Faith communities in the Fort Smith area need to have an established plan of action in case of a disaster, an emergency response official says.

Doug Stringer, the founder and president of Somebody Cares America and a listed disaster relief policy expert at the Heritage Foundation, said churches in the area need to be prepared to meet the needs of their surrounding communities following a natural or man-made disaster. He relayed tangible ways churches can assist in such instances to law enforcement and county officials and clergy members at noon Thursday in Central Christian Church.

In light of the tornado that tore through Mountainburg on Friday, Chaplain Jonathan Hamby of Peachtree Hospice called Stringer's presentation "timely and important."

“Some of the first people who are on scene in any kind of disaster, after the first responders are there, are faith-based groups," Sebastian County Assistant Administrator for Public Safety Jeff Turner said. Sebastian County Judge David Hudson said the six structures with disaster sheltering agreements in Sebastian County are all churches.

On the front end of a disaster, churches need to address a lack of food and water, medical assistance and short- and long-term housing, Stringer said. On the back end, churches should focus on grief and trauma, he said.

“There are different people who will offer different gifts in a time of crisis," Stringer said. "We just need to know who they are.”

In the wake of a disaster, churches should be prepared to address needs in areas that "fall through the cracks" during the initial government response, Stringer said. He said government officials usually respond to where the greatest number of people have been affected, which are often metropolitan hubs.

Stringer recommended churches "adopt a community" where a need is evident

"We have someone who calls and says, ‘We have 30 generators. What do we do with them?’ Instead of bringing them to Houston, I just bring them to the place there’s a need," he said.

Churches should also be prepared to reach out to government agencies, Stringer said. He said church leaders need to know what their congregation's assets are and to be prepared to use them to work in concert with local officials.

“There are a whole lot of practical things we can do," Stringer said. "Many of you are better experts than I am.”

An example of this is Pigeon Creek Freewill Baptist Church in Mountainburg, which has been used by the city as a donation and distribution hub in the days following the tornado. The tornado, an EF-2, damaged approximately 160 structures, left more than 2,000 without power and injured four, according to Sebastian County Emergency Management Director Brad Thomas.

Because Mountainburg didn't receive government assistance following the tornado, Stringer recommended churches in the area put resources and volunteer efforts toward helping people with damaged property who are uninsured or underinsured.

“We had two widows with children who did not qualify for FEMA after the floods of Hurricane Harvey. Those are the kinds of people that the church can identify and really be able to connect dots and get resources directly to those kinds of folks," he said of his relief efforts in Texas in 2017. "The more the faith community comes together with local leaders, they can identify what those legitimate needs are and find resources to be able to help those kinds of people.”

Though he said churches should have plans to respond to disasters, Stringer also said church officials should come up with backup plans for response. He said these plans should be formulated before a disaster hits.

“If a hurricane is coming in or a typhoon is coming in or something is coming in and we’re not sure exactly where it’s going to hit, we have plan A, plan B, plan C, so that we can plan these things out and gain preparation and knowledge so that wherever it hits, we can adjust slightly to meet the immediate need," he said.

A church's response fits into the larger picture of a disaster response, Stringer said. He said people "find out the real character and the real nature of people," in the midst of a crisis.

“In a crisis, there are never enough resources to meet the needs, but you start with what you have, and you identify the assets, the gifts that you have in a community — the practical resources, as well as the other resources and gifts you have," he said.