Preparing your house of worship to provide shelter in a severe weather emergency

By Eric Spacek

If you’ve been concerned recently about the increasing number of severe weather events affecting the United States, you’re not alone. Many church members are expressing anxiety about the possibility of needing emergency shelter—and they sincerely hope their church will be a place they can turn to.

According to Church Mutual’s new “Risk Radar Report — Severe Weather,” 82% of Americans feel houses of worship and other community organizations should prepare in advance for severe weather events, as members and patrons are likely to seek shelter from severe weather there.

More than four in five Americans (84%) said they would be impacted if one of these organizations was unable to provide services due to severe weather’s effect on the facility. Survey respondents said they would have nowhere else to go, and if their organization was unable to provide services, they would consider living in their vehicles.

This research begs the question: Has your church put together a plan for how it might serve as a shelter in case of severe weather? If not, now is a good time to do so.

Steps to become a shelter

The best place to start is with the American Red Cross or another, local humanitarian organization that provides emergency assistance and disaster relief. Such an entity has extensive experience with helping facilities convert themselves into shelters, and it can assist you with the steps you need to take.

You should also reach out to your insurance carrier to see if your current policy covers providing temporary shelter for people. Contrary to what some might believe, not every insurance policy allows the covered organization to house people in its building.

Once you have accomplished the initial preparation to convert into a shelter if necessary, it’s time to take steps to get your facility ready:

#1: Create an emergency supply kit. If your members come to you for services in severe weather, you need to have the right items on hand to provide relief. Your kit should include:

    • Masks, hand sanitizer, and cleaning and disinfecting supplies.
    • Extra clothing.
    • At least three days’ worth of water for sanitation and drinking.
    • Regular household bleach and a medicine dropper for water decontamination.
    • Important documents, such as an insurance policy, in a waterproof container.
    • A wrench or pliers to turn off utilities if necessary.
    • A whistle to signal for help.
    • Cash and coins.
    • A flashlight.
    • Local maps.
    • A mobile phone with text messaging capability and a charging device.
    • A battery-powered or hand-crank radio and a NOAA Weather Radio with tone alert.
    • Extra batteries.
    • A first-aid kit.
    • At least a three-day supply of food that requires no refrigeration, no preparation and little to no water. This supply should include a manual can opener and eating utensils.
    • Garbage bags, plastic ties, moist towelettes and toilet paper for personal sanitation.

#2: Plan for adequate security. People need safety not only from the weather, but also from each other. Create an emergency plan that includes steps for protecting your guests from theft, sexual assault and other problems. You will need to separate men from women, and ensure that any children are adequately protected.

#3: Consider how you will handle housekeeping. Even just a few guests for a few days can create a significant mess. You will likely need more help than what your church’s custodial staff can offer. You might need to put together a roster of volunteers who could help in such a situation.

It takes a lot of planning to have your church ready to be an emergency shelter. But should the occasion ever arise, that shelter preparation will be a huge source of comfort to your members and other community members.

Eric Spacek is Assistant Vice President — Risk Control, Church Mutual Insurance Company, S.I.


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