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Hurricane season: Loss and recovery

September 5, 2012

On a bright August day in New York’s Catskill Mountains, I watched my son and his friends strap on life jackets, grab their inner tubes and board the bus that would take them to the drop-off point at Esopus Creek. As usual, they had a blast riding the water.

Seven months earlier, I hadn’t been at all certain this time-honored summer activity would be possible this year. A previous visit over the snow-less New Year’s holiday had revealed just how scarred the creek and the rest of the area remained after being ravaged by Tropical Storm Irene the previous August.

In fact, Irene’s impact, compounded by earlier spring flooding and Tropical Storm Lee, which quickly followed, affected much of the U.S. East Coast, including North Carolina, where more than 35,000 people sought aid after then-Hurricane Irene damaged or destroyed thousands of homes. The United Methodist Committee on Relief has contributed more than $1 million to the recovery and more volunteer work teams are needed.

Yes, it’s hurricane season again, a time to anticipate watches and warnings and a time to reflect on storms already blown past.

Just as I was feeling optimistic about the recovery in the Catskills on Irene’s first anniversary, it became apparent that Isaac, a new tropical storm, was threatening to make the 7th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29 quite memorable, and not in a good way.

The downpour from Irene caused the Esopus to flood out the town of Phoencia, where we rent the inner tubes. The inland flooding was duplicated around the region. Last week, the torrential rains of Isaac pumped water into overloaded rivers, flooding out Mississippi communities far from the Gulf Coast. As Wayne Napier, disaster response coordinator for the United Methodist Mississippi Conference put it, “the scope of our work grew geographically with every hour that went by.”

Without the “our work” part of it, that would be a dismal observation.

The one thing I’ve learned over the years I’ve covered our denomination’s response to disasters is that we get better at it each time. That includes the efforts of the United Methodist Committee on Relief, United Methodist Volunteers in Mission, annual (regional) conference disaster coordinators and individuals at the district and local levels.

Last month, for example, marked the 20th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew in South Florida, which until Katrina was the costliest storm in modern U.S. history. UMCOR’s use of the then-vacant Sager Brown campus in 1992 as a staging ground to distribute relief supplies for Andrew gave a new purpose to a historic African-American mission site and led to the official establishment of the UMCOR Depot.

After Andrew, United Methodists had a more efficient way of getting needed supplies to disaster areas. At the same time, the new depot created opportunities for hands-on mission. At home, congregations could put together “buckets” or “kits” for use in disasters as well as school kits and other items for other mission projects. Volunteers also could travel to Sager Brown to help pack and load supplies.

By the time Katrina arrived, UMCOR had perfected the art of “case management” – essentially helping individual survivors pull their lives back together – to the point where the Federal Emergency Management Association turned over $66 million to Katrina Aid Today, a consortium of social service organization managed by UMCOR.

What has become clear to me since Katrina is the depth of the United Methodist bench when it comes to disasters. If we were a professional basketball team, no one could beat us.

Many, many church members have been trained to respond to disasters. After Irene, designated “early responders” like Linda Cooper in the Upper New York Conference, guided clean-up teams, while other volunteers, such the Rev. Deborah Estey of Vermont, put her “muck out” training a few months earlier to good use.

In Catskill towns like Prattsville, Lexington, Fleishmanns, Margaretville and Phoencia, members of the New York Annual Conference made have worked long and hard on the Irene recovery.

Part of that recovery is the opportunity to go tubing again on the Esopus.

Such activity may seem insignificant, even frivolous, compared to the rebuilding of homes and infrastructure. But, the recreational lure provided by Phoencia’s two tube rental businesses brings customers to the town’s restaurants and shops as well, an important benefit to an economically-depressed region.

It’s a visible step back to vitality.