Modes of Communication in a Disaster

When the tornado ripped through Tuscaloosa on April 27, 2011 all sorts of communication lines became useless.  I needed to find a way in which to find out the welfare of my congregants, where they were, and what their immediate needs were.

Within minutes after the tornado ripped a one mile wide six mile long swath of destruction, I began trying to find out the status of the congregation.  What I discovered was that the congregation was terribly ill prepared for this kind of emergency.  We simply did not have the information on how to reach people to assess what was happening.

Internet was down so emailing was out. This meant that our Yahoo group or Google group that we use to send out a bulk email was not going to work.  Land lines were down so calling people’s homes was out.  Face book, Twitter were only options for folks who could access them on mobile phones but that required the ability to charge the phones. These relatively new forms of social networking became important to get information out to the community at large but only for those who had access to them. For those folks who had no available means to re-charge their phones, there was needed another way to get through. We found that only a few people in our congregation have a Twitter address. Therefore, texting became the mode of communication because it took less signal strength / less battery charge than logging on to the internet or in making mobile calls.  But even this method was not fool proof in getting vital information to and from people.  Texting was sometimes delayed by several hours.

We had families who had cell phones on different plans and this became important because some carriers were working better than others depending on what carriers cell towers were damaged or destroyed.  Who would have thought that any particular cell phone family plan offer would not be the best option in an emergency situation of this magnitude?

So I spent the first few days after the tornado literally going door to door trying to find people and assessing damage and immediate needs.  In many cases I had to park my car one to two miles away in order to walk into these neighborhoods that were obliterated. One of the homes was central in location to several of the others in our congregation and that became a place where messages could be left with people to be passed on to others.

What I learned from this experience is that our congregation needs to have a directory with all possible routes of communication available.  We need to have landline numbers, cell phone numbers of each family member; twitter, facebook, and email addresses.  We also need to have a complete listing of contact information of next of kin.

The church became the conduit for concerned family members in other parts of the country who were unable to reach their kin and vice versa. The Sunday after the tornado we had several laptops set up to access our wi-fi so that members who were unable to connect with family members could do so.  For many this was the first time they were able to post to Facebook or contact others beyond Tuscaloosa via email.

Now I know that multi-generational congregations like ours do not have all of their members on all of these social network tools.  And we have folks that for everyday non-crisis mode communications have preferences regarding how to communicate with them. Yet, when we need to connect with everyone for that emergency situation in the future; we will have to have on hand all of the possible ways to connect with folks. Even if the methods used are not the preferred methods.  When disaster strikes of such a magnitude such as it did on April 27th any and all communication links that work need to be accessed.  Blessings,

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3 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing this. And, one more thing occurs, have all the important contact information stored in more than one place.

  2. We were watching the coverage of the tornado that hit Springfield, MA, late this afternoon. The TV station was getting their information from FB and Twitter. Pictures and video were posted.

    We all need to re-assess emergency information and how it is disseminated. Technology changes so fast that it is important to try to keep up with it. Unfortunately, it usually takes a major occurance to even make us aware that it can fail.

  3. Communication in a disaster is something amateur radio operators excel at. If you have a few “hams” in your congregation and if they have a source of emergency power available they can do much good.


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