Good Planning Blunts Impact of Natural Disasters

By Donald E. Skinner

Last fall was not the first time the basement of the First Unitarian Universalist (UU) Society of Marietta, OH (94 members), had flooded. Situated just blocks from the Ohio and the Muskingum rivers, flooding goes with the territory.

So when the last hurrah of Hurricane Ivan rolled up into Ohio and the rivers began to rise toward flood stage, the congregation knew what to do. Members rolled up the rugs in the basement, put everything on tables, and turned the power off. When the waters receded a crew was right there to clean up with hoses and brooms.”

We did some things quite well and we also learned how to do some things better next time,” said the Rev. Diane Dowgiert. For example, the Building and Grounds Committee is putting together a “flood kit,” including information on how high the rivers can rise before there will be water in the basement, checklists of what to turn off: pilot lights, electricity, water lines, etc. Included in the kit will be plumber’s “test plugs,” inflatable rubber devices to be placed in basement floor drains to keep water from backing up into a building. They could have prevented some of the damage.

Florida congregations also learned a few things in the four hurricanes that swept the state last fall. Says Mary Higgins, Florida District executive, “With each successive blow we learned some important lessons and practical tips that I think could be important for any congregation in the event of a trauma or disaster.”

Keep an up-to-date list of cell phone numbers, Higgins recommends, and have the ability to charge a cell phone in an automobile during power outages. It’s important, she said, for congregations to help each other. “The aid we share with one group today is a gift to the future that they can pass on when others hurt. It is this spiral of care that builds the beloved community beyond our individual congregational walls. And it’s also important to let others help you. This is not a time to be stubbornly self sufficient!”

How congregations prepare in advance of disasters can help determine how quickly they recover. Before a disaster is also a good time to review insurance coverage, says Patrick Moreland, vice president-marketing for Church Mutual Insurance Company, which insures more than half of all UU congregations. He reminds that floods and earthquakes, for example, are not automatically covered by most companies, including Church Mutual, but both can be.

Other tips:

  • If your building is old or severely damaged you probably will have to meet local building codes when you rebuild: such as those pertaining to the type of construction and handicapped accessibility improvements. Many insurance plans don’t provide adequate limits for these additional costs unless you specifically ask for “building ordinance” coverage.
  • If you carry inadequate insurance you are at risk not only in the event of a total loss but even a partial loss. Some policies stipulate that your insurance be not less than 80 percent of the value of the property at the time of the loss. Having inadequate coverage may cause you to incur a “coinsurance” penalty, meaning you and the insurer share in the loss—beyond any deductible.
  • Claims may be settled on a replacement cost or actual cash value basis. With replacement cost you may repair or replace an item with material of comparable kind and quality. Actual cash value is the replacement cost less deterioration, depreciation, and obsolescence. Most churches need replacement cost coverage.

Church Mutual offers two booklets with weather-related safety tips: “Severe Weather Protection for Your Worship Center” and “Cold Weather Damage and Energy Loss.”

About the Author

Donald E. Skinner

Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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