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Floods blamed on 'water war'

Floodwaters have poured into the Delaware Water Gap - again - and area residents in this mountain pass are growing angry over what they're now calling a "water war."

BY SUSAN KIM | DELAWARE WATER GAP, Pa. | July 16, 2006


"A lot of small communities and neighborhoods were terribly affected."

—Lydia Walker


Floodwaters have poured into the Delaware Water Gap - again - and area residents are growing angry over what they're now calling a "water war."

The Delaware Water Gap is nestled on the border of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where the Delaware River traverses a large ridge of the Appalachian Mountains.

Decades ago, reservoirs were constructed north of the Delaware Water Gap. Originally designed for flood control, the reservoirs were kept at 40 to 80 percent capacity, depending on the specific reservoir and the regulations governing it. After drought crept through the area during the last decade, at least some major metropolitan areas began keeping reservoirs at high levels - some nearly 100 percent - in order to ensure more drinking water reserves.

This means the cities have drinking water - but nearly any time there is a lot of rain, the Delaware Water Gap gets deluged.

"The mayor is just angry. A lot of people are angry. They see it as a social justice issue," explained Lydia Walker, a Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) team member who met recently with clergy and others in the area.

It is inherently unfair, agreed Ruth Ann Christopher, chair of the Lehigh Presbytery Council in Pennsylvania. "This is equivalent to people saying: 'I'm just concerned about me. As long as it isn't my community, I don't care.'

"It's a water war," added Christopher - "a very civilized water war, but it's a water war."

This is the third time in the past two years people in the Delaware Water Gap have faced severe flooding, reflected Doug Cronce, moderator of the Lehigh Presbytery.

Cronce, who believes that decisions regarding reservoirs north of Pennsylvania have negatively affected at least some communities in his state, said he also believes churches in the Delaware Water Gap will be an important voice in advocating for change.

"Local pastors are going to be trying to - and have already been somewhat successful in - getting that word out to higher powers," he said.

Aside from anger about unfair flood control, people in the Delaware Water Gap are worn out from trying to come back from repeat floods, Walker added.

"A lot of small communities and neighborhoods were terribly affected," she said. "There is a sense of hopelessness after the third year of flooding. People are asking themselves: should I stay? Should I rebuild my business? Then people were really confused about what FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) is going to do and what FEMA is not going to do. These are ordinary people facing terrible circumstances."

But ordinary people have responded in extraordinary ways, she added.

Unlike last year's flooding, residents this year had about 24 hours of warning. They began moving items from their homes and business to higher ground.

One church in the Delaware Water Gap, Church of the Mountain, spent hours helping people move their possessions - and saved a priceless portion of belongings.

"They have responded with hours and hours of support for their little community," said Walker, who said she understands why people love to live in the Delaware Water Gap. The picturesque area depends on tourism.

"It's a resort area," she said. "It's beautiful."

But the people who live there don't all live in large resort homes, she emphasized. "They rely on their tourist business. And they lost 50 percent of their income for the year because this happened right before the Fourth of July."

Local clergy are trying to advocate for residents, help them cope with the stress, and coordinate volunteers to clean up homes. Eventually, Walker predicted, those clergy will need to care for themselves.

"This is another situation where pastors are going to need pastoral care," she said. "But right now they are not ready to take time off. They're not ready to sit still long enough. Most of them are in the shock stage, and they're running on adrenalin."

Meanwhile, areas such as the Delaware Water Gap need volunteer teams.

The Lehigh Presbytery Helping Hands Care Team is one group that will help fill that role. Originally formed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the team is now using its experience on the Gulf Coast to help in its own state.

"We had just officially launched at our June Presbytery meeting," explained Dick McClain, Helping Hands chairman. "Little did we know that within almost two weeks, flooding would strike."

Team members helped care for people displaced by the flooding, and now they plan to help homeowners assess the damage. "We have had many meetings with ecumenical groups, and we have teamed up with the Lutherans and the United Church of Christ to form a faith partnership."

McClain said after damages are assessed, he plans to get teams to help do drywalling. "We've had experience in Mississippi and now we can put some of those skills to use in our own state. We plan to get additional training and to get a lot of lay people involved in this."

For now, said Walker and others, people are trying to cope day-by-day - and they're extraordinarily grateful for church support.

"You have people - say, small business owners - knowing they've lost 50 percent of their summer income. But then they talk about how their church family is there for them."

Whether people will clean up and rebuild again is still up in the air, said Walker. "This is one of those moments when people wonder: what is my faith telling me to do right now?"


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