Vermont Episcopal churches assess flood damage, begin cleanup

Posted Jul 13, 2023

Residents look over the damage July 11 after flooding from recent rain storms in Montpelier, Vermont. Photo: Brian Snyder/REUTERS

[Diocese of Vermont] As communities across Vermont assess damage from what Gov. Phil Scott has called “historic and catastrophic” storms, Vermont Bishop Shannon MacVean-Brown and her staff report that Brookhaven Home for Boys in Chelsea has lost an entire building, while several congregations have already begun responding to neighbors in need.

Vermont received as much as 9 inches of rain causing major flooding over two days July 9-10, and more heavy rain is forecast for coming days.

MacVean-Brown and her staff had spoken with the clergy or lay leader in charge at each of the diocese’s 42 congregations by July 11 evening. Several congregations reported flooded basements and grounds and are assessing damage and losses.

“We give thanks to God that no deaths have been reported in Vermont, but we know that thousands of people have lost homes and businesses,” MacVean-Brown said. “We are committed to supporting our congregations in responding to the needs of the communities we serve, just as our diocese’s leaders did in 2011 in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene.”

Brookhaven, a diocesan-owned residential treatment environment for boys with severe emotional or behavioral disorders, lost the building containing its gymnasium to floodwaters, MacVean-Brown said, and until this morning, staff were unable to report to work to relieve their colleagues who were on duty when the rains began.

Sarah Cowan, president of the diocese’s Board of Trustees, traveled to Mission Farm today, where some property suffered damage from mudslides, and the Rev. Walter Brownridge, canon to the ordinary for cultural transformation, will visit both Mission Farm and Brookhaven on July 13. MacVean-Brown will travel to Christ Church, Montpelier, where the congregation is meeting the needs of its community even while water is still standing in the church building on July 13.

A diocesan Disaster Relief Committee met July 12 to begin coordinating the response to hard-hit communities. Led by Brownridge, the group includes the Rev. Lars Hunter of St. Michael’s, Brattleboro; the Rev. Charlie Nichols and the Rev. Geof Smith of St. Barnabas Norwich, St. Paul’s White River Junction, and St. Martin’s Fairlee; deacons; the Rev. Bram Kranichfeld of All Saints South Burlington and St. Paul’s, Vergennes and the Rev. Rick Swanson of St. John’s-in-the-Mountains, Stowe; Cowan, a member of St. Paul’s Vergennes; and Ann Cooper, a member of St. Stephen’s, Middlebury. Cooper, Hunter and Swanson were involved in the diocese’s 2011 response to Hurricane Irene. Smith will chair the committee.

At Good Shepherd, Barre, the church sits above the town and is “high and dry,” the Rev. Earl Kooperkamp reported as he was returning from delivering water to the Good Samaritan Haven, the region’s only shelter for unhoused people. Barre’s town center is badly flooded, he said, and one parishioner who was evacuated is staying in the rectory.

“For now, we’re checking in to make sure everyone is safe and coordinating the repair of damage. And then, we need to make sure that people have the spiritual strength to cope with this,” he said. “We want people to know that we love them and care about them. A couple of people I’ve talked with are still afraid, and I’ve told them that the most frequent command in the Bible is ‘fear not.’ We need to trust God to be with us and trust our neighbors to be with us.”

While the immediate crisis will pass, Kooperkamp said that the flood underscores the need for the church to step up its work against climate change.

“Look what the hell we’ve done to our climate,” he said. “In 12 years, we’ve had two 100-year floods. That should teach us something. We have a project to get the church off of fossil fuels, and the urgency of that project really came home on Monday.”

Photos of the flooded streets of Montpelier, Vermont’s capital, have been broadcast around the world. While spared the worst of the damage, Christ Church, Montpelier is pumping floodwater from its basement and first floor, sharing a borrowed sump pump with the nearby Unitarian and UCC congregations. “Today we spent a lot of time ripping out carpets with the help of local volunteers from the community and the parish,” the Rev. Kevin Holland Sparrow, the parish’s rector, reported. “The church itself still has a bit of standing water in it.”

But despite the cleanup work, the parish’s regular Wednesday feeding ministry continued on schedule on July 12.

“Since our building has been flooded, we served our meal outside both to our regular clients and relief workers who are helping to clear up the city,” he said.

“We knew we couldn’t use the kitchen to prepare food,” the Rev. Beth Ann Maier, the congregation’s deacon, said. “So we just made it at home. People roasted hot dogs, made egg salad sandwiches, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and desserts and brought drinks, and then we walked around downtown to tell everyone we had lunch. We fed more than 100 people.”

Other community programs are gearing up, including one that began during the COVID lockdown to provide restaurant meals to people in need, and the church will have more meals to distribute soon, she said.

“There’s a lot of feeding going on, and a lot that is still needed.”

Brownridge, who is overseeing the diocese’s emergency response, has met with Episcopal Relief & Development to begin the process of making emergency grants available to congregations like Good Shepherd, Christ Church and others that can help feed, clothe and house their neighbors.

“This is phase one, in which we are asking our congregations to tell us about their emergency needs so we can respond through the generosity of Episcopal Relief & Development,” he said. “Next will be phase two when we assess the longer-term recovery needs of the communities we serve and how our diocese can play a part.”

Good Shepherd’s congregation recently raised several thousand dollars for Episcopal Relief & Development’s work with Ukrainian refugees and earthquake survivors in Turkey and Syria, Kooperkamp said.

“I wish we didn’t need it, but now, Episcopal Relief & Development is going to be there for us as well,” he said.

Contributions for storm relief may be made to Episcopal Relief & Development’s Disaster Fund.