Entire coastal towns underwater. Millions without power. A paralyzed New York City.
Days after Hurricane Sandy rolled across a huge swath of the eastern United States, United Methodists began springing into action. Churches opened their doors as shelters, community centers and recharging stations, and United Methodist disaster response coordinators began deploying teams of volunteers to help with cleanup.
“These are hard times and we need to walk with God and with one another,” said Bishop John Schol in a message to members of the Greater New Jersey conference, where some of the worst devastation occurred.
Days after the storm, many evacuees were still out of their homes, according to Carol Brozosky, early response team coordinator for the Greater New Jersey Conference.
“The barrier islands are just completely destroyed,” she said, “and across the state, the damage is so severe and so spread out that it’s difficult at this point to name the worst-hit communities. But clearly the coastal towns really bore the brunt.”
Ms. Brozosky led an emergency response training session with 18 attendees on Oct. 27, two days before the storm made landfall.
“I just hope everybody in the class was OK,” she said. “Half of them may need help themselves.” Some 160 volunteers have been trained to respond in the New Jersey Conference, but her first task was to find out who could help.
“I imagine I’m going to be calling in teams from out of state,” she said.
“No one has scratched the surface of what’s going on in New Jersey,” said the Rev. Chris Heckert, pastor at the Morrow Memorial United Methodist Church in Maplewood, N.J.
Mr. Heckert had just witnessed a disturbing scene in nearby Hoboken, as a fire truck and another emergency vehicle passed on the street.
“People were following the fire truck, asking the firefighters to ‘come here,’ ‘come over here,’ just following the truck, begging to be helped,” he said.
Mr. Heckert’s church opened to surrounding communities, and over 400 people came through the church to rest, use wireless Internet, do work or enjoy a hot meal. Many shared stories of dramatic late night rescues during the storm.
In Asbury Park, N.J., the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference’s offices were still without power as of Nov. 1. Millions of New Jersey residents were also without power, and getting it restored was expected to take up to a week. Conference staffers relocated the conference’s computer servers offsite, so that churches and volunteers could share information via the conference website.
As of Nov. 1, the conference was still assessing damage to UM churches in New Jersey. St. Peter’s UMC in Ocean City, for one, had extensive flooding. Bishop Schol reported that the Cape Atlantic, Northern Shore and Gateway North districts, along the Jersey Shore, were hard hit.
He urged church members to check on their neighbors and to volunteer as they are able. He also praised churches in the area that provided shelter and hot meals to those without power.
“These laity and clergy became the heart, the mind and the door to Christ,” he said.
United Methodist-related Drew University in Madison, N.J., was also without power and closed until Nov. 5. The United Methodist Archives and History Center is housed there, but escaped damage, according to Robert Williams, top executive of the denomination’s General Commission on Archives and History. Nearby Chatham Church opened up as a shelter for 100 Drew students who were unable to travel home for the shutdown. The students received hot meals, a place to sleep and electricity to charge their electronics.
In New York City, flooding shut down the mass transit system and left hundreds of thousands without power. Joseph Ewoodzie, disaster response coordinator for the New York Conference, sent out a call on Nov. 1 for volunteers within the conference to help with cleanup and distribution of flood buckets.
“We don’t have the logistics to host any volunteers coming out of the state at the moment,” he said.
Mr. Ewoodzie reported that Community UMC in Massapequa, near the south shore of Long Island, had sustained damage from a falling tree; the conference had dispatched a crew to remove the tree.
Some denominational agencies are based in New York City, including the General Board of Global Ministries and the United Methodist Women, but early reports indicated their offices had escaped major damage.
John Street United Methodist Church, a New York landmark, was also “safe and sound,” according to the Rev. Jason Radmacher, the church’s pastor. The day after the storm, Tuesday, Oct. 30, marked the 244th anniversary of the first worship service at the church’s present location in Lower Manhattan.
Water deluged homes, subways and city streets on the East Coast, but in West Virginia, the problem was snow. The superstorm dumped several inches, making roads impassable in some parts of the state.
“It never snows in October,” said Laura Allen, conference communicator. “We’ve got some stressed areas here.”
At least three United Methodist churches responded by opening their doors as shelters. When the power went out in Sissonville, W.Va., at the request of state officials, Aldersgate UMC opened to serve meals and provide cots and recharging stations.
“Fifteen American Electric Power workers stayed there last night because they had nowhere to stay,” said Ms. Allen on Oct. 31. “Aldersgate is located in a community where there is literally no other shelter resource.”
Across the connection, United Methodists began to offer support to those affected by the storm, with prayers, money, supplies and volunteers.
As of Oct. 31, UMCOR had issued five $10,000 emergency grants to the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, Greater New Jersey Conference, New York Conference, New York Disaster Interfaith Services, and the North Carolina Conference. Nationwide, UMCOR had 11,000 cleaning buckets and 150,000 health kits ready to deliver to people in Sandy’s path.
Leaders in annual conferences around the U.S. also weighed in with words of support and calls for prayers for those affected by Sandy.
“Disasters of this scale have a unique way of uniting people who often are divided by ideology, religion, ethnicity, region or political views,” Bishop Gary Mueller of the Arkansas Conference said in a statement. “I have already seen evidence of this cooperative spirit, and pray that it will continue after the cleanup has been completed.”
In an online letter, Bishop Mark J. Webb of the Upper New York area noted that many there were still recovering from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee in 2011.
“The physical damage and emotional trauma of these kinds of storms are very real,” he wrote.
Bishop Martin McLee had been confirmed as the new bishop of the New York Annual Conference in a service just days before the storm. In one of his first acts as bishop, he issued a letter to members of the conference.
“In the midst of the devastation of Hurricane Sandy we can report that God is still good,” he said.
Even as the U.S. reeled from the storm, Haiti and other Caribbean countries in the storm’s path were also struggling to recover. The United Methodist Church was helping to meet the needs of storm survivors in Haiti, where Hurricane Sandy killed 51 people.
Because of UMCOR’s support and emphasis on disaster preparedness, response in Haiti was strengthened, reported Elizabeth Petheo, head of UMCOR’s mission in Haiti. “I think organizations based in heavily affected areas were able to respond with what they had on hand—which is good news that preparedness planning is helping to mitigate some of the storm effects,” she said.
But needs in Haiti—as well as in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas and Jamaica—are serious and ongoing.
Mike Selleck, director of connectional ministries for the North Georgia Conference, said his conference was likely to deploy its first Hurricane Sandy recovery team to the Bahamas. The conference has a relationship with the Bahamas Methodist Church.
United Methodists in Georgia, he added, are ready for the heavy work of cleaning up after a flood.
“We’ll be there for the next 10 years or whatever it takes,” he said. “We’re the long-haul denomination.”
The Reporter’s Mary Jacobs reported and wrote this story, with significant contributions from Susan Kim, a journalist and regular contributor to www.umcor.org.