N.J. struggles to assess damage; bishop focuses concern on human needs as ‘everything down’

OCEAN, N.J. — The widespread effects of Hurricane Sandy on New Jersey have made it difficult for United Methodists to assess immediately the needs of churches and communities, said Bishop John Schol, Greater New Jersey Annual (regional) Conference.

“Our main challenge is 2.4 million people without electricity,” the bishop told United Methodist News Service Thursday morning. “Everything is down.”

Another challenge is reaching communities by car with fallen trees littering the roads, but Schol has managed to visit churches in northern and central parts of the state and was to meet with pastors and tour shelters and disaster sites in South Jersey today.

“A lot of our concern right now is the human needs: shelter for people, food, providing support and counseling,” he said. “We are making grants available to churches and community organizations engaged in immediate human-needs response.”

Chatham United Methodist Church, for example, has provided 100 displaced Drew University students with a place to sleep, hot meals and “electricity to charge up their electronics to call home and do homework.” Morrow Memorial United Methodist Church in Maplewood also has opened its doors to the community.

Report of death but no details

Schol said he had received one report of a United Methodist death in the northern part of the conference late Wednesday night but had no details yet. Most of the New Jersey deaths from Sandy are related to falling trees, he noted.

The three hardest-hit districts were Cape Atlantic, Northern Shore and Gateway North, all along the Jersey Shore. “We know there is significant damage and challenges in the other districts as well,” Schol said in a letter to his conference.

Although district superintendents are working with clergy on initial needs assessments, “getting good, accurate reports is very difficult right now,” the bishop acknowledged.

That is particularly true of the areas along the Jersey shore hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy.

“Nobody’s been able to go back into Atlantic City,” Schol said. “We (also) just assume that all of our churches in the barrier islands are underwater.”

Atlantic City sustained major damage, with 70 percent to 80 percent of the city underwater as of 8 a.m. Tuesday, the New York Times reported. A small stretch of the city’s famous boardwalk was washed out, but is undamaged in the main tourist areas, tourism officials said. Aerial photography has documented the hurricane devastation to the barrier islands of Ocean County, along the Jersey Shore.

One brighter spot is Ocean Grove — not far from Asbury Park and the episcopal residence in Eatontown — which Schol toured on Tuesday. Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, founded in 1869, is an independent United Methodist-related ministry organization that offers a program of preaching, teaching and celebration.

“Their beachheads and their boardwalks took the brunt of the storm, in terms of water,” he reported. “Ocean Grove had damage to the Great Auditorium on the roof, but many of the homes did OK. They just had big piles of sand in the street.”

Toppled trees, gas shortages

The hurricane toppled mature trees 50 feet to 70 feet tall in many communities, including his own, blocking roads and taking down power lines. In some areas, gasoline is in short supply. “Tuesday, I passed a gas line a mile in each direction,” Schol said, adding that someone from conference had waited six hours in line to fill gasoline containers for generator use.

The bishop said they were heartened by emails of support and prayer from across the church, a blessing of the connectional system. Those with hurricane recovery experience from Mississippi and Louisiana already are reaching out. “We’re going to want to work with them to really learn from their experiences about how best to move forward,” he noted.

Greater New Jersey Conference officials are creating a disaster response plan in cooperation with the United Methodist Committee on Relief, faith-based groups and municipal and state government officials, Schol said.

The conference is not yet ready to receive volunteers for disaster assistance, but as Schol has toured New Jersey, he has witnessed the church already at work.

“I saw Jesus,” he wrote in a pastoral letter late Oct. 31, “walking around New Jersey and parts of New York. I saw the pastors and laity of several of our churches who have opened their doors to house people and to be a community center in the midst of the storm and aftermath. Talk about open hearts, open minds and open doors. These laity and clergy became the heart, the mind and the door to Christ.

“I’m just so pleased and grateful for the creativity, the wisdom and the determination of the people here in this conference,” Schol told UMNS. They’re really doing a great job in these initial days.”

Contribute to the Hurricane Sandy relief efforts.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York. 

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