Leaders of the Tremont disaster recovery team met August 3 at St. John’s UMC: (from left) Robert Simcox, Suzanne Schach, the Rev. Ken Edwards, Dwain Hotstetter and the Rev. Rick Rimert.

Conference, churches rally to recover from recent floods

Donations, volunteers needed for disaster response

By John W. Coleman

“The Eastern PA Conference is operating in full disaster response phase,” said Disaster Response Coordinator Robert Simcox this week. “We are supporting the Schuylkill County area in flood relief.”

County residents are struggling to recover physically and emotionally from a July double-drenching of relentless rain storms. But experienced, volunteer work teams and individuals are direly needed to help clear damaged, molded items out of flooded homes and perform related tasks.

“Volunteers are needed immediately now and in the coming year,” said Simcox. “They will be working with the community in the recovery and rebuilding phase.” That work includes listening to and consoling residents to help them overcome the emotional toll of the storms’ destruction.

St. John’s UMC in Tremont serving as Disaster Information Center

St. John’s UMC in hard-hit Tremont is designated as that area’s Disaster Information Center, thanks to the hard work and coordination of Suzanne Schach and other church members who are serving many needs among neighbors. Schach, a nursing supervisor at a local rehabilitative health center, is Tremont’s onsite disaster recovery coordinator and is working with the mayor and other borough leaders to facilitate recovery efforts.

The Rev. Lorraine Heckman, pastor of First UMC in Port Carbon tells the Rev. Steve Morton, North District Superintendent, about the flood devastation. Photo courtesy of the Rev. Jennifer Freymoyer.

Simcox and West District Disaster Response Coordinator Dwain Hotstetter are offering recovery support, along with the Rev. Steve Morton, North District Superintendent. And a $10,000 grant from UMCOR (UM Committee on Relief) is helping address “unmet needs” That includes temporary shelter assistance for residents flooded out of their homes.

Still, with residents trying to overcome the destruction and depression caused by back-to-back bad storms, more funds are needed, along with more hands-on help from kind-hearted, Christ-minded volunteers.

Donations to the conference’s Disaster Recovery Advance Special Fund (Project #0345) can be addressed and sent to the Conference Treasurer’s Office, Eastern PA Conference UMC, P.O. Box 820, Valley Forge, PA 19482. Gifts may be designated for “North District Flood Relief.

In addition, Simcox urges “any teams or individuals with disaster recovery cleanup experience, please contact me.” Contact him at  drc@epaumc.org or 610) 427-0470.

Simcox says the conference may be lacking in volunteers trained and recently credentialed to do Early Response Team (ERT) disaster recovery work. That’s why he is eager to teach a second all-day ERT class on Saturday, October 20, at Otterbein UMC in Lancaster. He just taught one for eight students on Saturday, July 14, at West Lawn UMC, Reading, and hopes more will sign up for the next one. Learn more and register.

Volunteers in Mission (VIM) teams will be needed later for the rebuilding phase. Just like in July, the Rev. Russell Atkinson, conference VIM Coordinator, will facilitate a simultaneous VIM Team Leader class alongside the ERT training.

Hotstetter and the Rev. Rick Rimert, conference Disaster Response Spiritual Care Coordinator, spent time with residents one recent evening, talking especially with children, some of whom seemed traumatized by the repeated storms and repeated losses of appliances, furniture, clothing and other belongings.

“We did a lot of listening, which is about all we could do at that point” said Rimert, who noticed a worried woman constantly watching the overcast sky. “Some were asking, ‘What’s the point of going on anymore?’ And the children were having a tough time.”

“The emotional and spiritual counseling was draining, not with the adults but with the children,” recalled Hotstetter, who lives in the Lebanon area.  “The children are hurting and don’t know how to express their feelings. They have seen these floods destroy their happiness in their family and their community. Some just want to give up.”

“I told the families we would try to be a regular presence as much as possible,” said Rimert, a longtime emergency chaplain and pastor of two churches in Conestoga, Pa., about an hour away. He and Hotstetter, both trained by UMCOR in Emotional and Spiritual Care, will return to Tremont this Saturday morning, August 25. But more chaplains are pastoral counselors are needed.

