Lesson 6 – Special Case Disasters

Special Case Disasters

In large part, disaster response in the U.S. focuses on assisting people who lose possessions and whose homes are destroyed or heavily damaged. Yet disasters involve far more than property losses. Lost possessions and damaged homes, in fact, may be minimal following some kinds of disasters such as those caused by application or misapplication of human technology, terrorist incidents, and public violence or disease.


Public policy advocacy and spiritual care are common to response to special case disasters in which residential house may not be affected. Terrorist incidents, public violence, disease, misapplication of human technology require responses that differ from those in typical natural disasters (FEMA photo)

These special case disasters require religious community response that draws on different resources and capacities than those employed to assist in physical rebuilding. Congregations may even find themselves in uncharted territory as they did in New York City following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, when they were called to respond to an economic crisis, among other issues that involved no loss of possessions or damaged homes.

Any disaster, of course, can affect the economy of a community but economic disruptions can become an important focus of faith community response if its ramifications are deep and broad as they were in New York City with close to 100,000 people losing their jobs as a direct result of the terrorist attacks plus the ripple effects. Many of the jobless did not qualify for unemployment insurance. Along with other disaster responders, the faith community helped people stay in their homes by providing funds to help pay their rents, mortgages, and utility bills. The faith community also worked with people to find new employment.

In general, special case disasters require a response that encompasses:

  • Advocacy on behalf of people affected and in support of public policy initiatives. Because they have community trust, faith groups can call for facts and act as a go-between to assure all parties are brought to the table and that clear, accurate communication is possible.
  • Spiritual care, including crisis intervention and ongoing counseling. Disasters related to technology, terrorism, and public violence, which are characterized by swiftness, suddenness, and surprise, can overcome individual and corporate coping mechanisms and cause trauma that goes far beyond the experience of helplessness that may affect survivors of any disaster. Peace-building may be a unique focus of this spiritual care as initial emotional responses — shock, denial, disbelief, grief — turn to anger with people and communities looking for someone to blame or hold responsible for the disaster. People in the community rightly or wrongly associated with the disaster may be physically harmed by wounded survivors. Divorce rates, domestic violence, suicides, and drug addiction typically increase. The faith community can help people make peace with themselves and others.

Technology-Caused Disasters


Medical and legal issues may continue for years – even generations – following technology-caused disasters. (Disaster News Network photo)

The environment and public health as well as property are issues when technological systems breakdown due to human action — i.e., an accidental oil spill, deliberate or careless release of dangerous chemicals, leaks from illegal or badly designed disposal areas for toxic waste or storage facilities for chemicals.

Technology-caused disasters may occur alone as isolated events or as part of “natural” disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, or earthquakes which damage a community’s infrastructure. They may be acute such as an explosion or toxic spill with effects over a well-defined and relatively short time period or chronic such as chemical contamination of soil or ground water occurring over a protracted time frame and often not readily identifiable. Rarely does a technology-caused disaster trigger a Presidential declaration with significant government assistance.

Because of its special sensitivity to human need, the religious community may be among the first to point out a technology-caused disaster – an existing event or one in the making. Because economics and politics are involved, it may find itself embroiled in controversy with disagreement about the kind of response required. Business and governmental partners in a natural disaster may not welcome faith community involvement in response to a technology-caused disaster.

During the emergency stage of a technology-caused disaster, a congregation may provide space for shelter while experts handle the most dangerous work. In the relief stage, faith groups along with other organizations may provide for basic needs such as food, shelter, medical care, and spiritual care. In long-term recovery, congregations and other community organizations may face on-going work for years – even generations – to deal with long-lasting emotional-spiritual, medical, and legal issues. The religious community could also find itself at the center of trying to meet the housing needs of affected people. Beyond providing temporary shelter to evacuees, it may need to help people find permanent housing if relocation is necessary.

A faith community can build its capacity to deal with technology-caused disasters through:

  • Education — learning more about the nature of technological disasters.
  • Community assessment – learning about emergency plans and the possible hazards such as federal and state superfund sites, nuclear power plants, clean-up sites, manufacturing and storage facilities. Do clusters of illness and citizen complaints suggest a problem?
  • Building alliances and local networks — getting to know the agencies and persons who will be its allies in responding and coordinating with them, building community action networks.

