Post-Irene, Vermont looks at long recovery

Diocesan disaster coordinators play a key role in hurricane response
September 1, 2011

Of the 50-some parishes in the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont, Gethsemane Episcopal Church in Proctorsville, where the parish hall lay in unsalvageable ruins and the church itself slipped off its foundation, bore the brunt of structural damage following Hurricane Irene's heavy rains and flooding.

"We are still getting reports from isolated areas, mostly water damage to homes, and roads and bridges washed out, and there are still many areas where people are stranded," said Lynn Bates, the diocese's canon to the ordinary and transition minister, in a Sept. 2 telephone interview with ENS. "Other damage to church property may be minimal."

Hurricane Irene left more than 40 people dead and caused billions of dollars in damage when it plowed up the Eastern Seaboard Aug. 27 - 28, but rather than paralyzing the coast, the storm's massive rains and subsequent flooding have left communities in upstate New York, Connecticut, Western Massachusetts, and especially Vermont, isolated and in some cases still without electricity.

The isolated community of Stockbridge, near Killington, may not have a new road until after the winter, and other communities have built temporary roads so that residents can travel in and out for work; others living on mountains are using ATVs to get on and off the mountain, she said.

Bates is working with Episcopal Relief & Development to coordinate its disaster response in Vermont, gathering information from communities and determining their needs, and networking with other dioceses and churches that have experience in disaster relief, she said.

"We are trying to set up a system to support local businesses, to provide clothing, food school supplies," Bates said. "The response has been amazing throughout the state … but it will be months before anything feels normal … and years for the economy to recover."

In an Aug. 31 press release, Katie Mears, program manager for Episcopal Relief & Development's U.S. Disaster Program, explained the organization's approach to the response.

"Right now, we have a few churches helping with community-based assessments where possible, but in places where access and transport are still very limited, they're just trying to make sure everyone's okay," she said. "We expect there will be some community outreach programs in the coming weeks and months, depending on need and ability to respond. I'll be working with disaster coordinators and other diocesan leadership to determine where the needs are and what kinds of ministries need support."

Since the storm Bates has provided regular updates to Mears and others.

"I am grateful to know that we are part of a larger Episcopal community and can be of help to others," Bates said.

In advance of Irene, Episcopal Relief & Development began reaching out to diocesan disaster coordinators in affected areas in the days before the storm made landfall, the release said.

"The disaster coordinators are the first line of defense, in terms of disaster preparedness and response," said Mears, "These people are appointed by bishops to liaise with Episcopal Relief & Development and talk to churches about their needs and activities pre- and post-disaster. They're the ones encouraging congregations to create preparedness plans, which can help lessen the impact of a disaster, and following up when a disaster occurs, to get an idea of the level of damage and see what can be done."

On Friday, Aug. 25, in advance of Hurricane Irene's landfall in the North East, the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut sent a special "e-news" to its congregations reminding them to prepare for the advancing storm by removing unsecured objects, asking that clergy pay particular attention to vulnerable populations, the elderly and the homeless.

It was also suggested that Sunday worship services be suspended should weather conditions prove too hazardous, said the Rev. Rev. Peter Stebinger, the diocese's disaster coordinator, in an e-mail to ENS.

Although the storm didn't require a diocesan response in Connecticut, there were many Episcopalians who volunteered to help out during and following the storm, he added.

Diocesan disaster coordinators receive training from Episcopal Relief & Development at regional meetings. The training helps them to become familiar with the U.S. Disaster Program and understand how the organization interacts with dioceses, congregations and other agencies during each phase of an emergency situation, the release said.

Coordinators can access the "Ready to Serve" volunteer database maintained by Episcopal Relief & Development, which allows individuals to enter information online so they can be called upon to help if a disaster occurs in their area. The diocesan disaster coordinators also can receive additional support from "Partners in Response," a small corps of experts who can travel to an affected area to help organize response activities, and the "Circle of Support," a larger group of former disaster responders who have general know-how or experience in leading a particular kind of ministry.

In addition to providing training for disaster coordinators and keeping up the volunteer database, Episcopal Relief & Development maintains a library of resources that can help people and congregations plan for and respond to disasters. Individuals and families can get prepared with the help of a planning guide that includes content lists for emergency kits, as well as helpful tips and links to government websites with additional resources. Stories from the field and "how-to" guides can help a congregation provide assistance in its community, and three versions of a preparedness planning workbook for churches can be downloaded for free. By filling out the helpful tables and questionnaires, congregations can put together disaster response plans that are specific to their needs.

"As an Episcopal organization, we wanted to create a resource for congregations that outlines best practices and ensures that there are people assigned to carry out the most essential tasks," said Mears in the release. "Each congregation has its own particular strengths and vulnerabilities, so the guide helps them tailor-make a disaster preparedness plan according to what is actually essential in their situation. The plan also helps churches figure out what their assets are, in terms of physical space or existing ministries, so they can use those assets to provide relief and help their communities recover."

"I encourage every congregation to take a look at their level of disaster preparedness," Mears she added. "September is National Disaster Preparedness Month, and there's no better time than now to make sure you've got a plan in place."

Episcopal Relief & Development launched the Disaster Preparedness Initiative in 2010. During this pilot year, representatives from 28 high-risk dioceses were invited to a regional training, and this opportunity will be open to all U.S. dioceses by 2013. Anyone interested in learning more about the Disaster Preparedness Initiative is invited to contact Alison Hare, preparedness coordinator, at