2 Years After Irene: Catskills Slowly Recovering

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Editor, The Vision

A sign on the door offers the comforting words of Isaiah 40:31 to all who enter the disaster case management office at the Prattsville Community Church:

But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength,
They will soar high on wings like eagles,
They will run and not grow weary,
They will walk and not faint.

In the two years since flash floods spawned by Hurricane Irene ripped across the Catskills, the churches in hard-hit towns like Prattsville and Margaretville have played vital roles in the recovery of their communities.

“We’re at a new normal,” said Rev. Larry Dunlap, lead pastor of the Upper Catskills Larger Parish that includes the Margaretville, Roxbury, Andes, Fleischmanns & Halcott Center United Methodist churches.

The East Branch Delaware River, which runs through Margaretville, rose 13 feet on August 28, 2011, to crest at nearly 16 feet, five feet above flood level. The muddy waters damaged dozens of homes and businesses, including the only grocery store and part of the CVS drugstore. The flooding stopped just short of the back porch of the parsonage, never making it across the street to the church or the fire station next door.

The church and parsonage in Prattsville were not nearly as lucky. Both were swamped with the floodwaters as the Schoharie Creek crested at more than 24 feet in the community. Rev. Elliot Oakes, then pastor of Prattsville UMC, lost use of both his home and church in the flooding. Throughout the town, homes were deluged by mud, some rocked off their foundations, and some were swept away.

Preliminary recovery efforts using UMCOR-trained early response teams were facilitated by Rev. Joseph Ewoodzie, conference mission director, and Rev. Dale Ashby, disaster coordinator for the Catskill Hudson District. Work in Prattsville focused on reclaiming the church so that it could serve as a gathering place for the community and headquarters for the rebuilding. The conference asked churches to give to the specially-created “Hurricane Irene Relief Fund.” The United Methodist Committee on Relief does not provide funds to clean up or repair churches and parsonages.

When Irene hit, Rev. Charlie Gockel was serving in extension ministry as the executive director of the Huntersfield Christian Training Center just up the mountain from Prattsville. In the immediate aftermath, the center provided housing and meals for displaced residents and eventually became the headquarters for out-of-town recovery teams. Gockel’s wife, Tracy, has handled much of the center’s volunteer registration.

In 2012, Gockel was appointed to also serve the Prattsville Community Church, a merger between the UM church and the Hunterfield Church. The congregation has been worshipping together for about 18 months, and has been using Natural Church Development material.

“This has been a wonderful process and many are discovering the calling of God on their lives,” Gockel said.

The wide-open sanctuary now hosts not only worship, but meditation space, afterschool programs and fitness classes. The parsonage is still very much a work in progress and was awaiting the installation of new windows and electrical wiring in late-August. The entire two-story frame house has been gutted and the space redesigned to provide space for a “coffee house” in addition to a pastor’s residence. Gockel said they expect to complete the parsonage by next summer.

“Prattsville has come a long way,” Gockel said, “with about 40 houses pretty much completed.  About 20 houses are either torn down or still sitting with no plan . . . Most businesses are in operation with three new ones in town.”

Overall 65 families have been helped or are being assisted. One of the new homes is a comfortable sage-colored cape, just a couple of doors down from the church and parsonage. Large groups of volunteers have been working throughout the summer.

The town has also received grants for streetscapes, and to rebuild its ball fields.  The firehouse was extensively damaged, so the department is planning to relocate to a new building.

Jackie and Gary Wilkie have been serving as the disaster case manager and construction manager, respectively, out of the Prattsville church. During the week, they stay at the Huntersfield Christian Training Center (HCTC), and on weekends, head to their home in Ravenna, N.Y.

They first came with their church to help feed the volunteers housed at the HCTC. But they soon realized that they were “called to be here” and left their jobs to volunteer fulltime to help coordinate work teams and raise funds. Jackie has been working through the New York State Disaster Case Management office since November 2012.

Gary Wilkie noted that the whole rebuilding effort in Prattsville was dependent on faith-based volunteers of all ages. He credited the work of Gockel and others from HCTC in collaborating with the town supervisor to “make things happen.”

“It’s not really the government’s job, it’s really the church’s job,” he added.

The Wilkies also cited the spiritual transformations that take place as residents have their homes rebuilt by volunteers. One homeowner could not afford to rebuild with just the $30,000 she received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, so the Prattsville church “adopted” the project.

“She thought Christians would be preaching to her,” Jackie Wilkie said. “When that didn’t happen, she looked to the God that had sent them.”

In an email, Gockel expressed deep gratitude for the efforts of the N.Y. Conference, its churches and UMCOR. He wrote, “I can’t thank so many of you enough for all your help and prayer . . . we could have not done this without you. I wish there was some way to show our appreciation to the body of Christ who came to be hands of mercy to a hurting town. The body of Christ has left a positive mark on this town. Seeds were planted that are still producing fruit in the Kingdom.”

Gockel admits that his biggest challenges these days are fatigue and finances.

“Our family has always been very active in ministry,” he said, “but these two last years have been extremely full and busy.” Gockel’s father, Charlie Sr., has also been an integral leader in the reconstruction effort. The pastor also senses the fatigue of his congregation and community as time goes on and the number of volunteers decreases.

In Margaretville, a large wooden carved bear that stood against the rushing waters has become a community mascot – a symbol of the resilience of the people in the area. Dunlap, who was just entering his second year at Margaretville when Irene struck, said, “People here have always cared about one another, but now it’s in a more organized way.”

The community has a new food pantry that has been serving 200 families compared to only a couple dozen before the storm. It’s better organized and publicized with many more volunteers, Dunlap said.

Another result of the disaster has been increased church participation in Margaretville’s interfaith council and a more concerted effort in response to social justice issues. One other bonus has been a change in cell phone reception.

“The rescue personnel needed reliable communication, so now we have great cell phone service,” Dunlap said with a smile.

Dunlap also praised the recovery efforts of UMCOR and the Volunteers in Mission teams.

“I had great admiration before,” he said. “Now when One Great Hour of Sharing comes around, the congregation remembers that they came for our flood, and it’s time to give back.”

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