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Power outages dog Irene response

Faith-based response organizations helping survivors of Hurricane Irene

BY JOHN PAPE | BALTIMORE | September 2, 2011

Even as Vermont struggled to cope with widespread flooding caused by Hurricane Irene, a host of faith-based organizations were mobilizing to provide both immediate and long-term relief services to storm survivors across the Eastern Seaboard.

More than 40 deaths have been attributed to the storm, but that number may rise as massive flooding continued from coastal North Carolina through New England.

Eastern states were still reporting hundreds of thousands of electrical customers without power mid-day on Friday, nearly a week after the hurricane roared up the coast. Dozens of schools in Maryland, where classes had been expected to start this week, could not open due to storm damage or lack of electricity.

Dominion Virginia Power was still trying to restore power Friday to more than 100,000 customers, primarily in the Richmond and SE parts of the state. In Massachusetts, more than 17,000 customers were still without power Friday afternoon.

Baltimore Gas & Electric (BGE) said more than 34,000 customers were still without power at 11 a.m. Friday. BGE, has restored power to more than 707,000 customers since Irene hit according to its Web site, and said it hopes to have power restored to all of its customers by Saturday. The majority of customers still without power are in Baltimore and Anne Arundel Counties.

Ironically, Vermont a state with no coastal exposure appeared to be bearing the brunt of Irene’s flooding. Gov. Peter Shumlin described the storm’s impact on his state as “catastrophic.”

“You know, we’ve just been devastated. We prepared for the worst. And frankly, we got the worst, just extraordinary amounts of rain, as much as an inch and a half an hour,” Shumlin said. “And in this little state, which is nothing but beautiful mountains feeding into valleys with small streams, that just means flooding, loss of property, houses, bridges, infrastructure. So we’ve been devastated, particularly in the southern and central parts of Vermont.”

Even the state’s emergency operations center was flooded and the state hospital had to be evacuated.

“They’re underwater right now. So, you know, we’re still up to our ears in alligators here in the Green Mountain State,” the governor said.

Vermont Agency of Transportation Crews were working around the clock to create safe detours around numerous closed roads and failed bridges, as well as identifying safety hazards on state roads.

“Our number one priority right now is the safety of the public. We are currently rebuilding what roads we can address most quickly, and prioritizing resources on those communities that have been cut off from the rest of the state,” said VTrans Secretary Brian Searles. “We are also working with utilities to ensure electricity restored. I want to reiterate that the scope of this disaster is unprecedented in modern Vermont history and we are responding to it as quickly as we are able.”

VTrans reported there were dozens of road closures, as well as major damage to the state owned rail lines and the New England Central Rail Line. Amtrak service on both the Vermonter and the Ethan Allen was discontinued until further notice.

As of Friday, there were at least 20 state highway bridges that were closed due to storm damage. VTrans bridge inspection teams were still assessing the damage done to the state highway and town highway bridges before opening those bridges that are deemed safe for traffic. In some instances inspectors need to wait for the water to recede in order to conduct a complete inspection.

A number of communities had been cut off from the state highway system by flooding. By Thursday all of the towns were accessible, but residents were warned many of the roads were still very rough.

“We are currently assessing damage to the statewide roadway system,” said Scott Rogers, Director of Operations. “The district forces are identifying the priorities for our bridge inspection teams and we are working very closely with Vermont Emergency Management in coordinating and prioritizing our repair work with that of the electrical network repair needs.”

The American Red Cross and local communities opened shelters for hundreds of flood-stricken survivors.

Debbie Russell, a lifelong Vermonter, said she could not remember flooding as bad as in the wake of Irene.

“It’s stunning; that’s the only word I can use stunning. I feel very fortunate that my home is safe and dry, but I feel badly for these poor people who’ve been evacuated,” Russell said. “It’s got to be emotionally devastating for them, not knowing if they even have a home to return to.”

Russell also called it “weirdly unusual” to be sheltering hurricane survivors in Vermont.

