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Drenched communities pray levees will hold


6:00 P.M. EST May 11, 2011

Youth from First United Methodist Church, Metropolis, Ill., spent 10 days filling sandbags and sandbagging area homes to stop floodwaters. A web-only photo courtesy of Dena Hopkins.
Youth from First United Methodist Church, Metropolis, Ill., spent 10 days filling sandbags and sandbagging area homes to stop floodwaters. A web-only photo courtesy of Dena Hopkins.

As the Mississippi River crests in Memphis, Tenn., residents of Louisiana and Mississippi brace for its mighty surge downstream. And people in Illinois, Kentucky and Missouri pray levees in already-soaked areas will hold.

Meanwhile, for the third year in a row, record flooding is affecting communities along the Red River in North Dakota and Minnesota, and in Vermont, floodwaters from Lake Champlain are expected to surpass a previous high set in 1869.

Thousands of square miles of farmland are already under water. Many have fled as water inundates homes. But as melted snow and record rainfall saturate communities across the United States, United Methodists are responding and reaching out.

In southern Illinois, where the Mississippi and Ohio rivers meet, the little town of Cairo, Ill., has already evacuated as U.S. Army Corps of Engineers detonated levees to relieve pressure, widening the river from three-quarters of a mile to three miles.

An hour northeast of Cairo, youth from First United Methodist Church, Metropolis, Ill., have assembled sandbags, sandbagged homes and built sand walls around neighborhoods.

“These students, among hundreds of others in our community, spent 10 days sandbagging as our community flooded,” youth director Dena Hopkins said. The teens, along with parents and young siblings, put together about 1,800 bags an hour.

In Kentucky, the Elizabethtown United Methodist District assisted flood survivors in West Point and Colesburg. Working with relief organizations, the district’s churches collected and distributed bleach and cleaning buckets.

Torrential rain has directly affected one church in the northern part of the state, reported James “Jim” Morse, disaster-response coordinator for the Kentucky Annual (regional) Conference.

‘We’re not out of the woods yet’

However, in western Kentucky, river flooding threatens many congregations, especially in Livingston, McLean, Ohio and Union counties. Several areas remain isolated by floodwaters, and many people are displaced. 

In some towns, boats can be driven down streets and past homes. Rows of mailboxes jut up from the water.

The Rev. Jay Smith, Madisonville District superintendent, prays the levees will hold in Smithland and Ledbetter, preventing additional flooding. There are three United Methodist churches in Smithland, one in Ledbetter. Both communities are part of the Memphis Conference.

Smithland is where the Cumberland and Ohio rivers come together.

“If the levee doesn’t hold, churches and 200 homes will be affected,” Smith said.

Ten miles from Smithland, Ledbetter is on the far-western edge of the conference, at the merge of the Tennessee and Ohio rivers. Already, 100 homes have sustained water damage.

A field lies flooded by the water of the St. Francis Tributary east of Forrest City in eastern Arkansas.  A UMNS photo by Heather Hahn.
A field lies flooded by the water of the St. Francis River east of Forrest City in eastern Arkansas. A UMNS photo by Heather Hahn.
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Ledbetter United Methodist Church is prepared to be a hub for relief volunteers.

“Thankfully,” Smith said, the water “did not get into the church and the parsonage.

“It wasn’t as bad as we were afraid it would be, but we’re not out of the woods yet,” he added.

United Methodists across the conference have assembled cleaning buckets and laid more than 30,000 sandbags.

“We’re busy — on the ground and on the boat,” Smith said.

Helping mentally, physically and spiritually

The twisters that ricocheted through the U.S. South two weeks ago wiped out communities and left devastation in southwestern Tennessee and Arkansas as well as Alabama. And now, United Methodists and their neighbors in many of the same areas are sandbagging and moving people to higher ground.

As the Mississippi River stretched from its normal half-mile width to three miles wide in Memphis, conference disaster coordinator Bill Carr was on full alert. Across the river, residents of Arkansas were also keeping watch.

“I’m running late from a flood meeting to go to a tornado meeting,” Carr said on May 10.

Major cities like Memphis get media attention, Carr said, but smaller cities have been hard-hit, too.

“I’m concerned about the small communities that often fall through the cracks,” he said. Many are farmers, accustomed to taking care of themselves and reluctant to ask for aid.

“We’re gearing up to help people mentally, physically and spiritually,” Carr said.

United Methodists are joining neighbors of other faiths in the effort. Laying sandbags is one way to respond, and youth groups and Sunday school classes are hard at work.

“A member of my church — Reidland United Methodist in Paducah — called to say his home was surrounded by water,” Carr said. People from the congregation pitched in to help with sandbagging.

Carr pointed out that people often think when the river crests, the worst is over. But the threat of flooding will continue for at least another week, and it will be another two weeks before the river can be pulled back into its banks.

The fact that residents of many of the low-lying areas of Memphis live in mobile homes and older homes “will bring a whole new dimension to the recovery,” he said. Homes considered “fixer-uppers” before the flood are especially at risk.

In Memphis, Germantown and Christ United Methodist churches have come together to open a 150-bed shelter at the Germantown location.

‘How high will the levee hold?’

On April 27, a State of Emergency was declared for 39 Mississippi counties and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians after severe storms moved across the state. Many of these counties, still in recovery from the spring storms of 2010, anticipate floodwaters from the overflowing Mississippi and the connecting tributaries.

Mississippi Conference Disaster Response is organizing recovery efforts.

“The real work of response and recovery is always done by the people,” said the Rev. Wayne Napier, disaster response coordinator for the Mississippi Conference. “The people are busy as the flood continues to loom, and preparations for shelter and shelter support are being finalized.

“Disaster is always local first. The water rises, sits and then goes down. … We must be ready to respond to the changing needs.”

The conference is coordinating efforts with Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster partners.

“We are helping folks get out,” Napier said. “We are encouraging folks to get out. District coordinators and other volunteers are working to stay abreast of the situation while working to create a network … to meet the needs of those impacted.”

Of course, the ongoing question is, “How high will the levee hold?” 

In Vicksburg, Miss., Hawkins United Methodist Church is housing those whose homes are in danger of flooding.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief is working with annual conferences to respond to communities that have been devastated by these disasters, but funds are being disbursed faster than they are replenished. Donations can be made to US Spring Storms 2011, UMCOR Emergency Advance #3021326.

*Dunlap-Berg is internal content editor for United Methodist Communications.

News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn., 615-742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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