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UMCOR presence is 'sign of hope' in Midwest floods

(From left) United Methodist Barry Cuvelier talks with Bishop Gregory Palmer and UMCOR representative Sandra Kennedy-Owes about the impact of a May 25 tornado and June 8 floods on New Hartford, a small farming community in northeastern Iowa.
UMNS photos by Marta W. Aldrich.

By Marta W. Aldrich*
June 30, 2008 | NEW HARTFORD, Iowa (UMNS)

Marcia Young looked left, then right, at piles of household debris as her minivan crept down Main Street in this small farming community.

"You can smell flood," said Young, disaster relief coordinator in Iowa for The United Methodist Church.

The Rev. Betsy Piette greets Sandra Kennedy-Owes and Marcia Young at First United Methodist Church in New Hartford.

She was referring to the smell of dirty water, even though the sun was shining on this day and the latest floodwaters had mostly drained away. Left behind were piles of musty-smelling Sheetrock, insulation, couches, refrigerators and sludge.

Sandra Kennedy-Owes, with the United Methodist Committee on Relief, sat beside her in the passenger seat. As UMCOR’s executive secretary for U.S. disaster response, Kennedy-Owes was getting a firsthand look at her agency’s next big domestic project: helping the church’s Iowa Annual (regional) Conference assist storm-weary residents.

At the request of the conference, Kennedy-Owes arrived June 22, following weeks of severe weather that began May 25 when a tornado bounced through nearby Parkersburg and the New Hartford area. Heavy rains and flooding followed, and more than 200 homes were impacted in New Hartford, population 659. Across the state, 70 of Iowa's 99 counties have been declared federal disaster areas due primarily to floods.

Kennedy-Owes and Young joined United Methodist Bishop Gregory Palmer in a tour of the state's northeastern counties, where swollen rivers spilled into neighborhoods and towns.

They visited First United Methodist Church on Water Street, where the basement was still being mopped out, and spoke with the Rev. Betsy Piette, whose own belongings were destroyed in both the tornado and the flood. They walked along Saratoga Street with Barry Cuvelier, a church member and school teacher, who told how more than 200 townspeople cleaned up the local school—as well as the baseball field so that Little League season could resume––even though most of the volunteers could have stayed home to muck out their own houses.

"That's the beauty of small-town Iowa," Young said. "Everybody helps everybody."

UMCOR on the ground

UMCOR has provided two $10,000 emergency grants for mobilization, and this week 1,500 flood buckets were to be distributed in Iowa to help with cleanup. Long-term recovery work lies ahead.

"People on the staff of UMCOR have been available to us at every turn," Palmer said. He called UMCOR's presence a "sign of hope" in the Midwest.

Newly sowed fields lie under water in
Iowa, where the state’s agriculture
secretary estimates crop
damage could reach $3 billion.

"It is a huge symbolic reminder because UMCOR means something to a lot of United Methodists that The United Methodist Church is here and will be committed connectionally as well as in the annual conference across a long span of time."

Iowa Gov. Chet Culver has said the floods of 2008 will be remembered as "one of the five worst natural disasters in U.S. history, given the scope and magnitude of the devastation," including an estimated $3 billion in crop damage. Flooding from heavy spring rains also has damaged parts of Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Nebraska.

Kennedy-Owes emphasized that UMCOR is first and foremost a resource for local response and long-term recovery. "We partner with the local conference, and the conference takes the lead," she said.

Its resources include money, consultation, training and coordination with the denomination's Volunteers in Mission program. The first VIM teams were expected to arrive in Iowa this week.

"We also have a spiritual and emotional component, training pastors as well as lay people to address those spiritual and emotional needs of families impacted by disasters," Kennedy-Owes said.

The Rev. Mary Gaudreau, UMCOR's spiritual and emotional care consultant, was to arrive in Iowa this week to tour damaged areas, consult with conference leaders and plan a local training for late July.

Local ownership

Young said it's important for the Iowa Conference and local churches to take the lead in responding to flood damage. "UMCOR's philosophy is that the conference and the town own the disaster, and they're here to help the conference walk through that ownership," she said. "It's not UMCOR's disaster; it's Iowa's disaster. … UMCOR partners with us."

And while many volunteer organizations focus on helping in the rescue and initial relief phase, UMCOR's focus is long-term recovery.

"After FEMA goes, after the insurance company goes, after the Red Cross is gone and the Salvation Army and other voluntary organizations, The United Methodist Church will be there to turn off the lights," Young said.

For information about how to help, visit the Iowa Conference Web site at www.iaumc.org/storms2008. To donate to UMCOR's relief efforts in the Midwest, drop checks in church offering plates or mail them directly to UMCOR, P.O. Box 9068, New York, NY 10087. Write Advance #901670, Midwest Flooding Relief, on the memo line. Credit-card donations can be made by calling (800) 554-8583 or online at www.givetomission.org.

*Aldrich is news editor of United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Marta Aldrich, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Video: Marcia Young

“(UMCOR) is known for long-term recovery."

"… The conference and the town own the disaster."

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