Episcopalians continue to offer aid along long road to Sandy recovery

Lessons learned change lives, perhaps the whole church

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Aug 26, 2013

Youth volunteers from four San Francisco Bay Area Episcopal parishes worked in Brooklyn, New York, during early August to clean out a backyard and lower level of a house. The owner plans to transform the area into a community center for youth in the neighborhood to gather and learn computer skills. Photo: What Is Good? Tumblr blog

[Episcopal News Service] If you do not live in the Northeast or Mid-Atlantic of the United States, Hurricane Sandy, which devastated those states nearly 10 months ago, may be a distant memory. That is not the case for many who live in those areas, however, and Episcopalians continue to help during what is only the beginning of a multi-year recovery process.

While national news might show scenes of rebuilding and states are spending millions of dollars to assure traditional summer visitors that, in the words of New Jersey’s campaign, “we’re stronger than the storm,” life in parts of New Jersey, New York and Maryland is far from normal. The Oct. 29, 2012 storm caused an estimated $65.7 billion in damage, including destroying or damaging 650,000 homes, according to a recent federal report.

However, Episcopalians who wanted to help out right after the storm were often told there was no work for them to do.

“Folks early on thought that we’d be doing massive rebuilding at this point and there were going to be all kinds of mission opportunities here,” Keith Adams, Diocese of New Jersey disaster recovery coordinator, told Episcopal News Service during a recent interview.

There have been mission opportunities – volunteers have been put to work at other tasks such as helping to warehouse donations to feeding programs – but in recent months the stage has been set for a new and sustained round of house reconstruction and even new home construction.

Adams spoke to ENS at the Lighthouse Alliance Community Church in Tuckerton, New Jersey, which is serving as the hub of an ecumenical rebuilding effort organized by the local ministerial association. In the months since Sandy struck, Operation Blessing mucked out more than 100 homes, many of which need repair and reconstruction. The diocese and the association committed to rebuilding as many as 30 homes during the 2013 summer. On the day Adams met with ENS, a mission team from Grace Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Virginia was in the middle of a week’s worth of work in some of those homes.

The new round of mission opportunities has come about because most people have reached the decision point in the typical post-disaster cycle of relief and recovery efforts. The process of homeowners applying for and receiving disaster assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency ended in May. The end of July was the deadline for applying for financial assistance from various homeowner-assistance programs funded with federal Community Block Grant Development money.

“It just takes a lot, a lot of time to work through a long-term recovery process,” said Adams.

During those months of limbo, “folks don’t know whether they’re going to stay, they’re going to rebuild, or what the amount is going to be from their insurance companies,” said Adams, a retired federal disaster management expert with more than 30 years of experience.

In addition, many homeowners covered by the federal National Flood Insurance Program have learned the hard way about a small clause in their policies that denies coverage if floodwaters move the soil around their homes and that movement cracks the foundation.

And there is an added layer of frustration and delay, according to the Rev. Michael Sniffen, rector of the Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. FEMA and some homeowners’ private insurance companies have given them conflicting information about who will pay which claims first.

“It becomes this endless loop and in the meantime they’re still without power, without water, without an adequate place to live,” said Sniffen, whose parish has been involved in Sandy recovery efforts since shortly after the storm.

Not all homeowners yet know which of the programs for which they have applied will grant them money, or they have learned that their applications were rejected or not fully funded. Earlier this month, the Asbury Park (New Jersey) Press solicited stories from people who have been denied money from the biggest of those programs, the $600 million Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation program, and who thus plan to walk away from their Sandy-damaged homes. On Aug. 23, the newspaper ran a story about one such couple forced to choose whether to rebuild or leave.

ne of the volunteers from a group of youth from four San Francisco Bay Area Episcopal parishes works on the infrastructure of a building in Brooklyn, New York, damaged by Hurricane Sandy. Photo: What Is Good? Tumblr blog

One of the volunteers from a group of youth from four San Francisco Bay Area Episcopal parishes works on the infrastructure of a building in Brooklyn, New York, damaged by Hurricane Sandy. Photo: What Is Good? Tumblr blog

To help residents navigate their post-Sandy world, Episcopal Relief & Development is supporting the work of disaster recovery coordinators such as Adams in the dioceses of Easton (Maryland), New Jersey and New York. These coordinators are working with Episcopal congregations, ecumenical and community-based groups and a range of government agencies to assess needs and organize response activities, according to an Episcopal Relief & Development press release.

The work, which is just beginning, is mainly happening via what are known as Long-Term Recovery Groups. There are 16 in the state of New Jersey and a main function of the groups is to provide case management services to help families and individuals hurt by Sandy meet their unmet needs.

It is a big task. The groups have a total of slightly less than 100 case managers across New Jersey. In Monmouth County, one of the hardest hit by Sandy but just one of nine counties that were affected, 35,000 people need an appointment with a case manager, Adams said.

“So this is not going to be a matter of a couple of months or a couple of years,” he said. “This is going to go on probably for several years.”

Adams recently put out an e-mail call for Episcopalians in the diocese to volunteer to help those groups with their work.

In addition to the work in Tuckerton, Episcopalians have helped rehabilitate nearly 100 homes on Staten Island and there are another 60 homes in line to be re-done in the Atlantic City area, according to Adams.

“We anticipate going forward that we’re going to have more and more homes coming in [line for work],” he said. “This year is probably not going to be the big reconstruction season. Next year will probably be our biggest chunk of that.”

And the message to Episcopalians is a clear one: “There’s going to be tons of opportunities next year,” according to Adams.

He predicted five or six sites across the dioceses of New Jersey and New York for rebuilding and construction work.

Sniffen said that “for years we’re going to continue to need crews of helping hands coming in with all sorts of skills.”

