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Neighbors unite after flooding

"I'm running out of ways to describe things," said Jeff Wargo on a sunny Monday afternoon.


"One woman was in here three times a day for the meals all last week, but now tonight she's bringing in a turkey and gravy for everyone else."

—Dorish Marsh

"I'm running out of ways to describe things," said a smiling Jeff Wargo on a sunny Monday afternoon.

The pastor of St. John's United Church of Christ in Riegelsville, Wargo has been running non-stop since severe flooding struck the town more than a week ago. Finding a way to word the good and bad of it all is a challenge already.

Standing in Ann-Louise Taylor's home, Wargo took a moment to smile as Taylor recounted just how much he helped her.

"It was amazing," explained Taylor, whose basement flooded to its ceiling, cracking part of her home's foundation. "My neighbor called me the day it started to flood and said 'this is going to be bad,' so I called Pastor Jeff to help me move my furniture upstairs."

To Taylor's surprise, many of her fellow church members also showed up early that Sunday morning as well - all to help her move her furniture. Those same members then showed up later in the week to remove the excessive mud in her basement.

And that Sunday morning when so many members helped Taylor move her furniture, Wargo canceled the Sunday morning church service and told the congregation to help their neighbors instead. "I said we can go to church, or we can be church," he said. "So we didn't go to worship that morning, but we did worship."

But that's the spirit of the church and the community, added Wargo. St. John's became an American Red Cross shelter when the water forced families from their homes. Church volunteers served three meals each day for a week, and are still serving meals to the community this week, too.

Monday afternoon, volunteers bustled about the fellowship room and kitchen preparing lunch. They joked about having gone through gallons of soup at this point, and that they are still storing gallons of it in refrigerators around town. "I know we still have some down at the firehouse," laughed Doris Marsh.

Volunteers have poured in, too, she added. Some of the volunteers had flood damage to their homes, but still came in to lend a hand. "One woman was in here three times a day for the meals all last week, but now tonight she's bringing in a turkey and gravy for everyone else."

Over meals of hot dogs, ziti, and vegetable soup, residents of the small eastern Pennsylvania town have bonded since the Delaware River flooded the community.

The emotional stress is there, though. Last week's flood is worse than when the remnants of Hurricane Ivan drenched the area in September, and some families are cleaning up for the second time in six months.

"This is really taking a toll on us," said one woman who declined to give her name. Her basement flooded six months ago, ruining her freezer, furnace, and several other appliances. This time the water also flooded her home's first floor, causing the kitchen floor to buckle.

"The water has never come up like that before," she said. "I was told I can't stay there because it's not safe."

Wargo is now helping the woman and her husband find a place to live in the meantime. He said 14 families in his congregation were affected by this round of flooding, but at least 20 other families have come through his church's doors for food and relief. Coordination with the other churches in the community has also helped ease the recovery for the families thus far.

Linda Lenhart, co-coordinator of disaster response for the Penn. Northeast Conference of the United Church of Christ (UCC) is also assisting in the Riegelsville recovery. Having been in town several times since the floodwater receded, Lenhart is consistently impressed by just how much the community has cared for each other.

"These are neighbors helping neighbors - and they want nothing in return," said Lenhart, who also serves as Christian Education Coordinator for Faith United Church of Christ in Allentown. "The people really care for each other."

Lenhart also credits Wargo and his wife, who is also a pastor and spent the last week counseling the community, for contributing to the community spirit and quick recovery thus far.

"He is a kind and humble soul," said Lenhart, ribbing the soft-spoken Wargo later that afternoon in a church member's front yard. "I also think it was all the good food you served all week that's helped keep these people sane."

Wargo smiled. "People have been so kind."

The two then stopped into Linda Dunlap's home to check in. Dunlap's basement was full of water as well, destroying appliances and slightly soaking the first floor.

A loud saw buzzed away in the basement as Lenhart gave Dunlap advice on working with an insurance company.

"I've been in this house for 34 years and this is the first time we've had water inside," said Dunlap after a moment. Yet despite the damage to her home, Dunlap spent much of the past week volunteering at St. John's.

The volunteers are coming from beyond the town, too. With help from Lutheran Disaster Response, more than 100 volunteers descended upon Reigelsville to help out the affected families this past weekend.

"They did some tremendous work removing trash and mud," said Wargo, adding that the volunteer work days in Riegelsville and other nearby riverside communities will continue for the next several Saturdays.

Lenhart said UCC disaster response is also spreading the word that they are available to help in the other flooded communities as well - all the churches have to do is just ask.

For Riegelsville residents, the bond between neighbors has been forged in the past week. Even though a flood is a horrible thing, said one volunteer back at the St. John's, good can come from it.

"People are finally meeting their neighbors," said volunteer Marion Mills. "And that makes you feel real good."

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