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Power outage shows need for church response plan, official says

8/15/2003 News media contact: Kathy Gilbert · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

A UMNS Report By Kathy Gilbert and Tim Tanton*

When the widespread power outage hit the U.S. Northeast, the Rev. Tom Hazelwood immediately worried about the elderly and the disabled people who might have been stuck in sweltering heat without any way to call for help.

"This is where churches should have a disaster plan that allows for a quick way to check on the most vulnerable parishioners," said Hazelwood, executive with the United Methodist Committee on Relief's Washington office.

Many churches in the affected areas did that immediately on Aug. 14 or the following morning, making certain that their elderly members and others were all right. Pastors also responded to the outage with the time-honored plan of throwing open their doors and ministering to passersby by providing water, food and a place to rest.

Congregations should reach out to those who depend on life-support machines, who may only have cordless phones, or be stuck in places without ventilation, Hazelwood said. "Churches should think about how they would reach out to someone in a 120-degree house or in a place without lifts or elevators for the disabled."

The power failure hit about 4:30 p.m. Eastern time, knocking out power from southern Canada through New York and northern New Jersey and westward to Ohio and Michigan.

For many people, the outage stirred memories of another crisis - the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks - and people initially feared that the power failure was the result of another attack. Once that fear was dispelled, a general sense of relief took over, United Methodist pastors reported.

In New York City's Upper East Side, the Rev. William Shillady spent four hours on the sidewalk in front of Park Avenue United Methodist Church, handing out water to people walking by. People congregated around his radio, and Shillady noted that many of them were skeptical about reports that the outage was not caused by terrorists.

"It was very, very funny to just have this sort of reaction," he said the next day. When the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks occurred, people were scared, he said. "Yesterday, people were skeptical. They were coping pretty well with the emergency, but they were skeptical."

Shillady's church also set up chairs on the sidewalk for people to rest and provided flashlights for those needing to use the restroom in the basement. "It was a party atmosphere," the pastor said.

Like Shillady, the Rev. James "K" Karpen was at church when the outage occurred.

"I was at church and everything went dark - computers and everything," said Karpen, pastor of the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, United Methodist, on the Upper West Side. "My administrator came down out of her office … (and) seemed to think I had done something. I wasn't willing to take responsibility for it."

When they realized the scope of the problem, Karpen decided to keep the church open. Without subways or buses operating, people filled the streets. The church provided a place for people to rest and use the bathroom. Karpen and his family also welcomed people into the parsonage and prepared a large meal with food - including several cartons of ice cream - from the church refrigerator.

Church members developed a network to call elderly people and others, to ensure that everyone was safe. "It was a hot, muggy time too - dangerous for the elderly folks in our congregation," Karpen said.

In the Village's Washington Square Park, people had a "big party," playing music and hanging out, said the Rev. Bryan Hooper, pastor of nearby Washington Square United Methodist Church. "People were taking it really well."

At his church, a play was under way when the power went out. People hung around afterward and others came in from the street, and Hooper kept the church open as long as he could before darkness fell. "People came to the church as a natural thing," he said.

The following morning, he reported by phone that patches of electricity were coming back on around the city. He saw the potential for serious problems if the outages continued.

Without electricity, accessing ATMs and buying groceries are difficult, he said. A prolonged power outage could leave many - particularly elderly people - vulnerable to the heat.

Loss of electricity meant that Washington Square Church didn't get its weekly food delivery for its Sunday feeding program, so church workers on Aug. 15 were making 200 bag lunches to give the needy people.

The outage prevented many people from reaching the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, which runs the city's biggest food pantry. Karpen reported that only about 20 families had made it to the food pantry as of early afternoon Aug. 15, compared with a normal count of about 100 families. About 40 percent of those people are homeless, and the rest have jobs but don't make a living wage, the pastor said.

New Yorkers were treating the outage largely as an inconvenience. Pastors reported that people were helping each other and that a good spirit prevailed. That's "typical for New Yorkers," Hooper said.

"The nature of the difficulty was quite different" from the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, said the Rev. Don Collier, interim pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church in Peekskill, N.Y. "But the thing that was very apparent (was) the response of people in helping each other and being present for each other." Swarms of people were on the streets of New York City after the subways stopped, but they weren't upset, he said. "They learned on 9-11 how they could walk home - how to walk miles and miles to get home - and they were doing it again."

One outage-related death, caused by heart attack, was reported in New York City as of midday Aug. 15. People in Cleveland and Detroit were still struggling with severe power and water problems. Calls to church officials in those areas had not been returned by press time.

In contrast to the city problems, Collier's community regained power three hours after the outage and had electricity throughout the first night. In the morning, the power was off again as utilities implemented rolling blackouts to preserve electricity.

Collier, who is also director of communications for the New York Annual Conference, was driving home from his office in White Plains when the outage occurred. Traffic lights went out and the car radio went off the air, he said. The conference office is typically closed on Fridays during the summer, so he spent the next day at home.

Collier's church is holding its August services at Bethel Chapel, a 225-year-old structure near the Asbury sanctuary. The building is much the same as it was when Methodist pioneer Francis Asbury preached there more than two centuries ago, so a power outage wouldn't be a problem for Sunday worship. The chapel has no running water or electricity, Collier said, "so we won't be bothered at all."
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*Gilbert and Tanton are staff writers for United Methodist News Service.

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