While the ground has been relatively dry - at least temporarily - along the Wasatch Front, flooding is very much on the minds of local churches.

Their counterparts in other areas are thinking about hurricanes and tornadoes, ice storms and famines.When disaster, man-made or natural, strikes anywhere in the world, church communities get involved.

Remember the river formed by sandbags along State Street in Salt Lake City in the early 1980s to handle flooding? Utah churches were there. And they've been there - and will be there - every time a fire consumes a large apartment complex, leaving families homeless, an earthquake rips apart a community or an entire country faces starvation because of nature and failed crops.

As this article is being written, a committee formed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is considering how best it can provide relief to a flood-stricken city in Georgia. A Baptist congregation is gathering supplies to send to California, which has been awash in water. And at least two Methodist churches are putting together care packages to send to Floridians who were devastated by an unexpected tornado.

That's the nature of pastoral care, where religious communities of all sizes and belief systems provide physical aid and spiritual comfort to those in dire need.

Most agree that the first principle of providing care is to deal with the physical needs. If people are evacuated from their homes, they must have somewhere to go and food to sustain them. Only then can their emotional and spiritual deficits be assessed.

In his 22 years as a military chaplain and now as chaplain at Utah Valley Medical Center, Nicholas Alden Brown has come across all sorts of people in all manner of crises.

A faithful member of the LDS Church, one of the most important things he has learned in years of helping people cope with tragedies is that you don't try to change their religions.

"Someone's trauma or crisis is not a time for me or anyone else to try to change their doctrine," he said. "My goal is to understand myself enough that as I go about pastoral care, I bear His image in my countenance so when people experience me, they feel they'd been close to the Savior."

After the physical situation is stabilized, he said, "Hopefully, they will have the opportunity to evaluate life and grow."

He's comfortable ministering to people of any faith without trying to change them. When he was in the Army, "I gave out a lot of St. Christopher medals." As chaplain at a hospital where people of all faiths face questions of mortality and well-being, he sees himself as a link between people and their faiths.

He used to grope for the right words to make sense of tragedy. Now he knows that silence can be just as helpful. "We're always fighting for words to change everything," Brown said. "It doesn't happen."

The Rev. Al Embry believes knowing the community and the people in need is key to overcoming their tragedies. He cites his first experience with pastoral care, during the 1972 flood in Buffalo Creek, W. Va.

The disaster, he said, occurred in two stages.

During the first, a 30-foot high wall of water rumbled down from a coal mining operation, slamming its way through the 13-mile long valley held in by the mountains on either side, killed 125 people and destroyed all 500 homes in its path.

The second stage was more devastating. It came when Housing and Urban Development officials brought disaster "relief." HUD randomly assigned surviving families to mobile homes, scattering them. "They neglected to realize that this is a series of very small, family-oriented communities," Embry said. "People who lived next door were sent to opposite ends of the valley. It might be parent and child or siblings. It destroyed the fabric of the community."

That was the training ground where Embry, an Episcopal priest, learned how hard it is - and how gratifying - to provide pastoral and spiritual care to people who have been hit by disasters. Helping someone in post-traumatic stress can bless both the helper and the helped.

Three pastoral counselors set up shop in that valley for a year as lives and a community were rebuilt.

Since then, he's seen other tragedies. A fire in the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Kentucky killed 125. He counseled survivors. He's provided support - both practical and spiritual - to those coping with the aftermath of airline disasters and tornados.

During a recent seminar at All Saint's Episcopal Church, clergy from different faiths told their experiences in helping people overcome both natural and man-made catastrophes, which offer different challenges, Embry said. "When you begin talking about man-made disasters, the impact on the human psyche is far greater. Oklahoma City bombing victims and survivors would have a qualitatively different response to that experience than someone in a tornado, for example. But each presents its own difficulties."

Sitting down one-on-one with people who are trying to make sense of catastrophe is only one part of pastoral care that clergy and caring church, synagogue and mosque communities offer.

The giving of resources - a building, a corps of volunteers, a food drive - often comes much sooner and is crucial to provide early stability in the wake of tragedy.

"Churches play a big part," said Jerrianne Kolby of the Salt Lake area chapter of the American Red Cross. "We have national agreements with the majority of churches. They offer anything from the use of facilities that can be turned into a Red Cross to congregations that get together and cook and prepare a meal for victims. One church, the Church of the Brethern, shows up where there's a disaster to help elderly and homebound people by cleaning up their yards from debris. They carry it out."

While most people turn to their own clergy for counseling, she said, churches minister in other ways without regard to the faith of those in need.

Utah hasn't had a "major disaster" for a long time. But apartment fires, hostage crises and other smaller-scale tragedies have given communities of faith the chance to flex their pastoral muscles and change lives.

Kolby can list examples she's seen. Congregations that have taken up donations for families they've never met who become homeless due to fires. People who show up to provide child care at service centers where families in trouble are being interviewed. During a recent standoff, police thought a man had taken hostages in an inner-city neighborhood. Although it turned out he hadn't, a local Episcopal Church opened its doors to the Red Cross so neighbors who were evacuated had a place to go. It provided refreshments and if the situation had lasted longer, was ready to provide child care.

Some congregations respond individually. Other churches have special offices that head up disaster relief, like Catholic Community Services, which takes on the task along with its regular duties.

Time after time, local LDS bishops and Relief Society representatives have shown up where there are apartment fires or other problems and said, "Use our building. What else can we do?" Kolby said.

A. Terry Oakes, director of production distribution for the LDS Church's Welfare Services, believes his church effectively helps others because the members are well-organized before trouble strikes. In a crisis, church members know the established leadership of the local church body, which has an efficient chain of command and can respond to calamity quickly. Non-members know their home teachers and other visitors - important because the church responds to "members and non-members alike."

Volunteer efforts are organized so that they work, he said. And part of the LDS faith is "to help others, to give and provide service. We have a lot of people who automatically help others and that makes it easier to respond to an emergency as a church."

Between 1985 and 1997, the LDS Church, in fact, provided major disaster assistance 77 times worldwide, including a Mexico fire, Korean crop failure, Midwest flooding, Africa drought, China earthquake and in the civil conflicts in Bosnia and Croatia. The help ranged from hands-on work to providing cash, medical equipment, food and clothing.

The story is the same in one community of faith after another. When times are hard - or disaster strikes - they build the bridges that span the cataclysm.

"Our job would definitely be harder without the help and support of local churches," Kolby said.