With Harvey still drenching the South, Episcopalians minister to neighbors
From Coastal Bend of Texas to Florida, flooding rains wreak havoc
Posted Aug 30, 2017
[Episcopal News Service] Robert Jordan, senior warden of Trinity Episcopal Church in Baytown, Texas, says it was just something that had to be done: going out onto the Houston floodwaters in his 18-foot aluminum boat to discover people who needed rescuing. So far, he has found about 30 folks. Some he rescued from their garages; some he plucked from second-story windows. A few times he waded into homes to find people he heard calling out.
“It’s a really eerie, spooky kind of feeling because you go in and I wouldn’t say you’re scared but you are just very, very aware of the seriousness of the situation,” Jordan told Episcopal News Service by phone Aug. 30. “Then, when you have to go into the house to get them out, it really puts everything in perspective for you.”
A few suddenly homeless Trinity members — and some of their animals — are staying in Jordan’s house in Baytown, which is east of Houston proper and just northwest of Trinity Bay.
Jordan worked with two rescuers. Those men waited in pickup trucks for him to bring people out so they could ferry them to safer places.
“You have to go by yourself if you can, because you don’t know how many people you’re going to pick up,” he said. “If you take anybody with you, it gives you less capacity.”
The days since Hurricane Harvey swamped the Houston area are running together for Jordan, so he said it is hard to remember what he has done on which day. But, early on, he went to Trinity and saw some water encroaching, so he dug a ditch to divert it.
The 10-year-old church building has some minor damage and a few leaks, but nothing so bad as to prevent nearly 150 people from sheltering there overnight on Aug. 29. People from all denominations have come to the church to help and to donate supplies, Jordan said.
Piloting his rugged boat through an area where only some treetops, and no houses, were visible above the water shocked Jordan. “I’ve been here all my life and I have seen it bad but never anything like this,” he said.
While some Episcopalians like Jordan joined hundreds of rescuers, official and volunteer, other Episcopalians were being rescued. Two Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers in a boat with a Houston Fire Department captain rescued Bob Schorr, Diocese of Texas manager of church plants & strategic development, and his family from their flooded home on Aug. 29.
The family had hoped to ride out the storm at home. That was until they had 6 feet of water in the garage and 4 feet in the house.
“By the time we left this morning, there were U.S. Coast Guard and National Guard helicopters overhead and a flotilla of boats, wave runners and other volunteers patrolling the street looking to take people to safety,” Schorr wrote in a Facebook post after getting to a friend’s home. “I told Nancy, ‘I think it is time to leave.’ I was no longer convinced that we could stay dry on the second floor. I thought it better to be rescued through the front door than out the second-floor bedroom window.”
He said all 30 homes in his section of Kingwood, one of the last areas in Houston to flood, were inundated.
“Just like any loss or death, your emotions are raw — and well up without warning,” he wrote. “We have just begun the process of recovery — and for us and everyone in Houston and South Texas, it will be a journey of months and years, not days and weeks.”
Rescued and evacuated people are spread over the Houston area and beyond. Close to 10,000 have been at the George R. Brown Convention Center. Diocese of Texas Assistant Bishop Hector Monterroso was at the convention center on Aug. 28, and the next day he visited a Red Cross shelter set up in the gym at Forge for Families, in Houston’s predominately African American Third Ward.
The former bishop of Costa Rica, who recently moved to Houston, said he hopes he can contribute his experience of living through past hurricanes that wreaked damage across Central America. At both shelters he met people from many countries who now call Houston home. Monterroso also spoke with French tourists who got caught up in the hurricane, losing their money and their passports.
Regardless of their languages and their social status prior to the hurricane, the bishop said, people in the shelters are finding ways to communicate, to build community and to support each other.
