PENNSYLVANIA: Flooded neighbors not forgotten

Grant to assist diocese to build on initiative of local parish

Posted Jun 4, 2012

[Diocese of Bethlehem] The Diocese of Bethlehem has received a grant from Episcopal Relief & Development to implement a plan intended to help residents of West Pittston still recovering from last September’s flooding while also preparing Episcopal churches in the region to respond to future disasters. The grant comes in addition to other assistance and resources. The announcement was made May 31 by Bishop Paul V. Marshall.

This partnership with Episcopal Relief & Development, combined with funds provided by the diocese – 68 churches in 14 eastern and northeastern Pennsylvania counties – will assist the recovery of the West Pittston area and the establishment of a regional disaster recovery and outreach center owned by the diocese and run through a coordinated effort among the Luzerne County regional parishes. The center will be located in St. George’s Episcopal Church in Nanticoke and is planned to include storage and gathering space in addition to the worship area.

The diocesan community is also adopting a parish preparedness initiative. Using resources and training provided by Episcopal Relief & Development, each parish in the diocese will establish individualized plans to protect their resources and resume services as quickly as possible during a disaster, while also responding to the needs of their parishioners and the community at large.

After the September flood, Trinity Episcopal Church of West Pittston took the initiative to assist their neighbors in every way they could.

“Two months ago,” Marshall said, “Father John Major and Janine Ungvarsky hosted a clergy meeting to review the progress in ministry to flood victims along the Susquehanna, particularly in the West Pittston area. Clergy from Tunkhannock to Honesdale and points north and south of that Route 6 line were present. There were several joy-producing moments even in the recollection of devastation. In the first place, Trinity and its friends have been persevering, long-term servants of their neighbors, and have found that to be transformative of their life. Secondly, the good people at Episcopal Relief & Development have been nothing but helpful in their conversations. I left the event heartened by the clergy turnout, the persistence of Trinity’s priest and people, and the knowledge that Episcopal Relief & Development knows that we are here and are trying. I want to publicly thank all of them.”

Although it has been eight months since the combined effects of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee caused the Susquehanna River to overflow into a number of small Northeastern Pennsylvania towns in September 2011, many residents continue to struggle to rebuild and recover. Water levels from this flood exceeded all previous crests and inundated areas that were never considered part of the flood plain. As a result, many residents of this area were not required to have flood insurance, and the few hundred who had insurance did not have adequate coverage to cope with the unprecedented extent of the devastation. This left many residents without sufficient funds to renovate their homes.

First-response agencies provided critical assistance immediately after the flood, but longer-term efforts are being led by local organizations with direct ties to impacted communities. Episcopal Relief & Development and the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem have partnered in a multi-faceted effort to provide continued relief for those impacted by the September flooding, and enhance preparations for future disasters.

Several areas of the diocese were affected by the flooding. Among the hardest hit communities was West Pittston, along with nearby towns of Duryea, Harding, Port Blanchard and Plains. A combined total of more than 1,500 homes and businesses in this area were flooded, many sustaining first and second floor damage. Dozens of structures, including two entire mobile home parks, had to be razed as a result of the flood waters, and many renters were permanently displaced from these communities.

While Trinity Church West Pittston was spared by one block, more than a third of that town was not so lucky. When Trinity representatives reported on the devastation faced by their neighbors, the people and parishes of the Diocese of Bethlehem under the leadership of Marshall responded by donating thousands of dollars in store gift cards, cash and other items that volunteers from Trinity and their community distributed to those affected by the flooding. The bishop made an immediate grant to get relief efforts moving.

In the midst of these local recovery efforts, the diocese welcomed Deacon Elaine Clements of the Diocese of Louisiana, a member of Episcopal Relief & Development’s Partners in Response team, on a visit to West Pittston and the surrounding towns. Partners in Response is a group of clergy and lay people from around the country with experience in disaster response, who assist impacted dioceses and congregations in caring for themselves and discerning their role in disaster recovery. Clements offered insight and advice for all facets of disaster response and recovery, from ways to coordinate outreach efforts to how to protect clergy and volunteers from the stress of dealing with a prolonged recovery process.

“My real role was simply to let the congregation and leadership hear themselves as they brainstormed and created a long range program plan out of what had been their initial and immediate actions to help a community in need,” said Clements.

The Rev. John Major, rector at Trinity West Pittston and interim Diocese of Bethlehem representative to Episcopal Relief & Development said Clements was a valuable and very welcome resource at a critical point in the parish’s response efforts.

“Deacon Elaine reassured us that our plan to start small and be there for our neighbors for the long haul was the way to go, and pointed us towards the many resources available to us, such as those offered by Episcopal Relief & Development,” Major said. “It’s comforting to know we can rely on her guidance and support as we go forward with a recovery process that experts tell us could take three years or more.”

With the encouragement and guidance of Episcopal Relief & Development and its Partners in Response, the Diocese of Bethlehem reached out to Moravian and Lutheran ecumenical partners, and will use funding pooled from local and grant sources  ( $72,796  from Episcopal Relief & Development) to coordinate renovations to some of the neediest and most devastated homes. Episcopal Relief & Development also supported and encouraged a plan put forth by Trinity and the diocese to use a deconsecrated church in an area outside the flood plain as a regional disaster response and outreach center. This church building, which is centrally located to the 10 active churches in flood-prone Luzerne County, will be repurposed to serve as a collection and distribution site for disaster supplies and outreach, reestablishing the Episcopal presence in this community in a very meaningful way.

In addition to preparing the Luzerne County region to better respond to the needs of its community through this new regional outreach center, the Diocese of Bethlehem is also adopting Episcopal Relief & Development’s parish preparedness initiative. Using resources and training provided by Episcopal Relief & Development, the parishes of the diocese will establish individualized plans to protect their resources and resume services as quickly as possible during a disaster, while also responding to the needs of their parishioners and the community at large. A permanent fund has been created to enable instantaneous response to future disasters.

“I’ve seen firsthand how important a preparedness plan is, and how unprepared we really are,” Major said. “Getting 68 parishes ready to respond to a range of different disasters could be a real challenge, but I’m very impressed by the wealth of resources we have available from Episcopal Relief & Development and the enthusiasm of their staff to help us with the task.”

The Diocese of Bethlehem will soon welcome a return visit by members from Episcopal Relief & Development’s Partners in Response team. They will help Major and a recently formed diocesan Disaster Recovery and Community Resiliency team to assess their efforts to date, and provide recommendations and guidance as the Diocese moves forward with the outreach center, ecumenical renovation projects and the preparedness initiative.