Inland flooding prolongs misery of Irene


By Linda Bloom*








Floodwaters caused by Tropical Storm Irene flow along the streets in downtown Brandon, Vt. A UMNS web-only photo  courtesy of New England Conference/Jim Germond.


When the Rev. Deborah Estey took “muck out” training last spring through the United Methodist Committee on Relief, she didn’t realize how important those skills would become.

But on Sept. 1, some members of Rutland United Methodist Church in Vermont were starting to remove the muck left behind from floodwaters stirred by Tropical Storm Irene.

In Middleburgh, N.Y., hit earlier by flash floods, the Rev. Carol Coltrain was preparing to put her organizing skills and her knowledge of the area where she has lived most of her life to work on behalf of the denomination’s Upper New York Annual (regional) Conference.

“The damage here is devastating,” she said. “Downtown sustained water in all of the buildings as high as seven feet. We have farms that are destroyed.”

Farther south, in the Catskills, the Rev. L. Lawrence Dunlap was at his Margaretville church, awaiting a visit from a New York Conference assessment team that included Bishop Jeremiah Park and Catherine Earl of the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

None of the churches in the Upper Catskill Parish where he serves as lead pastor sustained damage from the massive flooding spurred by Irene, but the communities around them did.

In the Greater New Jersey Conference, Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar asked for prayers. “No human life has been lost,” he said, but added, “Right now, I’m really worried about Paterson.”

Portions of the city of about 150,000 residents lay underwater as the Passaic River hit a 100-year high. The Rev. Howard Sterling, pastor of Madison Park-Epworth United Methodist Church in Paterson, was trapped by floodwaters in his parsonage but finally managed to get out.

Rising water damages the “Bun N Cone” in Margaretville, N.Y. A web-only photo courtesy of SJGriffin, ©2011.

Widespread damage

Irene, which began as a hurricane as it swept up the U.S. East Coast, brought unexpected calamity to inland areas even as its winds lessened to tropical storm status. In areas already experiencing a very wet August, Irene’s rains created raging rivers out of timid brooks, resculpting the land as they pushed aside buildings, roads and farm crops.

To date, UMCOR, the denomination’s relief agency, has approved $50,000 in initial grant requests from five annual conferences affected by Irene: Greater New Jersey, New York, Eastern Pennsylvania, Peninsula-Delaware and North Carolina.

In Vermont, the Rev. Bill Elwell’s role as disaster coordinator for the denomination’s New England Conference and as the state coordinator of Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster has found him “connecting with communities” this week.

Some people have been so isolated by the flooding that the Vermont air guard has had to use Chinook helicopters from Illinois to drop bundles of food, he said.

With recovery still underway from the spring floods, “it’s kind of a disaster on top of a disaster,” Elwell said. “There are entire communities that are destroyed. Some of the roads you just can’t get to.”

The Rev. Brigid Farrell, Vermont district superintendent, pointed out that while only a few churches sustained damage, such was not the case with many homes and businesses.

Everyone, however, seems to be pitching in. “The stories that we are hearing are about neighbors helping neighbors (and) churches reaching out as meal sites and distribution sites for clothing, water, diapers and food,” she said.

New England Bishop Peter Weaver, who had visited 20 churches affected by the spring flooding the week before Irene hit, had no doubt Vermont United Methodists were equipped to deal with recovery efforts. “The people have deep faith,” he said. “They are committed to helping their neighbors.”

Torrents of water rush along row of buildings in Ridgewood, New Jersey. A web-only photo courtesy of flickr creative commons.

Rutland United Methodist Church, which served as a weekend evacuation shelter, is no exception. “We’re going to go knocking door to door to find out what people need,” Estey said.

Even her elderly members are eager to help. She expects they can make sandwiches and provide other support when cleanup teams do the “mucking out.”

Health kits bound for Schenectady

In the Upper New York Conference, the Rev. Carl Chamberlain, disaster response coordinator, has been a part of daily telephone meetings with the New York State Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster for the past week.

He has a “very experienced” early response team of United Methodists from Western New York ready to come in, probably to Schoharie County, and has requested a tractor-trailer full of health kits from UMCOR Sager-Brown.

The kits — to be shipped from a mission facility in Pennsylvania to fulfill a request from the State of New York — will be received by a faith partner, the Salvation Army, in Schenectady, N.Y. “They have the distribution network, we have the resources,” Chamberlain said.

He is counting on Coltrain’s contacts to help get the word out about disaster assistance in Schoharie County, where Middleburg sits. Residents there are emotional as the shock begins to wear off. “We’ve had floods here before, but this is by far the worst,” Coltrain recalled. “There’s no one alive who remembers anything this bad.”

She is pastor of a small church in the nearby hamlet of Huntersland. That church is fine, as are the United Methodist and Catholic churches in downtown Middleburgh, but the Reformed church is damaged and the Lutheran church is four feet deep in mud.

It’s a shame, she said, because downtown had come back economically in the past decade to the point where it had been when she was a kid, with “every storefront open.”

Still, Coltrain has no doubt about the town’s recovery. “We’re very resilient here. Middleburgh is a community that pulls together always.”

Crews in downtown Margaretville, N.Y.,  survey the recent hurricane damage. A UMNS web-only photo by Tom DeLong.

Margaretville gathering place

In the Catskills town of Margaretville — where overflowing waters from the East Branch Delaware River raged down Main Street several days earlier — the United Methodist church served first as a Red Cross evacuation center and then as an outpost for information, referrals and food and clothing distribution.

“What is amazing is how quickly neighbors came together to help those in need,” Dunlap, the pastor, wrote to his church members. “Even before the storm passed contributions were pouring in. The strength of a community comes to the forefront during a crisis. Margaretville is coming through with flying colors.”

Members of the Catskill Mountain Artisans Guild were organizing food and clothing distribution at the church. Justin Kolb, a longtime area resident from Hog Mountain who had volunteered Aug. 30 with his wife, Barbara, noted that inventory was “rolling in and out” as the word spread.

With some buildings in Margaretville already condemned, Kolb knows from experience that cleanup after a flood is no easy task. “The water will always recede…but it leaves from two to eight feet of stone and boulders and gravel and what they call bank run,” he explained. “You don’t shovel that stuff off. You need front-end loaders and bulldozers.”

But he was impressed by the determination he witnessed and thinks Margaretville will bounce back. “If you look at the faces of people and talk to them, nobody is acting bereft or sad. Everybody has resolve,” he said.

Dunlap agreed. “People around here are determined to get things back together,” he said. “They have a country mountain spirit.”

Rising rivers in New Jersey

President Obama is expected to arrive on Sunday to inspect the damage in Paterson. Three United Methodist churches — St. Phillip’s, Madison Park-Epworth and Paterson Avenue — sustained some type of damage.

St. Philips Ministry in Paterson, N.J., is reflected in the floodwater. A UMNS web-only photo courtesy of the Rev. Dr. Stafford Miller.

St. Phillip’s remains the worst-affected of those buildings, said the Rev. Wayne Plumstead, superintendent of the Palisades District. “The water is around the building so much now that they can’t get into it to see the damage,” he added.

Other flood-related damage has occurred at a parsonage in Hasbrouck Heights and at Franklin-St. John’s United Methodist Church in Newark.

The Rev. Derrick Doherty, conference disaster coordinator, said the United Methodist congregation in Wayne — another community that has sustained heavy flooding — has contacted the disaster response committee for help. “We’re in the process of working with them to deploy an early response team into Wayne and Lincoln Park,” he said.

Donations to support recovery efforts related to Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene can be made to the United Methodist Committee on Relief through its Hurricanes 2011 fund.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at .