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Episcopal congregations, clergy cope with Northeast flooding
Water damages some buildings, flows below others

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
6/30/2006
[Episcopal News Service]  The heavy flooding that hit the northeastern United States beginning June 28 damaged many communities and the Episcopal Church has begun to help their recovery while coping with its own losses.

"This is the worst flooding that parts of the North East have seen in over 50 years," said Richard Ohlsen, Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD) director of domestic disaster preparedness and response, in an ERD news release.

ERD has already provided emergency assistance to the dioceses of Albany, Easton, New York and Central New York, the release said. Affected dioceses plan to use the emergency money towards meeting the most urgent needs of the evacuees: temporary shelter, medicine, food, water, baby formula and clothing.

The Diocese of Easton, in Maryland, is working with the local Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (VOAD) to make needs assessment of their most affected regions, ERD said. Shelters have been set up to assist people displaced from their homes. In the dioceses of Albany and Central New York, many communities are still under water. The Diocese of Albany has been in contact with the emergency operations center to work on assessing the immediate needs of those affected.

The New York Times reported June 30 that the water flooded homes and businesses, washed-out bridges, closed roadways, inundated streets and untold millions of dollars in damage. Most of that occurred along the twin paths of the Susquehanna and the Delaware Rivers. In Phillipsburg, New Jersey, the Delaware crested at nearly 38 feet, nearly 15 feet above flood stage. Ten bridges over the Delaware between Pennsylvania and New Jersey were closed, the Times reported.

On the Susquehanna, the crest at Vestal, New York, near Binghamton, was also 15 feet above flood stage, and the highest ever recorded there. In Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, some 50,000 people had fled on the night of June 28, but the Susquehanna there rose only to 34 feet, well below its 41-foot floodwalls.

While it is difficult to quantify damage at the moment, there were some churches that stood above the flood water, some with minor damage and others are left with major problems as the water recedes. Congregations are sustaining members who have been displaced by the flooding and whose homes were damaged.

St Mark's, New Milford, Pennsylvania, sustained substantial damage to its three buildings. Furnaces in the church and the rectory were under water, and considerable cleaning is necessary to the interior and exterior, according to a June 30 email from Diocese of Bethlehem Archdeacon Howard Stringfellow. Inspectors from Church Insurance have visited the church. St. Mark's also faces the need to gather its insurance deductible of $12,328, Stringfellow said.

On the other end of the spectrum, were congregations such as Trinity Episcopal Church in Easton, Pennsylvania. "What a difference a block makes," said Trinity rector Andrew Gerns.

A block away from the church's location on Spring Garden Street in downtown Easton, "there was the river where it shouldn't be," he said.

The lay of the land kept the water out of Trinity and it was able to hold its mid-week services on June 28. Gerns said he has been working since to contact parishioners to see how they fared.

And he's trying to help his neighbor, the First United Methodist Church. The church spent two days pumping water to prevent the flood from rising out of its basement and going into the sanctuary. Now, the church needs dehumidifiers to help dry out its basement. Gerns has put the word out among Trinity members.

As Easton begins to dry out, plans are underway for a scaled-back version of the annual Heritage Day event, commemorating the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence in the city. Some of the festivities have been cancelled but a re-enactment of the reading will take place on July 9, as will as a joint Morning Prayer service at Trinity. The city's downtown congregations, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Salvation Army and Roman Catholic, re-assessed plans for the service this week and decided to go ahead.

"We decided we needed to do it for the city," Gerns said.

In Binghamton, in the Diocese of Central New York, another Trinity congregation is trying to help its members through their recovery. The force of the flood waters coming through an 80-year-old parishioner's home tipped over her refrigerator and pushed chairs outdoors as it receded.

"It was just awful. I can't imagine the force," said the Very Rev. Noreen Suriner, rector of Trinity Memorial, one of three Episcopal congregations in the town.

Suriner said there seemed to be little consistency to how and where the water rose. Some people in the city had the minor inconvenience of three to four inches of water in their basement and others had four to six feet of water engulfing the first or second floors of their homes, she said.

As she talked, another parishioner, just back from serving as a deputy at General Convention, sat at her table in the rectory contemplating having been that told she has to wait four days before she can return to her home to assess the damage.

Back over in Pennsylvania, St. Peter's Episcopal Church, Tunkhannock, about a 30-minute drive northwest from Scranton, had a bittersweet experience of the flooding.

Devastated by Hurricane Ivan in September 2004 and flooded two more times since, the congregation has worshipped for a year in a storefront at the Tioga West Plaza shopping center. It was high and dry this week.

The church building could not be restored and the congregation is still negotiating a settlement with its insurance company and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), according to the Rev. Vivian Bennett, the congregation's supply priest.

On June 11, Bethlehem Bishop Paul Marshall deconsecrated the old building and on June 24 the congregation held a fund-raising auction on the site. They sold the church's pews and other fixtures, along with donated items. The altar and other items that reflect the congregation's "history and fabric" have been saved, Bennett said.

"There were people who just couldn't be there" at either event, she said. The congregation is grieving, she added.

And then this week's floods came again and inundated the old church. "It was disheartening to see pictures of the church underwater again on the news last night," Bennett said.

The now-storefront congregation has had a baptism and that was "a good sign, a sign of new life," she said.

"Who knows what the Lord has in store for St. Peter's," Bennett said.

In the upper reaches of the Diocese of New York, its Episcopal Charities organization is working with its partner organizations to help people in Sullivan and Orange counties, according to associate director the Rev. Mark Hummell. Episcopal Charities, with the help of ERD and FEMA, can supply people with fresh food and water, and temporary housing.

In the meanwhile, Hummell said, Episcopal chaplains went to four Red Cross shelters in the effected area. The diocese works with Disaster Chaplaincy Services, a partner of the Red Cross, to meet the pastoral and spiritual needs of people during natural disaster.

The Rev. Julie Taylor, Chaplaincy Services spokesperson, said that five Episcopal chaplains joined rabbis and a Muslim chaplain at the shelters. In addition, the agency's on-call chaplain who coordinated the response to the call for chaplains was an Episcopal priest from the Diocese of New York, she said.

More than 900 people spent time in those shelters, according to the American Red Cross in Greater New York's website, including about 450 children and 150 adults from a Jewish camp outside Elred, New York.