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Prepare for disasters Before you have to repair
'Never think it can't happen,' says pastor of ravaged church

By Melanie B. Smith
msmith@decaturdaily.com 340-2468

When a tornado tore through Carbon Hill in Walker County in 2002, members of one small congregation, Grant's Chapel Christian Methodist Episcopal, all survived.

That was the good news.

The bad news was that their church building didn't.

The current pastor, the Rev. Rex Jarman Sr. of Decatur, said a big tree uprooted by the winds fell on the old wooden building. The blow shifted the church on its foundation, leaving it beyond repair, he said.

Five years later, the members left are still trying to rebuild, Jarman said. They did not have insurance on the building. He said it had lapsed because the insurance company wanted repairs, which were not made.

When Jarman later got the assignment to pastor the congregation, it had dwindled from about 35 members to three, he said. Most people had given up hope of rebuilding, Jarman said.

Now Grant's Chapel has 14 members and between $40,000 and $50,000 in a building fund, he said. A new church will cost $164,000, the pastor said.

"Churches need to make sure they have insurance, and not just enough on the building that stands but enough to cover rebuilding," Jarman said.

Some basics

Getting insurance is one of the basics that faith groups should do, said one of the leaders of an upcoming seminar in Decatur, "Disaster Preparedness for Churches." The program will be at St. Paul's Lutheran Church on June 11 at 6 p.m.

Ruth Ann Sipe of Lutheran Disaster Response in Mobile County said it's important for a church to have adequate insurance and for multiple leaders to know what it covers and how to contact company officials.

It's also essential that a congregation do routine maintenance on its buildings to minimize storm damage, Sipe said. A faith group should have a current inventory of its furnishings and back up computer files, she said.

Leaders should keep emergency contact information on members, such as where they might go in a disaster, Sipe said. The congregation should evaluate who might have special needs, such as elderly and disabled members and single parents with small children, because they might need help in an evacuation.

Most churches don't think about such issues until it's too late, Sipe said.

The Rev. Ray McElhaney, retired pastor of First Baptist Church of Tanner, remembered some things his congregation did right on April 3, 1974. When word came that a tornado was on the ground and coming their way, "calmer heads" got the 60 people there that Wednesday into the sanctuary, he said. They crawled under the strong oak pews.

The killer storm left the sanctuary hardly damaged and no one hurt but destroyed the classrooms where most of the children had been, McElhaney said.

"The classrooms, if they had stayed there, I shudder to think might have happened," he said.

The tornado was part of a "super outbreak" that killed 28 in Lawrence, Limestone and Madison counties, plus 58 others elsewhere, according to the National Weather Service.

First Baptist of Tanner had adequate insurance and was able to rebuild, the former pastor said. It added a full basement with classrooms that double as a community storm shelter.

The basement has reinforced concrete walls and floor and has sheltered 150 to 175 people, McElhaney said.

The church added extra emergency lighting and a generator, he said.

"Never think that it can't happen to you. Don't take anything for granted," he said.

Weather records in Alabama show numerous instances of churches hit by storms and other disasters. Goshen United Methodist Church near Piedmont had 20 fatalities in 1994 when a tornado smashed the building on Palm Sunday.

Meanwhile, Grant's Chapel CME Church meets on Sundays in a Masonic hall, Jarman said. He and members believe they will get a new building. Churches like Carbon Hill First United Methodist and other CME congregations have given money and support, he said.

"We have come this far by faith, and it's faith that will see us through to the next step, which is rebuilding," he said.

More help

In addition to the June 11 program, more resources are available specifically for churches to get ready for a tornado, fire, flood or even an act of terrorism.

The Governor's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives promotes congregational preparation through Be Ready Sundays; the next one is Sept. 30. The servealabama.gov Web site provides steps to develop a plan, a checklist and bulletin inserts. The site lists Scriptures among resources. Congregations can also sign up online to join a Be Ready Coalition.

Lutheran Disaster Response has additional resources by calling (251) 824-7026.

Questions to ask now

  • Does the congregation have a plan for securing its facility?

  • Are records protected from fire or water damage?

  • Has the church considered ways to help its members and others during a disaster?

    - Yolanda Dunbar, Volunteer Center of Morgan County

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