By Linda Bloom*
For months after a storm named Sandy swept through Atlantic City, N.J., Rick Hall got wet if he slept in his bedroom on rainy nights.
Winds ripped up sections of the roof of the home he shares with his mother, Elise. Floodwaters on the streets of their Bungalow Park neighborhood, near a cove and an inlet where fishing boats bring their fresh catch to delivery trucks, were chest high on Hall, who is 6-foot-2.
They lost carpeting, furniture, appliances and books. Six days after evacuating, they were back, but recovery has been slow.
“I had a tarp up over the tub, thumbtacked to the roof, so the rain could go into the tub, because it was raining in the bathroom,” he pointed out.
“My mom and I, we roughed it,” Hall said.
On Long Island, life already was rough for Lisa Mentges, a single mother who had undergone a double mastectomy for breast cancer just a few days before the Sandy-churned ocean broke over the Long Beach dunes and roared up the street to her one-story bungalow.
“The water came up so fast, I couldn’t even leave,” she recalled. “I was scared.
“The house was actually moving when the water came up.”
The water in the house subsided after several hours.
But Mentges could not get her mastectomy stitches and drains wet, so she, her boyfriend and her son were stranded for a few days, grateful for a food and water delivery from the National Guard. “We stayed here and we slept up in the attic,” she explained. “Then we couldn’t stay anymore because it was cold.”
Sandy assumed several forms – tropical storm, hurricane, even “superstorm” – as it charted a path of destruction from the Caribbean to New York State at the end of October 2012. Whatever the description, the results were the same for hundreds of thousands of other Sandy survivors.
Hall and Mentges do have one advantage. Both have received assistance from United Methodist volunteers through the denomination’s Greater New Jersey and New York annual (regional) conferences and the support of the United Methodist Committee on Relief.
UMCOR received $10,162,797 in direct donations for Sandy relief and an additional $2.5 million from the Red Cross, said the Rev. Gregory Forrester, UMCOR’s U.S. disaster response coordinator.
The New York Conference has relied upon UMCOR’s guidance, noted New York Area Bishop Martin McLee. “UMCOR has been a great partner in this continued recovery effort,” he said.
“As we go forward, we want to continue to enable folks to get back into healthy homes and safe homes.”
Greater New Jersey launched a separate nonprofit organization to coordinate case management, construction and volunteers.
“We created ‘A Future with Hope’ so that we could commit to long-term recovery,” explained Bishop John Schol. “Our staff members and volunteers work with the long-term recovery groups of every impacted county and are the primary referral for people who need help.”
Even before it surged up the East Coast, Sandy struck Cuba on Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012. Then nearly a Category 3 hurricane, it destroyed much of the historic city of Santiago de Cuba, damaging more than 200,000 homes in the area. A Methodist house church with a generator began to provide backup power to the community.
Three days later, on Sunday, Oct. 28, an unusual convergence of weather factors propelled Sandy into a “superstorm” with winds that covered about 1,000 miles. President Obama signed emergency declarations for New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Connecticut and the District of Columbia.
The Jersey Shore town of Belmar was under a mandatory evacuation order as Sandy approached, but the Rev. Eugene Chamberlin opted to remain in the United Methodist parsonage with his 16-year-old daughter, Olivia, to take care of their pets.
His wife and co-pastor, Ellen Chamberlin, took their two younger children to a relative’s home in a nearby town.
As Sandy lay siege, the waters rose.
Chamberlin and his daughter were forced to leave, using a section of their white picket fence as a makeshift raft to evacuate two cats, a dog, turtle and fish.
By Monday, Oct. 29, high winds and rains had cut off electrical power from Washington to points north, eventually affecting more than 50 million people.
Sandy’s center hit landfall near Atlantic City at 8 p.m., with its winds, rain and flooding continuing throughout the night. New York harbor experienced a record storm surge — nearly 14 feet — that topped the seawall in lower Manhattan. Staten Island, where half of the New York Sandy-related deaths occurred, also was hard hit.
Days later, John Stonick, a 60-year-resident of New Dorp Beach on Staten Island, raised his arms high above his head to show relief workers where the water was. “It just swept up the street,” he said. “I was in the house…got out in time.” (Watch John Stonick’s story)
The backside of the storm continued to pound the Northeast on Tuesday, Oct. 30,
By early November, it was clear the recovery was going to be a long one. In New Jersey, many of the 113 church properties impacted by Sandy had no flood insurance. For Schol, who had moved to New Jersey just two months earlier, “it was a steep learning curve” as he began asking advice from bishops and others who had been through disasters.
“What I learned in that first week from talking to a lot of people really set the tone and direction for my leadership,” he said.
In areas where Sandy’s winds disrupted power, even those whose homes were not damaged found it difficult to cope. A new ministry was born as churches that had retained electricity or had access to generators opened their doors for improvised community living rooms and work areas.
Members of Morrow Memorial United Methodist Church in Maplewood, N.J., started by gathering in neighbors to share wi-fi access and multiple cups of coffee from a large, ancient coffeemaker. Two days later, the number of daily visitors had ballooned to 500. (Read more about what happened at Morrow Memorial.)
After any major disaster, UMCOR-trained Emergency Response Teams form the first line of United Methodist relief.