“When you think about hurricanes, you think about Florida or Louisiana or places like that, not Vermont,” she said.

Even as Vermonters continued to deal with floodwaters, faith-based organizations launched response efforts in areas where recovery was possible.

Through its Week of Compassion program, the Disciples of Christ began working with regional ministries to assess needs in affected areas. Even before power had been fully restored, the Disciples began assisting several dozen families in North Carolina and Virginia, as well as providing support to help with cleanup and recovery for North Carolina's Camp Caroline.

Additionally, Week of Compassion partner Church World Service provided affected areas with blankets, hygiene and cleanup kits, while staffers were assessing damage and strategizing further ways to respond.

United Church of Christ (UCC) congregations in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Vermont have responded, providing food, water, shelter and counseling to disaster survivors. UCC Disaster Ministries has made emergency grants from One Great Hour of Sharing to congregations and ministries impacted by the disaster. Nearly a dozen churches in the Vermont Conference are providing assistance to survivors.

A group of volunteers from the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) Disaster Response Services left Byron Center, MI, Thursday with tractors, tarps and chainsaws to help North Carolina residents cleanup communities impacted by the hurricane. In addition, CRWRC representatives have been sent to other locations up the coast, initiating contacts in Virginia, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut where storm damage continues to be reported.

“We anticipate a multi-state response to Hurricane Irene,” says CRWRC-DRS director Bill Adams. “The initial damage from the storm itself hit some coastal communities hard, but the ongoing story is the inland flooding to the north, where power outages, evacuations, closed roads, and rising water are still causing widespread destruction. We’ll find out the extent of the damage from some of these events in the coming days.”

The Salvation Army also worked to meet the immediate needs of storm survivors, providing food, supplies and spiritual and emotional care for evacuees across the region.

Salvationists reported thousands of people across eastern North Carolina being fed and cared for at shelters by Salvation Army feeding teams.

The Salvation Army served meals to first responders and evacuees all along the eastern seaboard. On Friday a Salvation Army canteen took a North Carolina ferry to provide aid to survivors to Outer Banks communities which had been cut off by the hurricane.

In total, The Salvation Army had 370 canteens and five mobile feeding kitchens along the eastern seaboard. Collectively, the units are capable of providing several hundred thousand meals per day when operating at full capacity.

The Salvation Army was offering a broad range of services in coordination with local, state and federal governments, including supporting shelter operations and evacuations.

In some areas where the impact of Irene was less than anticipated, response organizations stressed assistance was still needed.

Cathy Earl, US Disaster Response Executive for the United Methodist Committee on Relief said some media reports calling Irene a “non-event” were misleading.

“Some news reports are giving the impression Hurricane Irene was a non-event. In fact, there has been very significant flooding because of the storm, and it’s expected to continue for another couple of days,” Earl said.

The Rev. Derrick Doherty, disaster response coordinator for the United Methodist Greater New Jersey Annual Conference, echoed Earl’s statement.

Earl and Sandra Kennedy Owes, also an UMCOR Disaster Response executive, said that annual conferences from North Carolina to New England have reported significant flooding because of Hurricane Irene.

Since the storm made landfall, UMCOR has been in touch with disaster response personnel from eight conferences and has already responded to requests for emergency grants from five of them, including Greater New Jersey.

“The UMCOR grant will help The United Methodist Church in the Greater New Jersey Conference distribute cleaning buckets and provide training for Early Response Teams,” Doherty said.

The first of the trainings will take place on Saturday at Central United Methodist Church in Linwood, NJ.

Catholic Charities USA also reported its East Coast agencies were assessing the damage created by Irene and preparing to assist families and individuals with shelter, food, and other immediate and long-term needs.

“In many ways, we were blessed Irene came with less intensity and impact than what we expected, but there are still thousands of people dealing with power outages, property damage and personal loss,” said Kim Burgo, Vice President of Disaster Operations for CCUSA. “As the nation moves on from this hurricane, and the headlines cover the next story, we cannot forget about the people that have been affected.”

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