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From the Rev. Dr. Dennis S. Tierney, Property Manager

“Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were open and everyone’s chains were unfastened.” (Acts 16:26)

Earthquakes were well known in the Bible because they were known in the Middle East as that part of the world lies at the joining of three tectonic plates. But, in the Bible, earthquakes were understood to be divine acts of theological significance. Earthquakes free Paul from prison; an earthquake occurs at the death of Jesus, tearing the curtain at the Holy of Holies and causing graves to open, and an earthquake announces the opening of the sixth seal in the Book of Revelation.

Photo by Sarah Crego on Unsplash

For most of us, who live near the Cascadia Fault, earthquakes are purely geological matters that will cause damage and suffering. While we might be tempted to point to our sins as reasons for earthquakes, few of us believe that earthquake preparation involves the sacrifice of animals or other forms of propitiation. We know we need to be ready for the next earthquake; we know it will be a case of when rather than if. We might hope that, like Paul, we will be made free of our prisons by virtue of the “Big One,” but the more appropriate response is to make ourselves and our buildings as ready as we can be for such an event.

Photo by Jose Antonio Gallego Vázquez on Unsplash

What can congregations do to be ready?

  1. Engage in a review of your buildings to see what low or moderate cost things you can do to prepare for an earthquake. Tie-down your water heaters or strap them firmly to a load-bearing wall. Put restraints on all bookcases to prevent them from toppling over onto people and things. Put closers on cabinet doors to prevent them from flying open. Put restraints on large wall hangings or paintings to prevent their movement. Purchase an earthquake valve on your gas meter so that the gas line closes in the event of significant earth movement. Do the same with the main water line into your building. Know where your electrical power mains are located and know how to turn them off. If you have an above ground oil tank, secure it to prevent it from falling over and spilling fuel. Have a plan for evacuating the building and make sure multiple members are familiar with that plan. Have a plan for someone to safely check the church building following an earthquake. Ideally, that person could get to the church site without using an automobile as roads may be impassable.
  2. Review whether your building is firmly attached to its foundation. Some old buildings simply rest on their foundations and can slide off in an earthquake. Attaching your building to its foundation can cost money but will often save a building from greater damage by keeping it on its foundation.
  3. Engage a specialist to help you understand how your building will react to an earthquake. Wood frame buildings often do well in earthquakes because they flex and bend. Inserting a “cripple wall” reinforcement on selected walls can be a cost-effective way to strengthen your building without rebuilding it.
  4. If you have an unreinforced masonry building, you will have a more complex issue to address. These buildings often fail completely because the load-bearing walls collapse outward and the roof drops, smashing the building. It may require steel girders installed to keep the roof in place even as the masonry walls fail. This will be an expensive fix but will save lives.
  5. The diocese is working with Church Insurance Corporation to develop a diocesan plan for earthquake insurance. That insurance is expensive and does not cover your entire building. Before you buy, read, mark, and understand completely the coverage being offered. It may well be cheaper to put money into a maintenance investment account and let it build up over time. Even if you elect to purchase earthquake insurance, building an investment maintenance account will help cover the deductible costs or those things not covered by earthquake insurance.
  6. Help your congregation by providing information on home “go bags” and home kits for emergency water and food supplies. “Go bags” should include medications, spare glasses, hearing aids with batteries, some cash, gloves, flashlights, water bottles that can be refilled, spare shoes, and a change of warm clothes. Any major earthquake will make our current supply chain challenges look tiny in comparison. Church buildings can be used to store supplies for distribution in case of an earthquake. All our homes should have some supplies to help manage for days if not weeks without outside assistance. One key is potable water as humans can only go days without drinking water. Second is stable food supplies – food that does not require refrigeration. Third are first aid kits, batteries, and warm clothing. All these supplies need to be checked and replaced over time. An annual review of them will be essential.
  7. Develop an emergency contact “tree” to help members of your congregation who are elderly or live alone or have special needs. This can be important in other situations – floods, fires, or major storms. All the recommendations in item one apply to homes and offices as well as churches.
  8. Pick one Sunday a year to focus on earthquake preparedness. Invite speakers to join you – virtually or in person – to review best practices for families and individuals following an earthquake.
  9. Develop a plan for families to contact each other or to check in with other family members after an earthquake. Phone land lines may or may not work. Cellular phones may or may not work. It may be helpful to designate a family member who does not live in the area to be the contact person as cell phones sometimes work with long distance calls as opposed to local calls.
  10. Check your plans once a year and update them as needed. Our part of the world has its faults, so being prepared is the best insurance of all.
When the Earth Shakes – Earthquake Preparedness: Occasional Paper on Property Management in the Diocese of Olympia Series

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