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'A sense of acceptance'

On the altar of St. John's United Church of Christ is a stuffed red bear, and it's not at all out of place.


On the altar of St. John's United Church of Christ is a stuffed red bear, and it's not at all out of place.

The children of a church in a nearby town sent the bear to St. John's to let the congregation know someone was thinking of them during yet another rough time for the residents of Riegelsville.

"The kids prayed over the bear and then sent it over to us," said the Rev. Jeff Wargo, pastor of St. John's. "It lets us know that others are holding us in prayer."

Riegelsville is again cleaning up after a flood - the third in some 20 months for the small eastern Pennsylvania town next to the Delaware River. And St. John's is again helping residents cope with the aftermath of the flooding. The congregation quickly sprang into action, said Wargo, serving meals and distributing supplies to those affected.

Wargo said everyone pitched in to make the response work smoothly. "It was quite amazing to see all the donated food," he said. "At the end of the week, we looked around the fellowship hall and saw pots and dishes everywhere. It was a true sign of the generosity here."

The congregation fed at least 100 people each day for eight days after the flooding.

Wargo credits the success of the recovery thus far to two things: the amount of warning time before the flood and having been through similar recent floods.

"We had a lot of warning that this flood was coming," he explained. "The days before the water rose it looked like everyone in the neighborhood was moving out. There were trucks everywhere because people were moving their furniture and important belongings to higher ground. It wasn't a sense of panic but more of realization. The forecast was for worse flooding than last year's, so people knew to do more in advance."

He added that after the last two floods many families replaced damaged oil tanks and water heaters with easily removable ones, which made the impact from this storm less damaging than before.

That's not to say that the everyone still escaped from the damage this time. Many homes still had large amounts of water in the basement or first floor. Two families that were trying to sell their homes had their closings scheduled on the day the flooding happened. Both sales fell through.

Some families are frustrated, said Wargo, and others just want to move away. Yet the experience of two previous floods added to the determination of Riegelsville residents. "Remarkably, though, as people came through the church they were calmer than the last two times. They almost had a sense of acceptance this time. It was almost like we'd had dress rehearsals, and so they knew what to do this time."

Wargo and the congregation have noticed that going door-to-door. Families know what they need and some turned away help because they knew the process this time.

And again showing the positive and negative from so many floods, the sense of acceptance comes also with a sense of nervousness about the next time.

"It's almost compliance that this will happen again," Wargo said. "People are realizing that this may be a regular occurrance - especially with the hurricane forecast for the East Coast. Now it's become more of a 'We'll see you next time' rather than a 'I hope this never happens again.' It's a tongue-in-cheek joke, but it's not too funny."

The repeat floods have brought the community together. Wargo said the town churches stay in touch during the recovery and that everyone has become more close-knit since the first flood. Local grocery stores and businesses donated supplies. Volunteers came in from all around the region.

The floods have also brought together communities all along the Delaware, said one United Church of Christ (UCC) official. "We are forming the Lutheran Disaster Response Faith Partners," said Linda Lenhart, the disaster response coordinator for the UCC in northeastern Pennsylvania. "Any denomination that wants to come to the table can do it. This is going to be a long-term recovery for all these counties."

Lenhart said she and a LDR disaster response coordinator helped create the new partnership aimed at bringing various denominations together to help with the long-term flood recovery.

"We have UCC folks, Lutherans, Presbyterians and Methodists involved so far. We need more people to get involved. Together we can accomplish much more than just one. Riegelsville may be getting back on its feet quicker, but there are other counties in need that we may not know about yet."

She was impressed with how well the immediate flood response worked in Riegelsville, something she said is a testament to how prepared the community was and how everyone decided to work together in the face of tragedy.

Wargo's wife, the Rev. Stephanie Anne Thompson, added another positive outcome from the floods. "People are more willing to ask for help," she said. "Some pride has moved away."

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