Information & Resources. The United Church of Christ offers special resources and consultation services for congregations and community groups where a technology-caused disaster has occurred or is occurring. A UCC manual – The Silent Disaster: People of Faith Respond to Technology- Caused Disasters – describes the nature of technology-caused disasters and how to organize a community-based response.

Terrorism & Public Violence


Following acts of public violence congregations can provide space for trauma victims to congregate, comfort each other and receive appropriate spiritual-emotional care. (Virgina Tech photo)

In recent years, terrorism – a political tactic that makes a statement, gains public attention, or seeks to destabilize the political-economic-social milieu — has been categorized as a disaster. FEMA first started defining acts of terrorism as disasters following bombings of the World Trade Center in New York City in 1993 and the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

Likewise, school shootings, sniper incidents, rioting and looting, and other acts of public violence which are crimes have been recognized as disasters. Colorado declared the school shootings at Littleton High School where two gun-toting teenagers killed 12 students a state-level disaster.

After a devastating attack at a local community center in Binghamton, NY, in which a gunman killed 13 people and wounded 4 before ending his own life, congregations demonstrated the role religious groups can play in response to such events. In partnership with other community organizations, congregations conducted community vigils and private funerals to mourn the dead, provided space and expertise for debriefings, and developed a long-term community healing process.

Exactly one week after the attack, the local council of churches coordinated a special interfaith and multi-cultural ceremony that brought together people from the diverse nationalities – Vietnamese, Haitian, Hispanic, Chinese – and faith traditions of the community. Participants prayed and planted memorial tulips – one for each of the dead – that will remind Binghamton residents of the victims each spring when they bloom and at the same time symbolize life and hope.

Community and religious leaders also planned to address unmet financial, emotional and spiritual care, and human services needs beyond funerals and crisis intervention immediately following the disaster. The long-term recovery program included:

  • Travel grants so families of immigrant victims could attend funerals and claim bodies
  • Scholarship funds for children of victims
  • Ongoing stress management
  • Case management services

Information & Resources: Through specialized ministries which respond to acts of violence, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) and Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR) assist local religious leaders like those in Binghamton.

Public Health Emergencies


Public health officials concerned about a pandemic flu crisis and other emergencies related to the spread of a communicable disease that could threaten the lives of hundreds of thousands of people look to congregations as integral partners.

Because people trust religious organizations and turn to them in crisis times, congregations can help:

  • Maintain community morale and cohesion by facilitating communication among its members and people in the wider community through internet, email, telephone, and regular mail.
  • Address rumors, misinformation, fear and anxiety. Through its unique communication channels, congregations can help tell an accurate and timely story and provide necessary information to the public.
  • Reduce stress in the affected community by fostering a safe environment for people to talk about their stress, addressing theological questions that may arise about why innocent people suffer, helping people work through the grieving process, offering a mental health or counseling hotline, working with health authorities to create culturally and ethnically sensitive publications that explain the emergency.
  • Assure medical treatment is delivered equitably as needed by identifying vulnerable neighbors, employees, volunteers, or members – low income persons, the homeless, senior citizens, people with disabilities or special health problems.

One of the most important things congregations can do is to get to know and work with their state and local health departments and other potential partners in a public health emergency. Learn about the roles of federal, state, and local public health agencies and emergency responders and what to expect and what not to expect from them.

State and local officials are developing, testing, and improving plans for pandemic influenza. Hospitals are planning how to deal with large numbers of people who become ill simultaneously. Businesses are planning how to continue operating during an emergency. Identify them. Learn about their planning. Begin collaborating with them.

A congregation also should consider how a public health emergency could affect its operations. Plan for situations likely to require increasing, decreasing or altering the services your congregation delivers. Prepare for staff absences due to personal and/or family illnesses, quarantines, and school, business, and public transportation closures.

Information & Resources: The Department of Health and Human Services has produced a quick-reference guide for the religious community – Faith-Based & Community Organizations Pandemic Influenza Checklist. Two other useful references: Ministry & Hope During the Pandemic Flu (Fairfax County, VA, Health Department), Pandemic Influenza Planning for Episcopal Parishes.


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