GIS: A Key Component in a Comprehensive Church Disaster Relief & Recovery Strategy

This past week, the world witnessed around the clock coverage of the devastation taking place along our Gulf Coast. We watched as #HurricaneHarvey made land fall on three separate occasions, pummeling the coastlines of Texas and Southern Louisiana. In addition to the winds and tidal surge, historical flooding has caused the destruction of entire communities and thousands of displaced people throughout the area. As if that were not enough, #HurricaneIrma threatens Florida and the East Coast with Category 5 winds and what is being touted as the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean. While we pray for the storm to calm we must prepare for the potential damage and destruction that Hurricane Harvey reminded us of over the last week.

Figure 1: Aerial Image of Hurricane Irma located southeast of the Caribbean prior to making landfall later this week. Source ABC News.

Many church volunteers will flock to these impacted areas in the coming months to participate in disaster recovery and cleanup efforts. How will they know where to go? Who will they be helping? What are the churches, shelters, food banks and other resources that will be needed to benefit the communities they are trying to reach?  Sometimes these questions alone will keep even the most dedicated, mission-minded volunteers away.

“……For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, …. I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me, …. Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?’

“…. The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

-Mathew 25:35-40

As a Magnify product specialist, I help leaders across a variety of industries find the right solutions that meet their needs. Perhaps one of the most overlooked solutions that can help manage volunteer resources is GIS (geographical information system) software. Without a GIS solution, churches are missing out on a technology that is highly beneficial in the way it will benefit their disaster relief mission. For me, the connection between disaster relief and the benefits offered with GIS software is clear. But for an executive pastor or missions leader, that connection may not be as evident.

Most churches are not familiar with GIS software nor do they have the human capital to invest in a fully devoted GIS analyst. Therefore, if they are to take advantage of this technology, they will need an easy to use, web-based GIS app that someone within the organization can learn and use quickly. Much like other roles in the church ministry – the missions pastor doubles as the church financial record keeper, or the youth pastor as the church web-site manager – with the right software, any church member with a general understanding of computer software and a desire to improve their missions impact can bring a powerful new dimension to the church ministry.

If improving your mission outreach is important to you and your ministry, read on. You’ll learn what GIS software is and see how it can positively impact volunteer relief efforts. And, perhaps if you’re really paying attention, see how GIS software can be used to improve your entire outreach ministry.

What is GIS?

GIS is an acronym for Geographic Information Systems, essentially a technology that allows the user to visualize data and information on a map. This is important because data in its raw form is sometimes difficult to interpret. With a GIS solution, data is transformed into map features like points and lines. This allows the viewer to see the data and take action. A GIS ingests data from a spreadsheet or a database, not unlike your church member management system. You know, that same church member management system that you absolutely love and adore and that never is difficult to use! Seriously, there are several great church member management systems (CMMS) out there that do a wonderful job – just some are easier to use than others. With GIS technology, you can visualize the data that your church is already collecting within a CMMS and make more informed decisions about church operations and missions. And like any CMMS, some GIS solutions are far easier to use than others.

Everyone will agree that the call to go forth and serve, especially in times of dire need, is one that mission volunteers take up quickly and with great focus. Helping those in need is in our nature and is reflected in the hearts of congregations everywhere. Hurricanes, fires, tornadoes, earthquakes and snow storms have had an incalculable effect upon communities all over the world. Keep on reading if you’d like to see how you can use GIS to really empower your outreach volunteer ministry….


As a church leader, the task to organize and initiate a disaster outreach effort is a daunting one. Human resources, donations, supplies, and the logistics of quickly getting people and materials where they need to be is an almost insurmountable undertaking. I recently met with a pastor and asked him this question: “If a disaster were to occur in your area, how long would it take you to know who was impacted and where to reach out to help them?” He responded quickly with, “Well, that depends. What kind of disaster are we talking about here?” What a great question!

A fire, a tornado, a hurricane, or even something like an oil spill– all have vastly different geographic footprints and can affect anywhere from one person to tens of thousands of people or more. In this blog, we’ll explore how churches can use GIS software to support disaster relief and missions outreach using Magnify, a powerful, cost effective, and easy to use web-based GIS solution.

Hurricane Harvey

We see the pictures and hear the stories each day. The damage is severe and extensive, not only for the greater Houston metropolitan area, but also for the Texas and Louisiana coasts. If you’re a church leader looking to organize a volunteer mission or contribute resources, where is the best place to start?  I believe that best place to start is the Church.

Figure 2: Flooding after Hurricane Harvey, Houston Texas. Source: ABC News.

