published Saturday, March 3rd, 2012

Houses of worship develop plans for tornado season

If a tornado warning occurs during a service or activities at Chattanooga’s B’nai Zion Congregation, those in the building will know it.

A loud, shrill alarm on the Specific Area Message Encoding weather radio in the building’s office will make sure of that.

“It’s important as a life-saving measure,” said Kati Schwartz, the member chairwoman of the congregation. “All it takes is a little extra thought in the event of an emergency.”

With March being the unofficial start of tornado season, some area houses of worship, wary of last spring’s killer storms, have given consideration to preparedness.

“I started wondering one day during a tornado watch if we would know if it had become a tornado warning,” said Schwartz, “and where we would go in our building. We developed a plan.”

Bill Tittle, chief of emergency management for Hamilton County Emergency Services, said a weather radio is a good item for houses of worship to have as long as it’s turned on and located in an area where it can be heard.

“The nursery is one good place during worship service,” he said. “The church office is fine during the week but is normally vacant during worship.”

The Rev. Bill McGinnis, minister of education and families at Ridgedale Baptist Church, said his congregation “typically [has] some people who monitor the storms on smartphones and laptops in case we need to move people to a safer part of our buildings.”

He said when the congregation got “caught a couple of times in years past during our outdoor festivals by some heavy storms, we sent everyone to nearby buildings to ride them out. No one has been injured, and we are thankful.”

First Baptist Church of Ringgold lost its steeple to a devastating tornado that swept through the town on April 27, 2011, but receptionist and congregation member Sharon Amis said she knew of no emergency plans the church had made since then.

In addition to the steeple, the church also suffered roof and water damage from the storm and must replace its stained-glass windows, she said.

Amis also said she was not aware of a central location church members are to go in case of a storm. However, she said children in the church’s weekday preschool programs are directed to the concrete-walled, windowless first-floor halls in case of a tornado and regularly practice the drill.

The Rev. Cliff Hudson, senior pastor of First Cumberland Church in Cleveland, Tenn., said his congregation hadn’t made any plans since April’s storms. But he said the church already has what he believes to be a secure spot for people in its adjacent Fine Arts Academy building.

The building, which houses offices and classrooms, is the former Bradley County Jail, he said. In fact, he said, the Academy building is where he was last April when tornadoes swept into the area.

“Believe me,” Hudson said, “there’s no better structure to ride out a storm in. As a matter of fact, we might do well to invite folks caught in a storm to come and take cover here.”

The B’nai Zion plan, in addition to the weather radio, also involved pinpointing the best place for people in the building to go in the wake of storms.

There is “no ideal location,” said Schwartz, but the most secure place is an interior hallway with a minimum of glass. The glass there, she said, is safety glass.

Signs, she said, also will be made and posted to direct members and visitors to the hallway. The signs haven’t been made yet, but for any house of worship they simply could be printed on the computer and laminated, she said.

The cost of the weather radio and signs will be $60 or less, Schwartz said.

The Jewish concept of “pikuach nefesh,” or the saving of lives, can be applied here,” she said. “Something that’s so simple that can save a life is worth doing.”

about Clint Cooper...

Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...

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