by Shelia Myers
Special to the Leaven
BASEHOR — With the spring storm season approaching, Holy Angels Church here has decided to make like Boy Scouts and “be prepared.”
It even conducted a run-through of its new evacuation plan after Masses March 9 and 10.
The exercise tested the parish’s ability to safely and swiftly move churchgoers to designated shelter areas in case of sudden danger during Mass.
Parishioner Chuck Magaha, who spearheaded the plan, said the run-through was a success.
“We actually had the church totally evacuated last night in 45 seconds,” said Magaha. “I was looking at two minutes. This morning [after 9 a.m. Mass] was a minute and 20 seconds.”
As the emergency manager for Leavenworth County, Magaha knows how destructive Kansas’ weather can be, especially in the spring. He worked the aftermath of the tornadoes that struck in Greensburg (May 2007), Reading (May 2011) and Harveyville (February 2012).
Churches are particularly vulnerable to damage.
“All churches have wide spans and are several stories high,” he said. “That poses a risk because they are susceptible to wind and tornadic activity. We can get storms with winds higher than 80 miles per hour.”
Magaha proposed the idea of creating an emergency plan for the parish last year, but had to delay its implementation because of his busy schedule.
“This year, Father [Richard McDonald] said, ‘Let’s go!’” he said.
Creating an evacuation plan posed a challenge for Magaha because the church, consecrated in February 2010, has no basement. He worked with the parish council to identify various shelter areas on the church grounds to accommodate up to 900 people, the likely attendance at Mass on Palm Sunday and Easter.
“A suitable shelter area is someplace on the lowest level possible with as many walls as possible,” said Magaha. “Restrooms are good. They become unisex during an emergency. Also, the sacristy and the mechanical area.”
The parish also purchased weather- alert radios so ushers can monitor weather reports during Mass.
About 45 people, mostly Magaha’s fellow Knights of Columbus, attended a short training session March 3.
Father McDonald announced the run-through to attendees before Mass.
“As pastor, I am concerned with the safety of souls and your physical safety as well,” said Father McDonald. “For that reason, and because we live in tornado alley, we have an emergency preparedness plan.”
Immediately following Mass, ushers helped lead churchgoers from each section of the church to their designated area. Some were led across the parking lot to the old chapel basement. Others were shepherded to the sacristy or music room in front of the church.
Run-throughs after the first two Masses revealed a few glitches that Magaha and his team ironed out in time for the 10:30 a.m. Mass drill. They blocked off parking in front of a sidewalk and designated a spotter to help guide parishioners over a small step to the chapel.
Grand Knight Tom Phelan, who helped with the drill, was surprised at how much is involved in successfully evacuating a large number of people.
“Just give them precise instructions, take charge, lead them where they need to go and do it quickly,” instructed Phelan.
Participants were good-natured about the drill — probably not how they would react in a real emergency.
“You always need to be prepared,” said Lynne Sebree, who, with his family, stood shoulder to shoulder with others in the sacristy.
It beats the meat locker, which is where Sebree said he had to sit out a storm at the local Price Chopper a few years ago.
Ushers paid special attention to parishioners with ambulatory difficulty, such as parishioner Lea Ann England. England walks with a cane. She, her husband Scott, and other people with handicaps were evacuated to the music room at the front of the church.
But England made the best of it.
“They left us with the electric organ so we could entertain ourselves,” she said.
If your parish would like to learn more about emergency preparedness and how to create an evacuation plan, contact Chuck Magaha at (913) 684-0455.