March 2023
Disaster Preparedness

Tips on Preparing for Disasters

While the thought of having to face hurricanes, fires, floods and tornadoes is bad enough, being unprepared can turn a natural disaster into a tragedy. It certainly isn’t possible for religious institutions to be ready for every potential calamity. At the Church Insurance Companies, however, we help Episcopal institutions do everything they can to protect their people and their property.

We’ve seen the uptick in recent years in the number and severity of named storms, wildfires and other weather-related events. But we remain committed to working side-by-side with the Episcopal Church from a risk management standpoint to make sure Episcopal institutions are well-prepared.

What’s the difference?

Religious institutions have special needs and unique circumstances. For instance, unlike with other real estate, a significant disparity often exists between market value and replacement value of church properties. In addition, churches may feature stained glass windows and intricate pipe organs. Buildings may remain unoccupied except for Sunday and mid-week services. Schools may periodically close for vacations or religious holidays. Some institutions are in areas prone to wildfires, while others are in places where hurricanes make landfall.

Thus, no one-size-fits-all approach works for disaster preparedness. Leaders of Episcopal institutions need to determine what suits their specific situations. Yet there are some general guidelines that everyone can follow before, during and after a disaster.

Personalize your protection

Property and casualty insurance policies vary depending on needs, circumstances and geography. Coverage for some risks and types of property may be restricted by caps. Many policies exclude or limit flood and earthquake coverage or restrict fine arts to a specific dollar threshold. Some policies allow you to cover certain types of property, such as audiovisual devices or contractors’ equipment, under separate “floaters.”

It also may be helpful to conduct periodic inventories of the contents of your buildings by taking and safely storing either videos or photos. This may expedite settlement after a tornado or fire, for example, since you won’t have to rely on memory of what was in a particular location.

Make a plan

Every Episcopal institution should have in place clear, detailed disaster response plans, such as one for fire and, perhaps, for hurricanes, floods, tornadoes or earthquakes. Institution leaders should appoint someone, or a group of people, to be ready to act on each plan – and to recruit others to help. Whether you have a phone tree or an email listserv, you should designate an emergency communication system.

One critical element of any plan is a reciprocal building use agreement between your institution and another church, school or camp. Instead of searching for temporary space after a loss, your people can come together immediately.

Maybe your institution is in an area prone to major storms, and you have proper insurance coverage to allow it to serve as a community center during these weather emergencies. Then your response plan should also include having an onsite generator, regularly confirming that it is in good working order and ensuring that your people know to run it only outside (never in closed quarters) to help avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.

Periodically make sure that your people know what to do in the event of an emergency. Having a plan in place to get them to safety immediately can be the most important part of disaster preparedness. Tornadoes, for instance, can hit with little warning. So, if you are in an at-risk region, your plan might include appointing someone to monitor the weather for tornado conditions.

In 2020, one of these violent, fast-moving storms tore through four buildings on the campus of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas. The church’s well-prepared senior and junior wardens acted right away, keeping everyone safe, and while they suffered damage to their property, we were able to help them repair their buildings quickly.

Wildfires, which can happen anywhere from prairies and deserts to forests and mountains, are another unpredictable scenario that requires swift evacuation plans. Wildfires sparked by droughts or lightning strikes may get most of the attention, but some 85 percent of these outdoor blazes are caused by human hands: unattended campfires, burning trash, malfunctioning mechanical equipment, discarded cigarettes. Your disaster preparedness plan should include immediately following any evacuation orders issued by local authorities, no matter how far away the fire is at the time.

Mitigate damage

Do as much as you can beforehand to lessen potential losses. Depending on your location, consider adding flood or earthquake coverage, if available, to your insurance policy. When you learn that a hurricane is headed your way, sandbag doors and cover windows with plywood. Throughout the year, maintain or reinforce building structures, since unsecured or worn-out components are more susceptible to damage.

Maintain easily accessible contact information for clergy and lay employees. Keep up-to-date copies of your important files offsite, storing them on flash drives or external hard drives, for example. Consider storing valuable onsite records and papers, such as Bibles, in waterproof or fireproof containers.

Compile an emergency kit containing items ranging from local maps marked with evacuation routes, flashlights, a radio and extra batteries, to blankets, a three-day supply of water (one gallon per person, per day) and non-perishable food.

You might arrange with your fire department to use your parking lot as a staging area during wildfires. Not only will you be helping your community, but with firefighters on location, your property is likely to be better protected.

Act fast

We encourage institutions to contact their Church Insurance Companies representatives immediately after a disaster. Delaying could compound any damage. However, being in touch right away is not always possible, so we try to be proactive.

Before Hurricane Ian touched down in Florida and the Carolinas in the fall of 2022, we were already poised to dispatch our network of claims professionals and contractors. While we received some 30 claims by the time the storm subsided, we realized early on that a few clients in the storm’s path had not yet contacted us.

Those on Florida’s barrier islands had no access to their buildings because of washed out causeways and bridges, including St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church on Sanibel Island. Together with its rector, a claims adjuster and a remediation contractor, we traveled there by boat, and four hours later we had completed a preliminary estimate and the contractor was preparing to start working.

While no one can ever be fully prepared for the unknown, there are ways to mitigate risk. For nearly a century, the Church Insurance Companies has been protecting the people, property and finances of the Episcopal Church, and we intend to do so for the next 100 years and beyond.

To learn how the Church Insurance Companies may be able to serve your Episcopal institution, including guiding you from risk identification and management to risk monitoring and adjustment, visit and peruse our Safety & Insurance Handbook.

Senior Vice President and General Manager, Church Insurance Companies Christopher R. Rourke joined the Church Pension Group in 2020. He previously served as President of Berkley North Pacific Group, a commercial insurance provider, and Regional Vice President and Branch Manager of Acadia Insurance Group, a provider of commercial as well as specialty property and casualty insurance.

“Church Insurance Companies” refers to The Church Insurance Company, NAIC No. 10669, a New York domiciled insurance company with its home office located at 19 East 34th Street, New York, New York 10016, The Church Insurance Company of Vermont, a Vermont domiciled insurance company with its home office located at 210 South Street, Bennington, VT 05201, and The Church Insurance Agency Corporation, an insurance agency with its home office located at 19 East 34th Street, New York, NY 10016. The Church Insurance Companies offer property and casualty insurance coverage and other related services to The Episcopal Church and its dioceses, parishes and other entities.

Property and casualty insurance products are underwritten by The Church Insurance Company, The Church Insurance Company of Vermont, and other companies (not affiliated with the Church Insurance Companies) for which The Church Insurance Agency Corporation acts as an insurance agent or broker. Product availability and features may vary by state, and products may not be available in all states. The Church Insurance Companies are not licensed in all states. Information and descriptions of products and services are provided solely for general informational purposes and are not intended to be complete descriptions, or to create a contract or an offer to provide, coverage. For complete details of coverage, including exclusions, limitations and restrictions, please see the actual policy or certificate. If any description of a Church Insurance Companies product conflicts with the terms of the actual policy or certificate, then the terms of such policy or certificate will govern.

The Church Insurance Companies do not guarantee the performance of the legal and contractual obligations of any unaffiliated insurer.


This article is part of the March 2023 Vestry Papers issue on Disaster Preparedness