“My first idea was to go there and to be around and look for the opportunity to pray with the people. After some minutes, I discovered that when people saw a clergyperson, they wanted to talk and share their concerns, their situation, their realities and their hopes,” the bishop said. “The most important experience that I had with them is that they feel thankful for their lives. They lost many things. They left their houses and their personal belongings but they say, ‘Thank God, we are here. We are alive and we are safe.’”
By the weekend, Texas Archdeacon Russ Oeschel, head of the diocesan disaster relief efforts, will have deacons and lay chaplains in the hardest-hit neighborhoods to offer comfort and emergency funds, the diocese said on Facebook Aug. 29. Spiritual care teams are already visiting the shelter at the convention center.
The Very Rev. Barkley Thompson, dean of Christ Church Cathedral in Houston, is helping to coordinate the rectors of Houston’s largest Episcopal churches to respond in the recovery effort. The cathedral was without power for five days until Aug. 30, and some buildings took on water, according to a Facebook post.
“I give thanks for each of you who have offered a warm, dry bed, a hot meal or simply comfort to your neighbors,” Texas Bishop Andy Doyle wrote on Facebook. “While it is frustrating to see so much devastation and not be able to fix it, we must first be safe and not create more work for our first responders. Where you have been able to help, it is the reflection of Christ’s love that is shared and it is this love that will bring hope in the darkest moments for many people.”
Some Harvey evacuees are heading to Dallas, and the nearby Diocese of Forth Worth is updating a webpage about how Episcopalians there can help. Dallas Bishop George Sumner has urged Episcopalians there to donate to Episcopal Relief & Development.
Episcopal Relief & Development is partnering with the Diocese of Texas to provide emergency support in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, the largest rainstorm in the history of the United States. Emergency support includes pastoral care, gift cards and funding for temporary housing, according to an Aug. 30 web update.
Meanwhile, the towns that took Harvey’s first hits are starting the arduous process of cleaning up and facing the future. Volunteers from Trinity by the Sea Episcopal Church in Port Aransas, Texas, are among them. The Rev. James Derkits, Trinity’s rector, said Aug. 30 that he is dividing his time three ways: trying to recover his family’s possessions from the wrecked rectory, seeing that the Trinity campus gets cleaned up and working with the city to get access for church volunteers who can help in the community.
The parish hall opened on Aug. 29 to serve as a staging center for Texas Episcopal volunteers. They’re starting to line up, he said. In addition, Episcopalians at St. Peter’s by-the-Sea in Gulfport, Mississippi, “are just waiting for us to say come on,” Derkits said. St. Peter’s was one of the churches Hurricane Katrina damaged on Aug. 29, 2005.
Derkits has a lot of help. Brother-in-law Brad Allen is working at the rectory and Jennifer Wickham is helping coordinate volunteers. Wickham, who lives in Corpus Christi where her husband is rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church, is the development coordinator for Saint Vincent Centre for Handicapped Children in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
“It’s very grassroots right now, and so there’s a lot of independent groups of people that are beginning to coordinate with each other and share resources,” Wickham said of the volunteer effort. The Episcopal congregations in Corpus Christi are working together to help the communities to their south that Harvey damaged the most.
“The big work is damage assessment and identifying what the major tasks are and trying to figure out how best to communicate that to people so that nobody needs a boss to get it done,” she said.
Wickham posted a detailed account of the work on Facebook early on Aug. 30. She and others are struggling to communicate their needs because of inconsistent cellular phone service and internet access.
Prayer surrounds the work. The doors of the church are open “for people to come and pray if they need to,” Derkits said.
He has been livestreaming Morning Prayer on Facebook. “It’s been helpful because our people are so scattered all over the place and at least the ones who are on Facebook can be connected,” he said. “And it’s been helpful to me as their pastor to have some sense of providing for their spiritual needs as we’re spread out all over place.”
The city’s volunteer coordinator joined Morning Prayer on Aug. 30 before briefing the Episcopalians on where volunteers are needed in the city.
