather.

“We work with local, national and international agencies,” Mr. Moore said. “We work with them, so we’re not trying to do the same [things] they’re doing.”

The workshop hit home for Lubna Ejaz, president of the board of directors at the Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring.

The center has about 300 paid members, but on a Friday the congregation can increase to 1,500 people or even swell to 6,000 for holy days. The center is open seven days a week and has a medical clinic on-site that is open to the public.

“We really don’t have an emergency operations plan,” Ms. Ejaz said, “and we’ve learned we need to have an emergency operations plan.”

The Rev. Jonathan Barton, who heads the Virginia Council of Churches, said while faith leaders at Tuesday’s workshop could learn something, another important takeaway is how government agencies can help houses of worship.

“There needs to be a sensitivity and awareness if they don’t want the religious community to feel isolated,” Mr. Barton said. “Collaboration and response is a two-way street. Building those relationships is vitally important.”

But what also needs to be considered, he said, is the uniqueness of faith-based support.

“What is different about the faith community? My answer is God,” he said. “It’s an important component, because in every disaster there is a moment when an individual turns, or their face looks skyward, and they ask ‘why?’ It begins that conversation with the divine. God plays a role in all these discussions.”

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