In the first six weeks after Sandy, Community United Methodist Church on Long Island coordinated the dispatching of more than 700 volunteers to respond to 172 calls from residents, with more than half of the initial relief work completed.
One of the beneficiaries was Henry Enders, a member of Freeport United Methodist Church. The four-to-five feet of water from Sandy flooded the house where he had lived since 1954 and ruined his garden “which I worry about as much as anything else.” (Watch Henry Enders talk about surviving Hurricane Sandy.)
Crisfield, a town of 2,600 in Maryland, had been hard hit by Sandy. By December, the Rev. Rich Walton, disaster response coordinator for the Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conference, had compiled a list of 60 homes that needed repairs and estimated that at least 350 homes were damaged. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which originally did not approve federal aid for Crisfield, was re-evaluating its decision.
A shift in emphasis from emergency relief toward recovery began with the start of a new year.
In preparation, the New York, Greater New Jersey, and Peninsula-Delaware conferences opened registration for long-term recovery volunteer teams in January 2013.
Demands for basic cleanup were beginning to decrease. As of Jan. 22, volunteers organized by Greater New Jersey had spent 13,500 hours mucking out homes and about 15,000 hours on food programs for Sandy survivors.
The New York Conference began to consider how to find help for the five pastors who had managed the Sandy relief sites in Massapequa, Rockville Center and Freeport on Long Island, on Staten Island and Brooklyn.
Through Jan. 31, 1,459 volunteers from New York and 17 other states had worked on 270 homes of New York Sandy survivors.
They contributed 13,320 hours of work, with 69 homes pending.
In Crisfield, where Sandy had disrupted the oyster season, Walton and Ken Wermuth, Eastern Virginia Unit of Mennonite Disaster Service, worked as construction managers and expected 11 volunteer teams in February.
As case managers for A Future with Hope begin working with New Jersey homeowners, Bobbie Ridgely, director, characterized the timing as the “very edge” of the recovery process. “Our biggest challenge is identifying the townships that really are ready to start rebuilding,” she explained.
In March, A Future with Hope started repairs on two homes, with contracts for six additional homeowners.
During their April meeting, UMCOR directors approved $3 million grants to both the New York and Greater New Jersey conferences and $500,000 to Peninsula-Delaware. In addition, $825,759 was allotted to New Jersey and $42,000 to Peninsula-Delaware for repairs to church property damaged by Sandy, representing 10 percent of the funds raised for Sandy relief.
On June 28, the American Red Cross awarded a $1.5 million grant to A Future with Hope and the Greater New Jersey Conference for Sandy recovery work with the elderly and disabled and low-income families. (Read more about Red Cross grant.)
By summer, the calls to the Massapequa, Long Island, office asking for help had slowed a bit, said Peggy Racine, Long Island site coordinator, but work had continued. “In Massapequa alone, we had between 8,500 and 9,000 volunteer hours up through July.”
In Highlands, N.J., the former United Methodist Church building, which was flooded, was renovated by hundreds of volunteers and opened on July 15 as a hosting site for volunteer teams. The conference averaged 70 to 120 volunteers a week from June to early August.
On Aug. 12, the Rev. Tom Vencuss, returning from Haiti after three years of coordinating volunteer teams for earthquake relief there, became the Sandy recovery manager for the New York Conference.
UMCOR received its own Red Cross grant of $2.5 million in August to provide financial or housing assistance to 700 households in New York, Connecticut and Maryland.
By early September, New Jersey case managers were working with 130 families and had started rebuilding 26 homes and two churches, partnering with 10 organizations.
The conference had hosted more than 1,200 volunteers since late March at its 13 host sites.
Back at the Hall home in Atlantic City, volunteer teams repaired the ceiling and floor and repainted.
Elise Hall, a 64-year-old social worker, had gotten a referral to A Future with Hope.
In early October, Rick Hall, 46, a Federal Aviation Administration employee then on furlough because of the U.S. government shutdown, was happily surveying the progress.
“All of the people who come through, from Ohio, Pennsylvania, this group here (working as he spoke) from South Carolina, they’re beautiful. I couldn’t believe how kind and warm these people really have been.
“(God’s) children showed up to help us. That’s how we looked at it,” he said, displaying a small cross one volunteer had carved out of cedar.
“I’m not telling the story, I’m singing it.”
In Long Beach, Mentges, 48, is thankful that her cancer prognosis is good.
Recovery from the storm, which also affected her parents’ home on the same street, has been rocky. A recent$50,000 renovation from a second mortgage was lost, particularly after she was told by her insurance company not to do anything until an adjuster could come.
“When we took the hardware floor up, the subfloor was loaded with mold,” said Mentges, who has been staying at her sister’s house in nearby Lido Beach with her son, Brandon, 15, and daughter, Brianne, 21. “The wall was loaded with mold. We disinfected for almost a month.”
Bad experiences with two out-of-state contractors have left her with little money and a large amount of work still to be done. The house, now elevated, is still a work in progress.
But, thanks to a referral from another organization, Mentges has a connection with United Methodists now. A volunteer team from the California-Pacific Conference was helping insulate and hang drywall recently, and she’s hopeful the house will be functional enough before Christmas to allow the family to move back.