By Kirk Petersen
More than two weeks after Hurricane Florence made landfall, Episcopal dioceses in the Carolinas have finally seen floodwaters start to recede — although there’s still too much flooding to make full damage estimates.
While there was some damage further inland, two coastal dioceses were most affected: the Diocese of East Carolina, which encompasses the eastern third of North Carolina; and the Episcopal Church in South Carolina, which includes the eastern half of that state.
As with Hurricane Harvey the year before, the rain has caused far more damage than the wind. While inching its way inland, Florence dropped more than 30 inches of rain on parts of the two states, causing 47 deaths and up to $50 billion in damage.
Episcopal Relief and Development has been working since before the storm arrived to provide support to local churches and dioceses. The organization has provided financial grants and emergency aid such as food and water, as well as disaster-recovery expertise.
A lot of homeowners are looking at “the third time in the last four years that they’ve been flooded out,” said the Rev. Rob Donehue, priest in charge at St. Anne’s in Conway, South Carolina. “We had the so-called 1,000-year flood back in 2015, we had Hurricane Matthew, which flooded the area in 2016, and now we’ve got Hurricane Florence.”
Donehue has been helping to coordinate efforts among churches in his part of the South Carolina diocese.
In the Diocese of Eastern Carolina, Florence has damaged homes that were rehabilitated after Matthew. The Rev. Chris Hamby, assistant rector at St. James in Wilmington, North Carolina, has helped coordinate relief efforts for the Lower Cape Fear Deanery, which includes 17 churches in Wilmington and surrounding towns, in “an ecumenical effort led by the Baptists.”
Church members have done hands-on reconstruction work in previous emergencies. Hamby said that after Matthew, “one house we raised I think seven or eight feet in the air, and it still had 18 inches of water in it after this hurricane.” The work on the house was completed in July.
Hamby created a system using Google Docs and applications. “There’s a form for people to fill out with their needs, and what they can offer,” Hamby said. “It’s a Google form, so you can use it on your phone or whatever … and it exports right into” a Google spreadsheet.
“When people contact me and say they want to come right now — well, right now we’re still trying to figure out which places are flooded still,” Hamby said. He is arranging to host mission trips during Spring Break in 2019, when there will still be plenty of recovery work to be done.
Part of the challenge is that the need continues long after the story begins to fade from the memories of those outside the disaster area. Florence has “fallen off the front pages. It’s fallen off of page 20, it’s not even there,” said the Rev. Jody Greenwood, rector of Church of the Servant in Wilmington.
And yet in some ways the recovery hasn’t even begun. “Some people can’t even get into their homes [to assess damage], because the waters haven’t receded,” she said. Many local schools have been used as shelters and classes have not resumed, causing further disruption to normal patterns of life.
Aside from property damage, the storm struck hard at the livelihood of the thousands of migrant farmworkers who harvest North Carolina’s sweet potatoes, soybeans, tobacco, and other crops.
Episcopal Farmworkers Ministry is a joint effort of the dioceses of East Carolina and North Carolina (the latter of which escaped with little damage from Florence). Lariza Garzón, executive director of the three-person organization, began her job two days before the storm made landfall.
The organization is headquartered in Dunn, North Carolina, about 80 miles inland. “Originally we thought the eye of the storm was going to go right on top of us,” Garzón said. She requested and received a financial grant from Episcopal Relief and Development to help the organization recover from the storm.
But Florence shifted paths, and the headquarters suffered no damage. “Thanks to that grant, since the storm didn’t hit our area that hard, the Saturday after the storm we started doing our outreach, just visiting workers to find out how they were doing and if they needed anything.”
Garzón and program coordinator Juan Carabaña have “delivered food to thousands of people at this point, we have helped with minor housing repairs,” and delivered hygiene and cleaning products.
The group is working in partnership with other farmworker organizations to “make sure that the people who pick our food could have their needs met right after this tragedy,” Garzón said.
“One of the strengths of our Episcopal Church network is the ability to identify the greatest needs and leverage existing relationships and resources to serve and care for vulnerable communities after a crisis,” said Katie Mears, senior director of Episcopal Relief and Development’s U.S. Disaster Program.