Episcopal Congregations Aid Neighbors in Northeast Flood Response

October 27, 2011

In the weeks since rains from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee flooded parts of the northeastern United States, Episcopal congregations in affected areas have continued to respond to the needs in their communities.

In the Diocese of New York, St. Mary’s-in-Tuxedo Episcopal Church (Tuxedo Park, NY) has housed community meetings and played a key role in coordinating response efforts since heavy rains broke a dam upstream from the town, causing severe flood damage to local homes and businesses. According to the church’s Rector, the Rev. Elizabeth McWhorter, members of St. Mary’s pitched in immediately to help clean up debris and clean out damaged homes. “Using word of mouth and cell phones, we encouraged people to simply take a shovel, gloves, bleach, rags and whatever else might be helpful in shoveling out mud, sewage, fuel oil and water,” she wrote in an email to Episcopal Relief & Development.

The second week after the flood, McWhorter and a fellow priest, along with two volunteers from the community, worked together to coordinate volunteer teams and keep the local government – which was liaising with the Red Cross, FEMA, and state and federal officials – informed of their activities. The Church’s approach focused on listening to people who had been impacted by the disaster, and working with them to assess needs and figure out solutions. McWhorter wrote: “As we began to figure out how we could help in this next step, two things were basic to our thoughts and decisions: 1) we did not want to be ‘Lady Bountiful’, dropping off items we thought were needed and then going about our daily life; [and] 2) living out the baptismal vow of ‘will you respect the dignity of every human being’? Our neighbors had experienced tremendous loss and devastation in their lives yet they still had their human pride and dignity.”

To this end, McWhorter and her team organized a training session for 20 volunteers that provided a refresher on good listening skills, and equipped them with checklists to take with them as they went on home visits around the community. At each house, the volunteer talked to the homeowner to get a sense of what might be helpful, and also take an inventory of items that had been damaged beyond repair, such as water heaters and furnaces. The volunteers brought the lists back to the church, where a master list of household needs was compiled, and then the process began of matching new or donated items to homes where those things had been lost. Episcopal Relief & Development is supporting the work of St. Mary’s to meet some of these needs.

The lesson learned from all this, according to McWhorter, is to build relationships with schools, businesses, churches and emergency workers in the community before a disaster strikes. “Get to know the leadership and let them get to know you,” she wrote. “Provide them with emergency contact numbers.” She also included the reminder to “Pray always. As God uttered at creation, ‘It is not good for anyone to be alone.’ At times of trouble and disaster, no words are more true.”

Further north, in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts, St. John’s Episcopal Church in Williamstown has been at the forefront of a collective effort to assist residents of The Spruces, a senior citizens’ trailer park, with interim housing and other needs after 225 units were flooded. Members of St. John’s are also lobbying the Town of Williamstown to make the replacement of affordable and senior housing a priority. The residents of The Spruces make up about five percent of the small town’s non-student population, and although 20 of the 225 damaged units have been reoccupied after the three-week evacuation period, it is estimated that over half of the homes will be unsalvageable.

The town’s interfaith community paid for a number of Spruces residents to stay in local motels while longer-term solutions were being found. However, because there is a shortage of affordable housing in Williamstown – due both to local economic factors and now the flood – those motel stays could stretch into weeks and months. Additional support will be provided through a local non-profit group called Higher Ground which was created in response to the flood by a number of people from the local faith community, including the Rev. Peter Elvin, Rector at St. John’s, and lay leaders from the parish. Part of the group’s strategy involves recruiting and training volunteers from the community for a “Disaster Buddy” program, to ensure that Spruces residents’ physical and emotional needs are met.

According to Elvin, the flood response has grown from the work of one church secretary to that of a committed core of volunteers, and he anticipates further growth in the future – both in responding directly to the needs of displaced residents and in advocating for affordable housing in the area. “We haven’t seen this happen before,” Elvin said, referring to the increased interest of the wider community in social issues exposed by the disaster. “Affordable housing used to be the province of a small – though active – town committee, but now there’s larger interest in it.” Elvin also mentioned a community fund administered by a local bank and accessible to people affected by the flood, managed in part by an interfaith team that includes St. John’s parishioners. Though this has become a community-wide effort, Elvin remarked that “congregations have played a role in stimulating and under-girding [it].”

Across the border, in Vermont, Episcopal churches are working to serve their local communities and band together to help others in need. Deacon Elaine Clements, a member of Episcopal Relief & Development’s Partners in Response team, spent a week traveling around the diocese, meeting people in impacted congregations and helping to assess immediate and longer-term needs. One urgent need is for people to protect their homes from winter damage, so that further rehabilitation work can be done in the spring. Furnaces and hot water heaters need to be replaced before the ground freezes, in order to keep pipes and foundations from cracking.

One particular challenge in Vermont is that the damage is not concentrated in one community, but spread in clusters over hundreds of miles. Episcopal churches in the northern part of the state have been collecting and purchasing relief supplies for congregations in the more heavily-impacted southern part, but transporting those supplies has proved a challenge, both from impassable roads and long distances. To overcome this, congregations have organized a “freeway relay” system to shuttle everything from peanut butter and casseroles to space heaters and cleaning supplies. Episcopal News Service reported that, according to Canon to the Ordinary Lynn Bates, “Virtually every one of the diocese’s 48 congregations has participated in some way, collecting, donating or ferrying food and supplies to where they’re needed.”

“Communication and coordination have been great in Vermont,” said Katie Mears, Program Manager for Episcopal Relief & Development’s US Disaster Program. “As congregations in the diocese move from relief to sustainable recovery, this kind of collaboration is only going to build the capacity of the Church to respond.”

Flood response is also continuing in the Diocese of Central New York, and beginning in the Diocese of Bethlehem in Pennsylvania, spiritual and emotional care, along with community meals, will likely be cornerstones of the diocese’s initial response.

“I’ve been very impressed so far at the initiative congregations have taken to ‘get the job done’ in flood-impacted areas,” said Mears. “Because of their long-term presence, a congregation will have better knowledge about needs in their community than any outside agency, and they’ll also know what will work in their local context to help meet those needs. Episcopal Relief & Development will continue to support these response and recovery efforts as best we can.”

To support disaster relief and recovery efforts like those currently underway in the northeastern US, please consider donating to the US Disaster Fund.

Episcopal Relief & Development is the international relief and development agency of the Episcopal Church and an independent 501(c)(3) organization. The agency takes its mandate from Jesus’ words found in Matthew 25. Its programs work towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Episcopal Relief & Development works closely with the worldwide Church and ecumenical partners to help rebuild after disasters and to empower local communities to find lasting solutions that fight poverty, hunger and disease, including HIV/AIDS and malaria.