Released 20 September 2011
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Disaster Response in New York
If “Good Night,
Irene” was the tune of the day when Hurricane Irene didn’t live up to her
anticipated destruction, “We’ve Only Just Begun” is the theme song for hamlets,
villages and cities along the Susquehanna River in New York and Pennsylvania, as
they’ve just begun the long journey to recovery from Irene’s kid brother
Lee. When I was assigned to the
Salvation Army disaster relief command center in Binghamton, NY to help tell
the story of the response there, I began to drive along the path of river, and
what I encountered was mind-numbing. Miles and miles of destruction, the story repeated over and over again,
of water that rose past any previous flood level, surging through anything that
dared stand in its path.
How can I begin to describe the
devastation? A rowboat jammed
upright on a porch. Block after
block stacked high with sodden mattresses and couches, ripped-out insulation,
and a infant’s brightly-colored walker. Mud-dusted shrubbery that told its own story of the flood level.
Numbers tell a part of the story as
well. In Owego, 75% of the homes
were damaged by flood waters, and already 180 homes have been condemned,
unlivable, destined to become green space, clean space. Owego’s downtown, quite prosperous by
today’s standards, was totally under water, and perhaps as many of 50% of the
businesses will not be able to re-open. All along the path of the river, blocks and blocks of homes in Johnson
City, Endicott, and Binghamton may never be livable again. And that’s only as far east as my drive
took me today.
Then there were the bizarre
sightings. Hundreds of Pat
Mitchell Ice Cream buckets on the curb. A garden swing on the river bank, seemingly untouched. A stuffed Pink Panther perched
jauntily on a mailbox. A six-foot
Santa Claus coated in river mud, still waving at those passing by.
On too many streets, too many
neighborhoods and too many communities, the people of Broome, Tioga and
Chenango Counties are exhausted. They’ve been back in their homes for 3,4 and 5 days. Their whole life has been dragged out
on the street for the world to see, or has already been hauled to the
landfill. Wedding pictures, the children’s
artwork torn from the refrigerator, and even the refrigerator – all gone.
Some are still numb, while others have
begun the grieving path that will be theirs as the days turn into weeks. They’ve had initial conversations with
insurance agents, building inspectors and FEMA representatives, and now wait to
see if their homes are going to be condemned. That seems to be the hardest part, the not-knowing. Some are eager to leave, hoping to
gather enough dollars to start over somewhere else, miles from the river. Others want desperately to hold
onto their home, the home that had never been flooded before, the home of
memories and family.
Many have come to help. The Salvation Army has teams from
throughout New York and Massachusetts. The American Red Cross has mobilized and is in action. The disaster service arms of the
Southern Baptists and the Methodists are here as well. FEMA, the utility companies and many
more groups are working ‘round the clock to do what they can.
Other assistance comes from those the
river spared. Dog food, band-aids,
hot meals, masks, and stuffed animals for the little ones have been freely
offered. And water too. Cases and cases of bottled water have
been distributed – at last count, the Salvation Army alone has provided 30,000
bottles of water, so necessary when water has been contaminated. When the “boil” was finally lifted yesterday
in Nichols, there were loud cheers from those preparing meals in the Salvation
Army service center at the firehouse.
Water. Vital for life, yet
a destroyer of life when out of control. One new friend told me that as she wakes up on the couch of her sister’s
house, she wonders how the calming waters of the Susquehanna that she’s so
enjoyed over the years could possibly have turned into such a ferocious
invader. Together we prayed that
there will come a day when her river will once again be a healing stream. Oh, sister, let’s go down, down in the
river to pray. Might it be so.