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Sandy spares East Coast UU churches; damages Ohio congregation

New York, New Jersey churches reach out to congregants and prepare for Sunday services without power.
By Donald E. Skinner
11.2.12

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Vehicles from the New Jersey National Guard move through the flooded streets of Long Beach Island on their way to assist stranded residents. (New Jersey National Guard)

Little damage has been reported to buildings of Unitarian Universalist congregations in the wake of Tropical Storm Sandy, a massive superstorm that wreaked havoc from Florida to New England and as far inland as the Great Lakes. More than 13,000 Unitarian Universalists live in the hardest hit regions, however, and many have suffered substantial losses to their homes, businesses, and other property.

As of Friday, November 2, there were still congregations in New York and New Jersey that had not been heard from. “We know that some areas are still without power and communications,” said the Rev. Joan Van Becelaere, lead staff person for the Central East Regional Group (CERG) of UUA districts, which includes the Joseph Priestley, Metro New York, Ohio-Meadville, and St. Lawrence districts. “We may not know for several days if there is more damage. Certainly many UUs will have suffered individual losses.”

Several congregations were opening their doors as shelters to aid members of the community who are still without power—and many without water—five days after the storm. CERG established a relief fund to assist local work being supported by UU congregations.

Coastal areas around New York City and in New Jersey were hard hit October 29 and 30 by a storm surge that pushed water, sand, and building debris inland, destroying or damaging thousands of homes.

In Staten Island, N.Y., where the ocean surged into homes and at least 19 people have died, the Unitarian Church has opened its doors for community members “to check in, recharge their phones, connect to the Internet, warm up some mac and cheese, and as of late, to take a shower,” according to its website. The congregation is also acting as a staging site for donations to the Staten Island community. They’re particularly seeking warm clothes, blankets, shoes, food, cleaning supplies, batteries and flashlights, and demolition tools.

On Thursday the Rev. Catherine Torpey, minister of the 135-member South Nassau UU Congregation in Freeport, N.Y., on Long Island, was still trying to locate parishioners. The congregation’s building was undamaged, but many congregants had substantial property damage and were without power, she said.

With power out across a wide area, she was trying to go door-to-door in many cases to find people. “One person I was able to talk with lost his car. Another had five feet of water in the basement. One woman, who is blind, could hear the water gushing into her first floor,” she said.

Torpey noted that a lot of people did not evacuate before the storm because when Hurricane Irene came through the area in August 2011 their homes survived without damage.

She described the area as a war zone. “It’s a lot like Katrina. There’s no electricity, no heat, there’s sewage, sand, and water in many homes, and a few burned buildings,” she said. “I’m just very surprised that our own building didn’t have damage. We’re not far from the water.”

Torpey said the congregation would gather on Sunday not so much to worship, but “to let people tell their stories and share about how they’ve been helping each other out.” She added, “I’m just so glad these folks are part of a community that is rallying around them. My heart goes out to people who are not part of a community at a time like this. We are so very grateful for each other.”

Up and down the coast, from south of Washington, D.C., to north of Boston there were thousands of trees down from high winds. Power was not expected to be restored in many cases until after the weekend.

At the First Unitarian Society of Westchester, in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., there were several frantic hours on Thursday as leaders tried to find a generator and someone to rig up an electrical connection so that a 16-year-old member of the congregation who had cancer could be discharged from a hospital to a house that had lost power. The Rev. Peggy Clarke, the congregation’s minister, posted on Facebook Thursday night that it all came together. “Thank you so much for all the help you are offering each other,” she wrote.

Clarke had emailed members of the Hastings-on-Hudson congregation, who then forwarded it to members of the UU Fellowship of Northern Westchester, 20 miles away in Mt. Kisco. She quickly received three offers of generators. Members of her church travelled to Mt. Kisco to pick up the donated generator, and they found an electrician to install it quickly so the girl could return home safely.

Clarke has been frustrated by the difficulty of reaching parishioners, most of whom are without power or heat. Many, like her, also have no water, because they rely on wells that require electricity for pumps. First Unitarian Society did have power, however. Members have been stopping in all week to get warm and charge their electronic devices. On Friday, Clarke contacted the mayor of Hastings-on-Hudson to alert the town that the church would also be opening itself up to the wider community as a warming station. Members will also be preparing community dinners. “We’ll remain open as long as it’s needed,” she said.

Clarke shelved her planned sermon for Sunday and will be preaching instead on “The Perfect Storm.” It’s a reflection on our connection to the planet and to each other, she said.

In nearby Mt. Kisco, the congregation was planning to hold a Friday-night potluck with food that was starting to thaw in people’s freezers. On Sunday the congregation was planning to gather for a worship service—led by Matt Meyer, the Rev. Dr. Michael Tino, and Lara Campbell—in a building that was expected to be without heat or electricity. The topic: “Beyond Lightbulbs.”

Damage in Ohio

The UU Congregation of Greater Canton, in Canton, Ohio, although far inland, had serious roof and interior damage from the storm as it passed through Tuesday, October 30. Brad Taylor, president of the 50-member congregation, said high winds ripped gutters off the building. The damaged gutters caused water to pool on the flat roof and pour into the building through holes where the gutters had been.

He estimated that about half the building, a former office building that the congregation moved into about five years ago, suffered water damage, including the kitchen and youth rooms. The sanctuary was not damaged. He estimated it would cost approximately $30,000 to repair drywall, dry out carpets, fix the roof and gutters, and resolve other damage.

A day after the storm Taylor was trying to put the best face on the situation. “I hope there’s some way we can use this unexpected problem to create a positive. Maybe there’s a better way to design our space, and this might help us move forward on that more quickly than we had planned,” Taylor said.


Michelle Bates Deakin contributed reporting to this story.

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