Building a Community-Based Response to a Technology-Caused Disaster

Faith Community Response ¦ Activate the Convening Committee

A Disaster Has Happened

The emergency stage  can last from a few hours to several days or weeks.  Immediately after a fire, explosion, spill or release, the nature of the toxic substances may be unknown or their interaction with other substances or humans may  not be known.  Follow directions of emergency management personnel to evacuate or shelter-in-place.

The relief stage is a time when churches and other agencies seek to address the basic needs of evacuated or sheltered persons, including food, shelter, and medical care.  This is best done through a coordinated effort with the agencies providing shelters.  Emotional and spiritual care efforts are most helpful for victims when they are collaborative efforts among faith communions and local mental health providers.

The recovery stage will involve short-term recovery activities as well as the long-term recovery which might last for a considerable length of time.

Chronic technology-caused disasters include some unique characteristics:

  • Rumors about effects begin to circulate before any hard data may be available to confirm the problem.  Persons reporting medical conditions may be considered isolated incidents.
  •  Reports begin to accumulate and draw a pattern that prompts authorities to declare an emergency.
  • Reaction may include feelings of relief for those with the symptoms, denial by responsible parties, frenzy of media and activity, escalation of conflict, research that will bring answers or raise further questions, pursuit of solutions, legal action and confrontation. 

Faith Community Response

One of the first steps is to activate your network ... you don't have one?  Then go to the previous section on "Building Networks, Partnerships, and Local Resources" and start building such a network for an effective response to a technology-caused disaster.

Churches or houses of worship close by, but not in, the affected area may have pre-arranged to serve as an emergency shelter or offer their building as an emergency shelter operated by another organization.  Churches also assist with food, shelter, and other basic needs of victims, and encourage a multi-denominational/multi-faith collaborative approach to this early response.

Other services which the faith community may be able to provide include:  speakers in non-English languages; persons to convene meetings; hosting support groups and listening posts; a communications clearinghouse; and neutral ground in a fragmented community.

People of faith lead the efforts to plan and provide worship services and other spiritual care needs in the various churches and for the community as a whole.  Remember this is not the time for evangelizing.

Working together, faith-based and community-based organizations can ensure that affected persons are assisted and that the disenfranchised have an advocate.  The faith community may help community leadership organize for such advocacy during the long-term recovery.  Working together also provides a way to assess the needs of all persons or families in a community while eliminating duplicative demands on limited resources.

Contact the emergency response program of your denomination, the Disaster Ministries office of the United Church of Christ, or the Emergency Response Program office of Church World Service to advise them of the situation and alert them to the possible need for resource assistance.  (See Resource Appendix #3)


Activate the Convening Committee or Taskforce

On-site conveners (persons willing to initially bring together people in need and those with resources) may emerge spontaneously as the event dictates or hopefully will be the result of pre-disaster network building.

The early work of the conveners will enable gathering of information and interpretation of findings that eventually leads to formation of a Response/Recovery Taskforce and organization for long-term recovery work.

Gathering information and first steps include:

»  Identify sources or causes of the technology-caused disaster and the responsible agencies

  • what has happened?  what are the indicators?
  • identify the regulatory agencies at the local, state, and federal levels with jurisdiction over the environmental, natural resources, and human health impacts associated with the disaster
  • communicate and work with the agencies to address the situation over the short and long term.

»  Listen to persons directly affected by the disaster:  One successful model of gathering information is a "Hearing" that will begin to address both individual and community-wide concerns, provide on-site training, and enable networking.

  • hear directly from those who are affected, not second/third hand information
  • learn some basic facts
  • respond to those affected, listing needs, resources, and questions to be answered
  • enlist speakers at the Hearing who would represent a variety of perspectives, experience, and knowledge about the situation.  They should represent the diversity of the community and professionals who bring particular knowledge.
  • invite other "listeners", which might include authorities and officials with responsibilities specific to the incident, and (when appropriate) representatives from the responsible parties who have solutions or resources to offer 

»  Compile findings and needs discovered during the Hearing and other continuing research

  • during the Hearing, a scribe will record the statements, feelings, ideas, needs, offers of resources, unanswered questions, and other information that will contribute to the planning of the recovery taskforce
  • collate the information to draft reports for an organizing meeting of the Recovery Taskforce 

»  Organize a Response/Recovery Taskforce to plan and implement recovery strategies

  • call together interested persons who can form the core of the Taskforce
  • develop a basic structure that includes a defined participant list, a statement of purpose and goals, and operational understandings; this may suffice for the intended work of the Taskforce
  • investigate further operational structures such as paid or volunteer staff, a board of directors, by-laws, 501c3 non-profit status, and sub-committees which may enhance the program delivery as well as lend credibility to the effort
  • clearly define purpose and specific program goals to guide the activities of the group, provide funding agencies an understanding of the nature of the group's work, and allow the community to recognize and celebrate accomplishments 

More information about formation of a recovery taskforce or oganization is available in manuals noted in the Manuals Section of Resource Appendix #2.

"When we heard about the absestos ..."

June 24, 2005 at about 3:15 p.m. in St. Louis, Missouri, a fire ignited ona flatbed truck loaded with tanks of welding gas called acetylene.  No worker injuries were sustained, however, son explosions sent spectacular fireballs skyward and flaming fragments of gas cylinders landed blocks away.  Families were evacuated.

The next day, the state Environmental Emergency Response Team learned that filler materials in some of the acetylene cylinders held an abestos-containing compound.  The blasts had spread an unknown amount of the material over the area.  Suddenly, in addition to concerns about release of gases and containing the contaminated runoff fromfire fighting, there was the need for a much longer clean-up.

Asbestos levels didn't exceed health safety thresholds, but a clean-up of area rooftops, roads, and parking lots continued nearly 4 months.

 Missouri Resources Missouri department of Natural Resources. Winter, 2007 pages 2-5




Mr. Zachary Wolgemuth
Executive for UCC Disaster Ministries
United Church of Christ
700 Prospect Ave
Cleveland, Ohio 44115