In late August, as the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks loomed, religious leaders tuned into a webinar to prepare themselves for a possible future disaster.
“Who was the first official casualty of 9/11?” asked Monsignor Stephen Rossetti, a Catholic priest and psychologist who led the webinar on “Shepherding in Tragic Times.”
“Father Mychal Judge,” he said, answering his own question, and referring to the priest who was fatally injured while ministering amid the chaos of the North Tower lobby.
“We ourselves, too, are first responders,” Rossetti continued. “People — sure they need firefighters, sure they need police. But we bring our faith and our compassion and our care and our community to help people.”
More than 150 participants — priests, lay people, Catholics, Protestants — listened, asked questions and took notes, in hopes of being in a better position to help others as well as themselves if a natural disaster or a terrorist attack hit their local area.
Rossetti, president emeritus of Saint Luke Institute, a Maryland-based treatment center for Catholic men and women, has held two in-person training sessions similar to the webinar. One was in Biloxi, Miss., after Hurricane Katrina. The second was in Orlando, Fla., months before the Pulse nightclub attack, unknowingly readying leaders in that diocese to help victims there.
But Rossetti said many still need training, and many don’t realize it. The webinar was offered for free and remains on the institute’s website in hopes of giving more people access to the information.
“I think we need to have a plan,” he said, “not only sort of a physical plan of who does what but also kind of an emotional plan — how we’re going to deal with this emotionally.”
Rossetti’s not the only one who’s concerned that there needs to be more preparation for possible disasters that will require a religious response.
Peter Gudaitis of the New York Disaster Interfaith Services, which was created after 9/11, said about 20 to 25 percent of New York City religious leaders have attended its training sessions.
He said there’s no question that more training has been available to faith leaders since 9/11, both in his metropolitan area and nationwide.
“What percentage of congregations and religious leaders take training versus don’t is still disproportionately in the ‘don’t’ category,” he said.
Gudaitis also is president of the National Disaster Interfaiths Network, which began in 2005 after Katrina and offers sessions that range from preparing congregations generally for emergencies to helping faith leaders consider how they’d help in a health pandemic or active shooter situation.
Since 2013, more than 1,500 people have attended Federal Emergency Management Agency workshops on protecting houses of worship and more than 12,000 people have signed up for similar FEMA webinars, a FEMA spokeswoman said.
The agency launched a web page in 2015 of resources on the topic, including playbooks for earthquakes, wildfires and tornadoes.
FEMA is set to honor Jamie Aten, founder of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Illinois’ Wheaton College, as a “community preparedness champion” at a Sept. 13 White House ceremony.
Although Aten has trained more than 2,000 individuals in churches and other religious organizations, he, too, said more needs to be done.
“We have found an alarming trend — most churches realize there are threats, but few do anything ahead of time to actually prepare for disasters,” he said in a statement.
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