Loving thy neighbor: Help your community get ready for disasters

Story by John Iwasaki / Photos by Abby Stalsbroten and Laura Reinhardt

In the television drama "Revolution," as breathlessly described by NBC, "a family struggles to reunite in an American landscape where every single piece of technology—computers, planes, cars, phones, even lights—has mysteriously blacked out forever."

Phyllis Freeman (right), World Vision's national director of domestic disaster response, speaks with a church member during a break in training.

Real-life disasters might not rise to the level of a worldwide blackout, but even a local calamity can cause massive disruptions.

If a storm knocked out power in your community for days, do you know what to do? Could you help your neighbors survive? Do you even know why you should assist them?

Twenty-two representatives from churches, other ministries, the Red Cross, and the community pondered those questions recently during a training led by Phyllis Freeman, national disaster response director for World Vision's U.S. Programs. The workshop was the first of a two-part training.

World Vision offers the workshop "so you can take the message of readiness out to the community," she tells the group gathered at Bethel Church in Chehalis, Washington.

Her audience is understandably receptive. The Chehalis River Basin in Western Washington has experienced 100-year floods four times since 1990. Each time, muddy floodwaters closed Interstate 5 and turned houses into islands. In the last major flooding in 2007, rescue helicopters picked up stranded residents while World Vision worked through the Salvation Army to provide emergency supplies, including clothing, blankets, hygiene kits, and cleanup supplies.

"When it floods, it cuts the area off," says one participant, a volunteer firefighter. "It cuts the hospital off, too."

A training display shows hygiene items that World Vision distributes after a disaster.

"I've had the opportunity to move from sympathy to empathy," says another participant, a Red Cross representative. "I've had my turn on the cots."

Phyllis outlines five objectives in disaster readiness: understand the basics, identify potential partners, evaluate the readiness of your organization and neighborhood, identify resources within your organization, and determine how your organization wants to be involved.

"Revolution" dramatizes the "absolute worst conditions," she says. "No cell phones. No hospital. Ask yourself if you could survive."


The World Vision training teaches the practical and the philosophical. For example:

But the "why" behind disaster readiness goes beyond making sure only one's household is safe.

"You need to know everyone on your street," Phyllis says. "In 2013, we need to go to the older ways and introduce ourselves to our neighbors. You'll help them move through the recovery phase a lot sooner than if you did not know anyone."

A worker removes wet carpet from an apartment in Centralia, Washington, after a flood in January 2009.

That knowledge is critical if, for example, you knew that a neighbor with health problems would lose the use of a respirator during a power outage.

"If your home is prepared, then you can go out and help others," Phyllis says.

At one point in the training, participants huddle in groups to discuss why Christians should be involved in disaster readiness for their communities, not just for themselves.

"Part of the role of the church is to take care of people," not only in community outreaches like Easter egg hunts, but in times of need, one group says.

Disasters are "really opportunities to share the love of God," says another. "Actions speak louder than words."

A third group adds that helping others in need is "what the Father expects of us. Disasters are not something that God creates [to punish us]. Maybe he allows them to happen—and watches how we respond."

"In hard times, non-Christians and Christians turn to God," says another group. "We're commanded to love by showing the community that God is love... to listen and meet their immediate needs."

Phyllis encourages participants to assess needs and resources in their community before a disaster strikes.

"In the next year, know how to get yourself in and out of a disaster situation,” she says. "In Hurricane Sandy, over one million were without power. Are you and your church prepared to know where the safe places are? To know everyone's emergency numbers?"

For the flood-prone Chehalis area, identifying boat owners would be important. So would knowing which local churches have the ability to house and feed stranded residents, and learning who is a ham radio operator.

Phyllis suggests that organizations create a "skills inventory" within their organizations and work together to divide the tasks in disaster readiness.

Creating a disaster readiness plan for your organization—but not sharing it—isn't enough. "It's a terrible thing if you have a plan and nobody knows it but you," she says. "It's all our responsibility to take care of the least of these."



What to have ready before disaster strikes

Disasters—everything from hurricanes and tornadoes to floods and fires—can leave your family scrambling to survive. Be prepared by gathering emergency supplies ahead of time.

World Vision recommends that every family assemble a "go bag" of essential items. Prepare one go bag per family member—ready to grab if you need to quickly evacuate.

Learn what should be included in a "go bag".