By Linda Unger and Susan Kim, Special Contributors…
As big flakes of icy wet snow fell on streets still muddy from Hurricane Sandy’s devastating storm surge, Peter Vasquenz carried another black trash bag to the curb outside his mother’s home on Staten Island, N.Y. In it were pieces of ripped flooring and soggy drywall from the modest house that is decades old.
“I grew up in this house,” Mr. Vasquenz, a Brooklyn firefighter, said. “My mother grew up here.”
He said that when Hurricane Sandy roared into this working-class neighborhood in one of New York City’s five boroughs on Oct. 29, the storm filled his mother’s home with at least three feet of water. It chased her to the second story, where she waited for her sons to rescue her the following day.
Now a sheet of clear plastic covers the way to the second floor, Mr. Vasquenz’s attempt to concentrate what heat remains in the house so he can work at removing the waterlogged pieces; nine days after the storm, electric power still had not been restored.
“I don’t know what my mom’s going to do with the house now,” Mr. Vasquenz said, working diligently amid diminishing daylight, his breath visible in little puffs of smoke.
“This is one of the neighborhoods where we will deploy volunteers,” the Rev. Joseph Ewoodzie, disaster-response coordinator for the UMC’s New York Conference, explained to the Rev. Tom Hazelwood of the United Methodist Committee on Relief as they toured the Midland Beach area of Staten Island.
While a sharp wind whipped through the street just a few blocks from the ocean, and construction vehicles scraped and pushed debris and at least some of the rust-colored mud to the side of the road, Mr. Ewoodzie shared his plan to multiply relief efforts by combining local volunteers with UMCOR-trained Early Response Teams (ERTs).
How to Help
Cleaning buckets are in short supply. For information, visit www.umcor.org/UMCOR/Relief-Supplies/.
Monetary donations directed to the United Methodist Committee on Relief through Advance #3021787, Hurricanes 2012, can be made online at www.umcor.org or by calling (800) 554-8583. Checks payable to Advance GCFA, with the Advance number noted on the memo line, can be dropped in church offering plates or mailed to Advance GCFA, P.O. Box 9068 GPO, New York, N.Y. 10087-9068. UMCOR funds are used for humanitarian relief and are not applied to property damage.
In addition, the Greater New Jersey Conference has launched a separate fund for individuals, churches and businesses within the conference to support relief efforts by giving directly to the conference office. United Methodists in New Jersey can give online to this fund at www.gnjumc.org/; those outside the GNJ Conference should give to the UMCOR Advance.
In an email to the Reporter, Bishop John Schol said the GNJ fund will focus on four areas of service: seeking “to offer relief from immediate needs as a result of the storm; to repair homes, giving priority to the poor and elderly of our communities; rebuild our communities; and renew people’s lives through much needed pastoral care and counseling.”
Bishop Schol added that while the storm “took away many homes, jobs and a sense of normalcy across the state, the response of our churches, clergy and laity have been tremendously inspiring. The ways in which we have already begun to work together in teams throughout the conference are solidifying relationships, building trust and offering space for us to be in prayer with one another.”
Mr. Hazelwood, UMCOR’s assistant general secretary for U.S. disaster response, praised the effectiveness of this model. “It emphasizes my strong belief in neighbors helping neighbors. People with a good heart and good hands can accomplish a lot when they have some trained folks with them to direct the effort,” he said.
Many of the volunteers and ERTs on Staten Island will be deployed from Bethel United Methodist Church, where the Rev. Matthew Schaeffer has served as pastor for just over two years. He is working with other Methodist congregations to gather information about the needs in the communities.
“Right now the most pressing need is for mucking out,” Mr. Schaeffer said. His church already has hosted an ERT training, conducted needs surveys by phone and by foot, and set up a small table with two vats of hot soup for neighbors as they began to go through their ruined possessions.
The soup table quickly turned into a “dry-goods store,” Mr. Schaeffer said, as those who could were adding to the provisions. “Everyone wanted to help, but didn’t immediately know how,” he said.
As if the destruction left in the storm’s wake wasn’t already overwhelming, Leroy Morgan of Freeport, N.Y., found himself faced with another astonishing and wholly unexpected phenomenon: jellyfish in his living room.
“It’s gotta be funny,” said Mr. Morgan, shaking his head as he showed a delegation of relief workers around his waterlogged home. “We were actually stepping on jellyfish!”
The nearly transparent, saucer-shaped and spineless sea creatures are the bane of bathers at Jones Beach, about six miles away, because of their stinging tentacles. They are the last thing Mr. Morgan imagined—or wanted—to see inside his home. But after he washed them away with a garden hose, they gave him a light moment in otherwise trying circumstances.
