By Christian Vischi*
July 26, 2013—Volunteers are desperately needed in all three areas of the state hardest hit by flooding in late June 2013.
That was the message Upper New York Resident Bishop Mark J. Webb heard over and over as he toured parts of Oneida, Herkimer, and Fort Plain on July 18, 2013. Accompanying Bishop Webb were Conference Director of Connectional Ministries the Rev. Bill Gottschalk-Fielding and Mohawk District Superintendent the Rev. Sung Ho Lee.
There are 286 Early Response Team-trained individuals in Upper New York, including 80 newly certified in the past six months, but only a handful have responded to the most recent call for volunteers.
Going over the numbers, Greg Forrester, who leads the denomination's U.S. disaster response efforts through the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), and Upper New York Disaster Response Coordinator David Woodcock painted a grim picture.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency denied individual benefits to homeowners and residents affected by the floods. Forrester said an appeal to FEMA's decision is being prepared, but he did not sound optimistic about those prospects during a discussion with Bishop Webb.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has signed an executive order that promises $16 million in aid to five counties, but that will only cover about half the losses at best, Forrester estimated.
According to a release from the governor's office, Herkimer and Montgomery counties will each receive approximately $4 million in state funding; Madison and Oneida counties will each receive approximately $3 million; and Niagara County will receive approximately $2 million.
Homeowners will be eligible to receive up to $31,900, and farms and businesses can receive up to $50,000 through the Mohawk Valley, Niagara County, and 2013 Upstate Flood Recovery Program.
Here is where Forrester says the math gets grim. In the city of Oneida alone, there were 210 homes affected by the flooding; 170 of them were "severely" affected, meaning water went into the first floor. At the maximum allocation of $31,900, only 94 of those severely affected residents could receive funding before Madison County's $3 million allotment would run dry.
In some cases where homes were destroyed, homeowners may be eligible for a buyout based on pre-storm fair market value, but that, too, comes with negatives, Forrester said.
"(For) many, the value of their home was low and they lost everything," Woodcock said.
Kim Marlowe, coordinator of the relief effort in Herkimer and a member of the First United Methodist Church in Herkimer (Mohawk District), met with Bishop Webb, among others, at the church. He said the original damage assessment in Herkimer included approximately 225 homes.
Teams of volunteers from UMCOR, several churches in the Conference, AmeriCorps, Mohawk Valley Regional Volunteers, and Natick UMC in Massachusetts, are among the 17 organizations that have helped to clean out approximately 65 homes in Herkimer.
"It was real nice to see faith in action," Marlowe said. "It brought the whole community together."
There are still 22 houses on the waiting list and more are still being added, he said. Volunteers are urgently needed to continue, and in some cases start, the removing of debris, mucking out basements, and cleaning and sanitizing.
Respond & Rebuild, a group of volunteers from New York City with expertise in mold removal, has offered its services. In addition to assessing homes, they have also offered a seminar on mold removal at Herkimer's First UMC.
Bishop Webb acknowledged disaster recovery is difficult, but it is vital.
"No one wants to deal with disasters, but you truly have been the hands and feet of Christ," Bishop Webb said.
He offered a prayer at each stop, and said he will facilitate the connection across the Conference in order to make available whatever human and material resources he can.
In Fort Plain, Michael Raphael, an American Red Cross response manager, and Pastor Alan Griffith of the Fort Plain and Freysbush United Methodist churches (Albany District) briefed the bishop on how vital the connection is to the area.
"Fort Plain is a very vulnerable community, very," Raphael said.
He said more than 50 percent of Montgomery County's residents receive some form of Department of Social Services assistance.
More than 200 homes were "majorly destroyed," Raphael said, with more than 35 condemned. Approximately 160 families have been displaced and 271 were still without electricity as of July 18 in the Fort Plain zip code.
Although the Red Cross has ceased its meal service in Fort Plain, the organization left 800 meals with area churches.
Meal service is continuing in the city of Oneida. The Karing Kitchen, a mission of the Oneida Area Council of Churches housed at the Oneida First UMC (Crossroads District), has been providing three meals per day since the flooding started.
Karing Kitchen Coordinator Melissa King told Bishop Webb about her dedicated volunteers and One who has truly been watching over her ministry.
"We had a refrigerator that would only work when we would pray over it, literally," she said. "I'd say, 'Dear God, please let this work,' and for 48 hours it would work, just until we needed to get the food out."
She said staff of the Food Bank of Central New York weren't fully convinced, but she knew.
"This has been a shining star," Woodcock said of the Karing Kitchen.
"It is an awesome mission," Bishop Webb said.
A Conference-wide appeal to assist in the recovery is being planned. "These funds are especially crucial in the wake of news that FEMA assistance will not be available for individuals," Forrester said.
If you would like to help the victims of the flooding, you can mail your checks made payable to Upper New York Annual Conference, 324 University Ave., 3rd Fl., Syracuse, NY 13210. Please include Conference Advance #4300 in the memo line.
To volunteer your services − all skill levels are appreciated − contact Woodcock at (315) 263-0153 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Your gift to US Disaster Response, UMCOR Advance #901670, will help UMCOR respond to this and other critical needs in the wake of disasters in the United States.
For photos of the Bishop's tour, click here.
*Christian Vischi is the communications associate for the Upper New York Annual Conference. This story was first posted on the website of the Upper New York Annual Conference.