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United Methodists assess Irene’s toll


By Linda Bloom*

7:00 P.M. EDT August 29, 2011 | NEW YORK (UMNS)

Satellite image of Hurricane Irene on Aug. 27, two hours after it   made landfall on Cape Lookout, N.C. Irene's outer bands had already   extended into New England. Photo courtesy of NASA/NOAA GOES Project.
Satellite image of Hurricane Irene on Aug. 27, two hours after it made landfall on Cape Lookout, N.C. Irene's outer bands had already extended into New England. Photo courtesy of NASA/NOAA GOES Project.

In the six years that the Rev. Dale Ashby has lived in Downsville, the town in the New York Catskills region has flooded four or five times.

This week, as the remnants of Hurricane Irene soaked an already sodden landscape, it's happening again.

"Some areas are still under flood watch," reported Ashby, the Catskill Hudson District disaster response coordinator for the United Methodist New York Annual (regional) Conference.

From North Carolina, where the hurricane first made landfall on Aug. 27, to New England, where sections of Vermont experienced the worst flooding in a century, Irene sparked evacuations by the hundreds of thousands, swamped shoreline communities and inland river towns and cut electric power to nearly 6 million people. At least 38 deaths in nine states were blamed on the storm.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief, in touch with United Methodists in those states, is already processing initial $10,000 grant requests from the New York, Eastern Pennsylvania and Greater New Jersey conferences.

The agency also has contacted Methodist disaster coordinators in Puerto Rico and the Bahamas about Irene-related damage.

The Rev. Tom Hazelwood, the executive in charge of UMCOR's U.S. disaster response, noted that "the two extremes" of Hurricane Irene's path up the East Coast were represented by the damage around Moorehead City, N.C., where it came ashore the first time, and the inland flooding in New Jersey, New York and Vermont.

"It's going to be days before we get a good assessment of that," he added.

Hazelwood acknowledged that while Irene's potential harm "was overhyped" — particularly for the mid-Atlantic and New York City — church members should not assume there is little need for relief efforts. "We've got some areas that were pretty devastated," he said.

Flash floods in Catskills

Delaware County in the Catskills region of New York — where Ashby is based — is a case in point. The pastor of both Colchester Community United Methodist Church in Downsville and East Branch/Harvard United Methodist Church, he worked all Sunday night as a volunteer firefighter.

Hatteras Island was cut off when a section of Highway N.C. 12 was   washed out by Hurricane Irene on Sunday, Aug. 28. Photo courtesy of   NCDOT Communications.
Hatteras Island was cut off when a section of Highway N.C. 12 was washed out by Hurricane Irene on Sunday, Aug. 28. Photo courtesy of NCDOT Communications.

Downsville, Ashby explained, sits right below a reservoir and concerns mounted that a "catastrophic flow" of water could come over the dam. "We ended up evacuating large sections of the area throughout the night," he said. Although some long-time residents took the evacuation in stride, "people were visibly shaken."

By Monday, that particular threat had ended and residents were slowly returning to their homes. But, elsewhere in his district, Sunday's flash floods devastated the towns of Margaretville, Arkdale and Fleischmanns, where one woman died. Severe flooding also was reported in Roxbury, Prattsville and Windham.

Both the Margaretville United Methodist Church, on slightly higher ground, and the East Branch church became shelters. "We're going to be doing a survey (of needs) throughout the district here today and tomorrow, by phone at least," Ashby said.

The New York Conference has activated its disaster response plan and set up a conference center "with volunteers who will receive calls" of damage reports, said the Rev. Joseph Ewoodzie, conference disaster coordinator. He is planning to mobilize the conference's trained volunteers for deployment as needed.

Communication has been difficult for the conference's district disaster coordinators. Cassandra Broadus-Garcia, Connecticut District coordinator, said that although the district as a whole appears to have weathered the hurricane well, she has been unable to reach some pastors in the shoreline areas.

"We still have large power outages," she explained. "Many people still don't have internet or phone access."

Efforts underway in North Carolina

In North Carolina, where Hurricane Irene first churned ashore, relief efforts are well under way. The North Carolina Conference has mobilized trained emergency-response teams to help recovery efforts in the Outer Banks and remote Hyde County on the state's eastern coast.

"Hyde County is not expected to have power for two weeks," said Ann Huffman, the conference's volunteer coordinator. "It was really hit hard, and we're in the process of finding places for the early response teams to stay and to make sure they can actually access the area."

Several feet of water flooded downtown Brattleboro on Aug. 28 when   the Whetstone Brook, which runs through downtown overflowed its banks. A   UMNS photo by Jessica Drew, courtesy of New England Conference.
Several feet of water flooded downtown Brattleboro on Aug. 28 when the Whetstone Brook, which runs through downtown overflowed its banks. A UMNS photo by Jessica Drew, courtesy of New England Conference.

The volunteers will clean out homes, removing dry wall and even flooring. Huffman added that at least four churches have reported flooding or structural damage or both. At least one pastor's parsonage suffered roof damage.

She stressed that the recovery process is just starting in North Carolina. "It's to some extent a slow process to evaluate what needs to be done and make sure that if we send teams they'll actually be able to negotiate the roadways," she said. "That's part of what we have to look at."

15-inch rainfall in Vermont

At the other end of Irene's path up the coast, the denomination's New England Conference was receiving reports of power outages and downed trees across the conference, along with widespread flooding in Vermont from the 15 inches of rain that Irene dumped in some parts of the state.

The Rev. Cheryl Meachen, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Brattleboro, reported much of the water had subsided, leaving a significant amount of mud behind. "The town is very resilient," she said. "The services in place in the community are remarkable."

In Rutland, the Rev. Deb Estey spent Sunday night ministering to residents at an emergency shelter as bridges into the town remained washed out or impassable.

UMCOR response to Hurricane Irene

The United Methodist Committee on Relief, the denomination's relief agency, is in contact with its disaster-response coordinators on the U.S. mainland, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas, assessing needs caused by Irene. Donations for disaster response can be made to U.S. Disaster Response Advance number 901670 - Hurricanes 2011.

Burlington/Williston weathered the storm well, reported the Rev. Brigid Farrell, Vermont District Superintendent, but the potential remained for additional flooding as water poured down from the mountains.

Elsewhere in the New England Conference, the camp director's home at Camp Aldersgate in Scituate, R.I., was damaged by falling trees, but no one was hurt.

Evacuation center in Pennsylvania

As Irene's rain and wind began to buffet the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, First United Methodist Church in Perkasie served as an evacuation center, opening its doors at 3 a.m. Sunday for 40 residents of the Covered Bridge Apartments, adjacent to the east branch of the Perkomen Creek.

The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency asked the United Methodists and the Mennonites to be the first involved in the state's disaster response to Irene, said Debra DePrinzio, the conference's disaster response coordinator.

"They fondly call us the M & Ms," she added. "We have a reputation for being the first ones to help after a disaster and the last to leave."

Philadelphia Area Bishop Peggy Johnson sent out an appeal early Sunday morning to 463 churches to pray for all persons affected by the hurricane, to take a special offering the next Sunday for disaster relief in the conference and to begin collecting flood buckets.

"I thank God that it was not as bad as it could have been but I am well aware that many have experienced loss and suffering from wind and water," Johnson said in a statement. "God is with us and as agents of God's love and we need to be prayerful and helpful at this time as we assist those in need."

Johnson's area also includes the Peninsula-Delaware conference, which also sustained hurricane damage.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe. Heather Hahn, Suzy Keenan and Alexx Wood also contributed to this report.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Issue Date: 
Mon, 08/29/2011