The jellyfish weren’t the only thing the storm surge washed onto his Long Island property. “We had a boulder from the sea sitting in front of the house,” Mr. Morgan said, and there was sewage in the shower stall. A few streets away, a cabin cruiser sat in the middle of the road, nowhere near the ocean.
Mr. Morgan had obeyed local government orders to evacuate his home ahead of the storm, and when he returned he found his living room furniture floating in salty seawater, which others said also carried oil and other pollutants.
Like Mr. Morgan, Margaret Lowe faced the same toxic flooding of her home, also in the working-class south side of Freeport, where she has lived for 32 years. In all that time, the retired nurse, an immigrant from Jamaica, said she had never seen anything like Hurricane Sandy.
The massive storm squeezed into the very last days of the Atlantic hurricane season. It killed more than 110 people in the U.S. Northeast and 72 in the Caribbean. It left millions without power or gasoline, and many without a place to live.
As Ms. Lowe showed her pastor, the Rev. David Henry, and the United Methodist relief team around her home, she pointed out remnants of the storm: buckling wood floors, the box of wrinkled family photos she hoped to salvage, and a pool of water that remained in a dark crawl space in one of the bedrooms. “I don’t want to think what might be in that!” she said.
“Everything is wet,” she added as she opened the door to a linen closet where dank towels rested, seemingly exhausted by the ordeal. “I don’t even have a change of clothes to put on.”
Although electric power had been restored to the house the morning of the visit—10 days after the storm—Ms. Lowe still held on to a blue flashlight, Scotch-taped at the neck, as if unconvinced the power would stay.
On a kitchen table, her Bible lay open to the Gospel of Mark, and her hymn book hadn’t moved from its place on the piano.
“I pray,” Ms. Lowe said. “I know the Lord will get me through this.”
The Rev. Don Stevens was holding himself together until he came across a tote bag that had been drenched by flooding from Sandy. “The bag was full of photographs, all of them ruined,” he said. “I had to pause and walk away.”
With the help of volunteers, Mr. Stevens—pastor of Central UMC in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J.—spent a chilly day on Nov. 6 pulling soggy items from the parsonage, sorting what was salvageable, and dumping the rest at the curb to be hauled away.
He looked up and down his streets, where his neighbors’ piles of ruined belongings were growing next to his own. “It’s unfathomable, the damage,” he said. “You can’t get your mind around the enormity of it.”
For many who have grown up on the Jersey shore, the hurricane is a historic nightmare. Some residents have heard word they may not get their power back until after Thanksgiving. Others are unsure whether they can ever go home.
For several days after the storm, Pat Groop-Applegate, a resident of Neptune, N.J., said she felt secluded in her home, which had lost power.
But on the Sunday after Sandy struck, she ventured out to Hamilton UMC, where she’s been a member for 52 years. “I didn’t have any connection with the world until I went to church,” she said. “Then I realized I could do something to help.”
Now Ms. Groop-Applegate, along with other volunteers, is cooking in the church kitchen as storm survivors and responders drop by the church to eat, get warm and recharge their cell phones.
The church’s pastor, the Rev. Shelley Potter-Abrahamsen, joked about just how many meals her church volunteers are offering: “We’re actually providing one meal a day. It’s just that the meal lasts all day long.”
Ms. Potter-Abrahamsen was surprised by the response to a simple sign she put out that read: “Come In and Get Warm.”
People came, and, even as a nor’easter was poised to bring snow and more nasty wind to the region, they were still coming.
The Herschel family—Denise, Chris, and their four children—stopped in for a hot lunch and explained that they’d been without power and heat for nearly a week. After donating food themselves to a local food pantry, they brought the children to eat at Hamilton UMC.
“I feel guilty eating here, but I don’t have any way for us to get a hot meal right now,” said Denise Herschel.
UMCOR has contributed a $60,000 grant to the Greater New Jersey Conference that will go toward relief and long-term recovery. Meanwhile, residents of the New Jersey coastline are coming to terms with the reality that their existence will never be the same.
Yet glimmers of hope for the long term were returning to the shore towns. Paul Mulshine, a resident of Bay Head, was able to jog with his dog, Betty, on the beach for the first time since the storm hit.
“In 43 years of living here, I realize I’ve never seen it quite this way,” he said. “In some ways the beach will repair itself but in other ways the landscape here will never be the same.”
Ms. Unger is a senior writer for the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries. Ms. Kim is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to GBGM’s UMCOR website.