Maybe as a pastor, you are part of an association or convention of churches. Your willingness and ability to help are paramount. However, knowing where and how to help can be incredibly difficult to determine.

“… Better a neighbor that is near, then a brother that is far away…”

-Proverbs 27:10

Nobody knows how to serve their communities better than the local churches. Many volunteers deliver aid through local churches, and understanding their locations throughout the impact zone is a crucial. Local church leaders can collaborate with volunteer churches to better distribute resources and reach the entirety of the community. A GIS mapping solution like Magnify lets you quickly identify and visualize the local churches relative to the impact zone.

Figure 3: Hurricane Harvey, area of greatest concern in red and associated churches in blue.

Using national weather service information, the map in Figure 3 shows both church locations and Harvey’s potential impact zone. The map was created by simply uploading church address data (blue dots) and drawing a custom boundary (red shaded area) that represents the area of greatest concern.

With Magnify’s easy to use map interface, you can create a location report (Figure 4) that lists the churches that are located within the impact zone. As much as volunteer groups may wish, they can’t be everywhere. This list can be used as a springboard for determining what areas and groups of people may need a helping hand. Determining areas of greatest need versus areas of lesser need is crucial to the mission of disaster relief. Upon examination of the location report below (Figure 4), it is evident that at least four cities may have been impacted on the first page alone. Let’s dig a little deeper into the data…

Figure 4: Example of a Location report generated by deriving church specific data from the area of greatest concern using Magnify. **This sample data has been generated for demonstration purpose and is not reflective of any actual church.

Knowing fundamental aspects of the community demographic- like population, income, number of households, and average age will help the outreach effort to be better prepared as they enter the community. Demographic data (Figure 5) can help to answer questions like: How many bottles of water might be needed? Has the disaster impacted families? How old are those impacted? What kind of homes are people living in? Once contact has been made with each of these churches and it has been identified which have or have not been affected, smaller individual study areas can be created to really dig down into the data and get a better picture of the areas impacted at a local level.

In Magnify, the user has the ability to toggle on and off layers for viewing on the map. Layer’s could be any variety of features. In Figure 3, the map displayed churches, but it could also display any number of features like: group shelters, soup kitchens, food banks, public showers, campsites, motels, hotels, restaurants, donations centers, or any other feature that the user would wish to see on the map. With a variety of geographies (layers like counties, cities, tracts, blocks, and states) available, Magnify allows the user to explore these attributes on the fly (Figure 5), to help easily derive data and make important decisions.

Figure 5: Example of Magnify’s interactive map and layer control.

The Demographic Summary Report above (Figure 5) has been created for the city boundaries of Galena Park. This was one of the cities that was listed as having a church impacted in the above location report (Figure 4). This report provides the disaster relief team with some incredibly valuable insights into the community. Within the yellow shaded area above (Figure 5), there are:

  • Approximately 11,423 people living there.
  • Of that population, 32.3% (3,690 people) are renters who will need to find a new place to live.
  • Roughly 36% (4,180 persons) are under 19 years old. These are kids that will likely need backpacks, school supplies, clothes, shoes to replace those that have been destroyed.
  • 82.9% of the people in this relatively small city identify as Hispanic. Does your outreach team have Spanish speaking group leaders to help lead a recovery effort?
  • 40% have no High School Diploma, and only 9.1% have a college degree. It is possible that individuals in this area may be out of work and have little to no means of income.


“Know well the condition of your flocks, and give attention to your herds…”

-Proverbs 27:23

Figure 6: Example of a Demographic Report for Galena Park, Texas.

The truth of the matter is that often, churches may go into areas with a big heart for recovery yet fail to be productive and effective providers of service. A GIS tool like Magnify can help to prevent that and be an important piece to a churches relief and recovery mission. As a GIS professional who understands the positive impact these tools can have for a church, I would encourage any executive pastor or mission’s leader to explore how GIS can improve your outreach ministry. I believe as you explore Magnify, you will find even more application throughout your church operations and ministry.

-Jeff Lane

Check our blog again in the coming weeks to learn how Magnify can help churches with much more than just disaster relief. We will be discussing how churches can use their own data to drive connectivity and understand their ministry footprint to better minister to the communities they serve.

If you have any questions or ideas as to how you would like to see Magnify used in your Church or just how GIS can help your Ministry, please feel free to send me an email at or give me a call at (501) 975-2062. You can also click here to visit our website to learn more about Gadberry Group’s geospatial and location intelligence data, software, and services.