Churches face flood, fire in Lee's wake


A UMNS Report
By Heather Hahn*










The Rev. Kirby Verett and his dog, Scratch, monitor flooding caused by Tropical Storm Lee in Dulac, La. A UMNS photo by Drake Granier.


In the wake of Tropical Storm Lee, United Methodists are contending with the damage from floods — and flames.

While the storm’s heavy rains cut a soggy path across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, Lee’s 50-mile-per-hour winds whipped wildfires in parched Texas as well as in parts of Louisiana.

“My real worry is just having funding to be able to help,” said the Rev. Tom Hazelwood, the executive in charge of the United Methodist Committee on Relief’s U.S. disaster response. “We were short and we got a little money in to help with the spring storms, and now we’ve got all of this, and we have to ask people to give again for a different set of circumstances.”

Hazelwood spent most of Sept. 7 coordinating response to the fire-ravaged parts of Texas, which has been undergoing a severe drought since last fall. Among the responders are UMCOR-trained spiritual and emotional care teams.

In Bastrop County, about 30 miles southeast of Austin, a blaze has burned more than 33,000 acres since Sept. 4 and claimed the lives of two people.

“A cool front arrived at the same time as the winds from Tropical Storm Lee, and with the drought conditions here, the low humidity and the high winds, any little spark became a huge fire,” said the Rev. Andy Smith, pastor of First United Methodist Church of Bastrop.

Winds from the storm fan a wildfire near Bastrop, Texas. Photo by loudtiger, Flickr Creative Commons.

At least 16 families in his congregation have lost their homes. More than 30 families, Smith said, still do not know whether their homes are damaged or lost.

Most Bastrop residents had less than 20 minutes to evacuate, and still others were out of town for the Labor Day weekend. Smith said he has heard stories of neighbors rescuing the pets of those out of town.

Connections through church
The community is drawing together in other ways. First United Methodist and other area churches have been collecting gift cards, linens, clothes and personal items for evacuees.

On the night of Sept. 4, First United Methodist Church was shelter to five families. The church building is not in peril and now hosts lunch each day for evacuees.

“It’s been really good for families just to connect with each other,” Smith said. Barbara Dorff, the wife of Bishop Jim Dorff of the Southwest Texas Annual (regional) Conference, joined the church for lunch Sept. 7.

Fires across Texas over the past week have destroyed more than 1,000 homes.

Elsewhere in the Southwest Texas Conference, Cedar Creek United Methodist Church has served as shelter for families forced to flee wildfires.

“Our churches and pastors are hard at work providing shelter and support for those left homeless. Our God is present in these communities and renewal will occur,” said Bishop Dorff in a statement.

Lee’s other effects

Lee also spawned tornadoes that damaged hundreds of homes and knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of people in several states.

UMCOR response to fires and flooding

The United Methodist Committee on Relief, the denomination’s relief agency, is still assessing needs in the wake of Tropical Storm Lee as well as responding after Hurricane Irene. Donations to aid those affected by fire or floods can be made to U.S. Disaster Response Advance number 901670 — Hurricanes 2011.

Now, the storm’s remnants are churning toward the northeastern United States, still sodden from Irene. National Weather Service meteorologist Neil Stuart told The Associated Press some parts of the Catskills have seen three to five inches in the last few days, and another one to three inches of rain could occur through Sept. 8. Flood warnings are in effect Sept. 7 and 8 for much of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and upstate New York.

In parts of the southeast, some United Methodist churches reported minor flooding, and some households were still dealing with power outages. However, many were breathing a sigh of relief.

In Calhoun, Tenn., a tree fell on the roof of Spring Creek United Methodist Church and damaged one of the church’s Sunday school classrooms. But the Rev. Mary Parson, the church’s pastor, said the congregation still plans to go ahead with its scheduled camp meeting this weekend.

Her church also plans to share worship space with a nearby Baptist church that lost its building in a fire ignited by lightning from the storm.


Clanton Chapel United Methodist Church had about four inches of water in the entryway and bathroom areas of its Christian preschool. A UMNS photo by the Rev. Kirby Verett.

 In Louisiana, where some forecasters had feared the worst, only Clanton Chapel United Methodist Church in the small fishing town of Dulac has reported damage to the Louisiana Conference.

“We did have a lot of water in Dulac from Lee on two different days,” explained the Rev. Kirby Verret, the church’s pastor. “The waters rose, but we did not have any in the sanctuary. We did, however, sustain about two inches in the entrance to the preschool. Our R/V electrical outlets were also flooded. We have a few homes flooded in Dulac, but most have been cleaned up.”

Verret noted one positive development from Lee. The storm has blown in more shrimp.

“When the winds from Lee shifted to the north, shrimpers dropped their nets,” he said. “The harvests have been great.”

Smith of Bastrop also sees signs of hope amid the fire.

“We’ve really seen the church be the church not just for the church family but for all their neighbors.”

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Betty Backstrom, director of communications for the Louisiana Annual (regional) Conference, contributed to this story.

News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or .