By Linda Unger*
September 7, 2011—“I don’t even know where the food comes from; I turn around and it appears,” said Elfrieda Benjamin of the pans full of meatloaf, bread, and other staples that are constantly refilled to feed Tropical Storm Irene survivors in Windham, New York.
Benjamin, a member of Windham-Hensonville United Methodist Church, helps coordinate the effort of local townspeople to cook, serve, and offer a word of comfort to their neighbors who are still reeling from the storm that blundered through New York State’s Catskill Mountains region just over a week ago.
“We’re full all the time,” Benjamin told a small delegation from the New York Annual Conference (NYAC) and the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), who came last Thursday to get a sense of the storm’s scope and of needed relief. “At the end of the day we’re lucky if we have three small pans of food left,” Benjamin added.
But then, like the miraculous multiplication of loaves and fishes, she said, fresh pans of food will arrive in time for breakfast the next morning. As has been the case since the day the floodwaters began to recede from the center of town, three meals a day will again be offered to survivors and work crews.
A tent set up on the lawn of the community center where the string of tables of food and drinks rested offered shade from the now blue and sun-filled sky. The lawn wasn’t so soggy, and the tent offered protection from the pervasive dust left by the muddy floodwaters.
“The water got to be nine feet high and half-a-mile wide,” Benjamin recalled.
Jared Schwartz, a local fire commissioner, came and stood beside Benjamin. Glancing around, he said, “We’re standing right now in what was a river—and not a river of standing water. It was going 25 miles an hour.” Flooding, he said, was “instant and devastating.”
The local community responded immediately, Schwartz underscored. “People who weren’t affected went door-to-door to check on those who were. We lost our cars, our jobs, and our homes,” he said, “but we’re okay. We live in a great town.”
Overview and initial assessment
NYAC Bishop Jeremiah Park led the NYAC – UMCOR delegation as it toured five small mountain towns impacted by the storm: Windham, Prattsville, Roxbury, Margaretville, and Fleischmanns. At each one, he wrapped an arm around his pastors’ shoulders, and prayed with them.
Rev. Joseph Ewoodzie, NYAC Disaster Response coordinator; Rev. Jim Moore, district superintendent of Catskill – Hudson District; Rev. Dale Ashby, District Disaster Response coordinator, volunteer Mike Weinlein, and Cathy Earl, US Disaster Response executive for UMCOR, made up the delegation.
Within days of the storm, UMCOR had supplied NYAC with an emergency grant—as it has done for six other conferences affected by Irene, which began as a hurricane and became a tropical storm by the time it reached the Catskills. UMCOR has disbursed $70,000 in grants and shipped hundreds of cleaning buckets.
“Our work with UMCOR is vital to our recovery efforts here,” Ashby said. “The initial grant is helping us get our teams in place, get them the equipment they need, and assist these hard-hit families in need. It gives us a good leg up so that we can see the people through this disaster.”
NYAC set up a call center at the conference Learning Center in White Plains so that it could take calls from affected individuals. Nearly a dozen volunteers staff the call center from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., five days a week. When they go home, Ewoodzie continues to field calls on his own phone.
The New York Annual Conference encompasses five other districts in addition to Catskill – Hudson, some of which, such as Long Island East, Long Island West, and Connecticut, were also hard hit by Irene.
“Among the resources we have to offer in the wake of this storm are UMCOR-trained Early Response Teams,” Ewoodzie said. He added that NYAC would offer training on a weekly basis.
On the way to Prattsville (pop. 700), the delegation stopped at the Huntersfield Christian Training Center (HCTC), just five miles from the town, but at a higher elevation, overlooking the picturesque green peaks of the Catskill Mountains.
The center’s location kept it from harm and allowed it to shelter Prattsville families left homeless by the flooding, said Youth Director George Williams. It is likely that the United Methodist retreat center will soon house volunteer teams that will help with early response and cleanup.
The “Other side of the fence”
As the delegation pulled into Prattsville, over a still wet and muddy main street, most of the town appeared to be congregated in a parking lot, where a command center had been established by FEMA and the Red Cross. An ambulance pulled carefully through the crowd, and a local official addressed them through the ambulance’s loudspeaker, pleading for patience.
One resident called out, “When are we going to get back into our homes?” Another, holding a toddler, wiped tears from her eyes.
How many of the damaged homes might be habitable was still unclear. Up and down the town’s main street, one home after another had been pushed off its foundation by the rushing floodwaters. Strips of aluminum siding hung like sashes from homes; trees were uprooted; and chunks of road were simply missing.
Rev. Elliott Oakes, pastor of Prattsville United Methodist Church and nearby Lexington UMC, empathized with his neighbors. Their frustration was palpable. Though tables laden with food and other supplies were available at the command center, residents were really anxious to move on.
“As a fireman and as an emergency coordinator, I’ve been to a lot of disasters,” Oakes said. “It’s very different being on this side of the fence.”
Oakes took the NYAC – UMCOR delegation to his church, just down the road from the command center. A pair of children’s bicycles lay encased in mud in front of the building, and a lectern stood just outside the front door, now drying in the sun.
Inside, a thick layer of wet mud curled around the participants’ shoes as they made their way up the aisle. A water line was visible above the altar; stackable chairs lay in clusters where they’d been tossed by the floodwaters. Pews were nearly completely covered with the dust left by the receded water.
Across the street, a home bore the red “X” that signifies mandated destruction. That will not be the fate of Prattsville UMC, but much work will be needed to make it fit once again for worship.
Bishop Park gathered the group together in the muddy sanctuary. They held hands as he prayed in a voice broken with emotion.
“This is the place we claim as our church,” he said. “As we hold each other’s hands, we trust, Lord, that you are holding our hands. We trust that something good will come out of this. Thanks be to God that you are here with us and we are with each other.”
Your gift to US Disaster Response, UMCOR Advance #901670, will help UMCOR continue to be there for communities struggling with the aftermath of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene. Please give generously, earmarking your check “Hurricanes 2011.”
*Linda Unger is UMCOR staff editor and senior writer.