The Diocese of Western Louisiana covers the area where Harvey made its third landfall at about 4 a.m. Aug. 30. Diocesan disaster relief coordinator the Rev. Deacon Lois Maberry told ENS by phone on the afternoon of Aug. 30 that she hadn’t heard how the parishes were faring around Lake Charles, where the eye of Tropical Storm Harvey crossed over at about 8 a.m.
“It will be affecting quite a few parishes. We have to let it pass and assess,” Maberry said from the diocesan office about 300 miles north of Lake Charles in Shreveport. “We’re getting rain, and it’s increasing. We’re anticipating the storm will pass right over us in a swath tonight.”
In a statement released midday Aug. 30, Bishop Jacob W. Owensby of the Western Louisiana diocese said that schools and offices have been closed in several of the parishes. Floodwaters encroached on some homes and businesses in the south and west areas of the diocese. Owensby is in the process of connecting with clergy in charge of congregations to check on their status.
“We wait together, not only to see what this storm brings, but also to discern how to be most helpful to those in need,” Owensby said. He continued later in the statement, “You are in my prayers for safety. Together we will get through this and bring aid to those in need.”
Farther east, in New Orleans, the rain was most intense late Aug. 28 and into Aug. 29, said the Very Rev. David A. duPlantier, dean of Christ Church Cathedral. Schools closed Aug. 29, but many were open Aug. 30, he said. The cathedral closed the afternoon of Aug. 29 so staff could be home, but it opened the following day, as staff cautiously went about their business. No churches have been damaged so far, the dean said.
New Orleans is used to periodic flooding, duPlantier said, so they’ve checked on the parishioners they know are most at risk and learned that some people had water creep to the edges of their homes, but not much else.
The worst effect of Hurricane Harvey in New Orleans so far? Post-traumatic stress syndrome. Aug. 29 marked the 12-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which was responsible for 1,833 deaths.
“It’s a very emotional time here even when there’s not a storm coming here or elsewhere,” duPlantier said of the day. He was dean then and was in the thick of recovery and relief efforts.
The TV images of harrowing rescues in the floodwaters around Houston are bringing back memories among her friends and family, said Karen Mackey, Louisiana diocesan communications coordinator.
“We’re relieved the rain hasn’t been as heavy as predicted, and we’re all nervous, but it’s just that time of year,” Mackey said. “We’re just praying for our friends and hoping this thing gets out and over quickly so they can start healing and recovering.”
The Louisiana diocese has asked its churches to take up a special collection for Episcopal Relief & Development’s fund for Harvey at Sunday services on Sept. 3.
“We are people who have known firsthand the generosity of others. Give what you can,” Louisiana Bishop Morris K. Thompson urged the diocese on Aug. 29.
Harvey’s rains and tidal waves have affected areas as far as the Diocese of Southwest Florida, where people were trapped in their homes and some were seen boating along the streets. St. George’s Episcopal Church in Bradenton opened to help people in a flooded mobile home park nearby, said Garland Pollard, Southwest Florida diocesan communications director.
For the Rt. Rev. Dabney Smith, bishop of the Southwest Florida diocese, the flood images in Houston also bring back terrible memories. He was rector of Trinity Church in New Orleans when Katrina hit. Smith remembers piles of garbage as high as rooftops, the constant smell of decay and the sound of gunshots while he was trying to sleep at night.
“It was a horrible time, and it was a holy time,” Smith told ENS on Aug. 30. Once the flooding receded, he served on the Jericho Road Episcopal Housing Initiative, begun at the New Orleans cathedral to create desperately needed housing for Katrina victims.
“One of things I learned from my Katrina experience that I think they will learn in Houston is that, amidst systematic failures, there’s the power of the church. People from all walks of life came together to care for people who just needed compassion. I’d hear people say, ‘Thank God for the church.’”
— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is interim managing editor of the Episcopal News Service. Amy Sowder is a special correspondent for the Episcopal News Service, as well as a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York.
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