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New Jersey neighbors reach out


BOUND BROOK, NEW JERSEY (Sept. 17, 1999) -- As emergency crews rescued people from rooftops, put out raging fires, and evacuated homes near the Raritan River, the Bound Brook community was determined to help.

George Kuriyan, outreach chair at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, called the emergency management office to find out the best way to reach out to those displaced by the rising floodwaters -- and subsequent hard-to-control fires -- caused by Hurricane Floyd.

"We wanted to do what was needed, not just what we thought was needed," said Kuriyan. "It turns out that the evacuees had more than enough food -- but a lot of the relief volunteers and rescue workers didn't have any! We've had police and National Guard come from New York."

So Kuriyan gathered with 12 volunteers at the church and made 437 tuna fish sandwiches on Friday as rescue efforts continued. "We'll keep doing this as long as necessary," he said.

"It's our on-the-scene way of helping," added the Rev. Hewitt Johnston, pastor, who said that support from churches can help emergency crews stay focuses on getting people out of danger.

Volunteer Meg Rothberg said she came to help "out of a sense of community spirit."

Another volunteer, Becky Biskup, said, "We've been fortunate to be in a position to be able to help. It's part of being a Christian."

It is likely that more help will be needed, since New Jersey has suffered severe flooding and over-the-water fires that have been difficult for firefighters to control. Representatives from the New Jersey governor's office are traveling throughout the state to assess damages.

Many commuter rail lines also remain shut down because of flooding.

Joann Hale, a Church World Service (CWS) disaster resource facilitator, will be organizing interfaith response efforts over the next several days. "I'd predict the biggest focus will be mudding out and assessing flood damage," she said. CWS has begun to plan an interfaith response to the multi-state damage Floyd caused.

Meanwhile, community agencies and businesses were trying to cope with closed-down streets and water damages.

Catholic Charities, which operates Somerset Manor, a service for chronically mentally ill people, could not reach all its clients. "We're pretty trapped as far as being able to get to our clientele," said spokesperson Jed Klein. "So much of the area is under water."

The Bound Brook United Methodist Church began collecting food donations after members called to ask how they could help. "This town is in a really, really bad way," said Barbara Coscia, who was helping collect the goods. "Any place that's near Main Street -- where the Raritan River runs -- is just flooded out."

The Jewish Community Center was able to complete their usual Meals on Wheels route, even though it took them longer. "We had to work hard but were successful," said Evelyn Nebel, office manager. "We're determined to stay open for services. And if people can't come to us, we're available to offer support over the phone. We very seldom close for emergencies."

Serious flooding from the Raritan River stranded many residents on rooftops. A Coast Guard helicopter rescued six people Wednesday morning, and reports said the total number stranded could be higher.

Governor Christie Whitman visited the hardest-hit areas on Wednesday, and asked the federal government to declare New Jersey a disaster area.

A pair of adjacent Bound Brook businesses caught fire on Wednesday, and the blaze raged out of control in the morning because firefighters couldn't get to it. Helicopters from New York finally dropped water on the fire.

In parts of New Jersey -- along with many other states -- Floyd dropped a foot of rain. Traffic problems continue to mount along the east coast because many main routes are under water. All public schools in New Jersey and New York were closed on Tuesday, and many remained closed on Wednesday as well.

Thousands of people are still without power, at least 235,000 of them in New York. New York emergency management officials reported at least six additional fires, and rescue helicopters plucked people from rooftops there as well.

Outside of Philadelphia, Pa., response workers have evacuated 1,200 people because they are concerned that a nearby dam could burst, affecting five counties around Philadelphia. "Already some 200 homes have water up to the second floor," said Shirley Norman, a CWS disaster resource facilitator. "And many of the rivers haven't even crested yet."

Officials are also carefully watching the Connecticut River, which was overflowing its banks on Wednesday morning, and a flood watch remains in effects along the riverbank. Forecasters are also keeping an eye on Hurricane Gert, which still poses a moderate threat to Bermuda.

A wave of specialized response teams has already dispatched to North Carolina to provide food, cleanup, and other support for survivors. Flooding was so severe in that state that many towns are more than half under water, and major roads are closed for such long stretches that emergency officials are having difficulty making damage assessments.

Hurricane Floyd made landfall near Cape Fear, N.C., causing millions of residents to evacuate into shelters set up in local churches and schools. Many residents are still unable to return to their homes because water hasn't receded.

Posted September 17, 1999

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