Bishop Peggy Johnson visited St. John’s UMC in Tremont on Sunday, August 26, for worship, before also visiting members of First UMC in Port Carbon, another church trying to serve its hard-hit community. Both small churches are rallying members and neighbors in big ways with solace, support and opportunities to serve.

St. John’s 10 members, led by their part-time pastor, the Rev. Ken Edwards, have recently questioned the church’s purpose and value to its community. But members hosted about 150 guests Saturday, August 18, “for an impromptu lunch for the community and volunteers,” said Suzanne Schach. “We thought of doing something small-scale but ended up serving about 200 meals, including home deliveries.

“Food was brought in by several members of the church and community and local businesses,” she reported to Simcox. “Our church hasn’t been that full of people since I got married there an eternity ago. It was awesome to see. I can’t thank you guys enough for your support.”

They began with just a few crockpots of food, but people kept bringing more, and some ate outside as the church filled with people, she said. “It was amazing. Not a morsel was left.” It reminded her of Jesus feeding the five thousand with food that kept multiplying.

St. John’s UMC’s Suzanne Schach talks with Tremont residents. Photo courtesy of the Rev. Jennifer Freymoyer.

The church, now a center of volunteer activity with a renewed sense of purpose, hosted an encore luncheon on Saturday, August 25.

North District Superintendent Steve Morton and District Assisting Elder the Rev. Jennifer Freymoyer spent August 15 visiting St. John’s and UM churches in other “storm-ravaged communities”: Pine Grove, St. Clair and Port Carbon. Morton called it “a beautiful but heartbreaking afternoon.”

First UMC is a center of relief efforts in Port Carbon, which is “probably the most distressed community right now,” he reported.

“They were, and remain, on the front lines of this small community,” Freymoyer observed. “As the flood waters rose, people sought refuge in the church. They were fed sandwiches on the first floor by Pastor Lorraine Heckman and her team of volunteers–even as the church basement flooded and church volunteers were uncertain of the fate of their own homes.

“First responders, volunteers, and those affected by the storm came to the church for pizza and cold water throughout the day and anticipated a warm meal in their fellowship hall later that evening,” Freymoyer explained. The church is now a staging area for Schuylkill County relief efforts.

Read the Rev. Jenny Freymoyer’s journal account of what she witnessed and felt during her visits to North District disaster sites last week: Churches, communities of hope ‘make room for a new future’.

Call new flood recovery hotline for aid through end of August

Pennsylvania residents trying to recover from recent rainstorm flooding have a place to turn for help. The state has a new, temporary disaster response hotline phone number they can call through the end of August. Governor Tom Wolf recently announced the emergency contact service. Learn more…

Conference Disaster Recovery Updates

  • The Virginia Conference will loan its remarkable shower trailer to the Eastern PA Conference and St. John’s UMC in Tremont for use by disaster response volunteers after their labors. The 48-foot-long trailer includes nine showers, four sinks and two washer/dryers. The two conferences will share the $1,500 roundtrip transfer costs, while the town provides water, drainage and an electrical connection. “We will keep it till November,” said Eastern PA Conference Disaster Recovery Coordinator Robert Simcox. “Freezing will become a problem in winter.”
  • The Eastern PA Conference’s Disaster Response Trailer is being restocked to go on location to Tremont for use by volunteers.
  • UMCOR released 1,200 cleaning kits (formerly called “flood buckets”) to the conference from UMCOR’s Sager Brown (Baldwin, La.) and Mission Central (Mechanicsburg, Pa.) supply depots. The kits were delivered to a Red Cross depot at Norristown State Hospital and a high school in Susquehanna County.
  • Families relocated from Puerto Rico to the Philadelphia and Reading areas “are sleeping better on beds we delivered to them recently,” according to Eastern PA Conference Disaster Recovery Coordinator Robert Simcox. The beds were purchased through a $10,000 emergency grant from UMCOR to support the unmet needs of evacuees from Puerto Rico.