The work in the Sandy-hit areas is not totally like recent work in other disaster areas, Adams said.

In a lot of cases “there’s not going to be an opportunity to rebuild homes” because many structures have been condemned and are being torn down, he said. The resulting vacant lots are often bought by people looking to build bigger homes than the ones that were lost. In addition, some owners face tens of thousands of dollars in additional rebuilding costs to raise their homes above flood level, sometimes by as much as 12 feet, in order to comply with new federal flood insurance regulations. Those pressures have begun to price some people out of the market.

The Diocese of New Jersey wants to help mitigate that situation by building affordable housing on property once occupied by closed churches. Adams discusses those plans in the video below.

Episcopal Relief & Development also has helped set up regional volunteer coordination to connect mission teams with projects in impacted dioceses. All three dioceses – as well as the Diocese of Long Island where Sniffen’s church is located – are hosting mission teams.

Elizabeth Keenan, the regional volunteer coordinator, is making sure that each work site is getting volunteers “so that not everyone wants to come to New Jersey all at once and New York has no volunteers or Maryland has no volunteers,” she told ENS.

Summer is the big volunteer season, Keenan said, owing to school vacations and the fact that many people plan to take vacations from work during the summer. But she hopes volunteers will think about coming during the off-season.

“There’s such a need [for people] to come volunteer or we’re not going to be able to rebuild and we’re not going to actually survive the storm,” said Keenan, a New Jersey native who lives in Medford, New Jersey and who was working for Americorps when Sandy hit and helped FEMA begin taking disaster-assistance applications the day before the storm hit on Oct. 29, 2012.

Keenan said her work has strengthened her faith. “You really do see the work of God in the volunteers,” she said.

And many of the mission trip volunteers say they have been transformed by their experiences.

Sniffen’s parish recently housed a group of young people and their adult advisors from All Souls Episcopal Parish in Berkeley, California; Christ Episcopal Church in Alameda, California; St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, Danville, California; St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Walnut Creek, California; and Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Pleasant Hill, California. The volunteers worshiped with the Brooklyn parish on Aug. 4 and one young person spoke during the service about how they have learned about retributive and restorative justice.

“My mind was sort of blown,” said Sniffen. “They were talking about wanting to be involved in this relief effort in a way that brings about restorative justice; that is healing for everyone involved.”

This group and their predecessors tell members of St. Luke and St. Matthew that while they came to help and assumed they were going to inspire the storm survivors, their experience was more multi-dimensional.

“They were so gung-ho to come and help and sort of be cheerleaders and what they found was that they were transformed by the communities that they’re visiting and that they’re helping,” said Sniffen. “There’s just so much mutual inspiration and spiritual uplift that happens on these trips. We all feel encouraged.”

The parish has been in need of some encouragement because, while most members were not impacted by Sandy, an arsonist struck the church two days before Christmas 2012. They have been worshipping in the parish hall ever since.

“The congregation is sort of a displaced community and we’re serving people who are displaced. And the people who are here on these trips are displaced of their own choice for a time,” Sniffen said. “So everyone just relates to one another on a basic human level and everyone is motivated by loving service. It’s really just an opportunity to come together across so many differences.”

Churches have always played a key role in helping people recover from disasters but Sniffen said the post-Sandy work has taught him and the congregation some lessons. “There’s a business of relief that kind of builds up around these disasters. Sometimes that can be very helpful and some aspects of it are either unhelpful or even beyond that can be hurtful,” he said.

“Faith communities can help people navigate that. Rather than be another layer, we can see ourselves as neighbors. We’re not an agency that someone comes to to fill out a form; we’re just walking with people through these various processes.”

Another lesson learned in the aftermath of Sandy, Sniffen said, is how much more Episcopal churches could do, if they made some basic changes. For instance, the St. Luke and St. Matthew vestry is considering renovating its kitchen and bathrooms, including adding showers, to make the church more readily adaptable as a disaster shelter and to make it easier to host work groups.

Now whenever a mission trip is at the church, showers are a major challenge with Sniffen calling the local YMCA to see if the volunteers can shower there. Or, if the group is small enough, Sniffen lets them shower at the rectory, and tries to get the same hospitality from other Episcopal churches. The East Bay group showered at St. John’s Episcopal Church, also in Brooklyn.

Looking to the longer term, Sniffen wonders whether the Episcopal Church ought to consider designating specific parishes as regional hubs for disaster-recovery services.

And, whether it is infrastructure changes or changes in attitude, Sniffen and Adams say those on the frontlines of disaster recovery are learning things they can share with the wider Episcopal Church as it discusses ways to be more “nimble” and responsive to the world it serves.

“If we look at things like natural disasters and community crises to be our teachers, we learn very quickly how to become nimble because the need is so obvious to us,” Sniffen said. “So the lessons that we’ve learned doing disaster relief are lessons that I hope we will be able to incorporate into all of the other aspects of our corporate life.”

— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.


Comments (3)

  1. Marylin Day says:

    While rebuilding homes is of primary importance, cleaning and restoring the watershed areas are also important. A wonderful organization that helps restore these places is the Sierra Club byoffering groups of like-minded individuals an oppotunity to help restore our environments around the US and the world. My girlfriends and I have completed several of these and they are very rewarding. (Four of us are registered to help at the NJ seashore watershed this October.) For more info see the Sierra Club website and click on “Service”.

  2. Sharyn Mitzo says:

    Christ Episcopal Church, Alameda (http://www.christchurchalameda.org/) was also one of the Bay Area churches that sent youth and an adult advisor. Thank you for this wonderful article.

    1. Mary Frances Schjonberg says:

      The story has been corrected to reflect Christ Church’s participation. My apologies to all the folks in Alameda!

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