New Hampshire town floods

October 14, 2005

'Huge wall of water' The United Church of Christ in response to the flooding in Alstead, New Hampshire has sent funds to assist the Third Congregational Church in providing shelter, food and water to members of the community who had to evacuate their homes.

The United Church of Christ in response to the flooding in Alstead, New Hampshire has sent $5,000 from the One Great Hour of Sharing, Emergency USA fund to assist the Third Congregational Church. This UCC church has been providing shelter, food and water to members of the community who had to evacuate their homes.

"Nobody has ever seen anything like this in this area," said Myrna Harrington of Alstead's Third Congregational Church, describing flood damage in her small town.

The small Cheshire County town was hit hard by the flooding, which Harrington said was unlike any other minor spring flooding experienced there before. "A huge culvert on the other side of town backed up and then gave way, and then a huge wall of water washed down over the city. One home after another was taken. Mobile homes were taken and carried across the roads."

Third Congregational Church is now serving as the official American Red Cross shelter for Alstead. Harrington said a good many of the church's parishioners were affected by the flood, and many are now homeless - and even landless. Many people saw their homes plus the land beneath and around them just completely wash away.

Some also have harrowing tales of the wall of water that came through town.

"One lady said rescuers didn't get to her home to warn her in time and she watched that wall of water from her attic," said Harrington. "She said it was like a little tsunami. It's amazing her house is still there, all the others around it are gone."

Thursday afternoon, Jack Cochrane sat in the basement of Third Congregational Church in Alstead eating lunch with some fellow residents. He took a moment to sketch a before and after drawing of his home on a napkin. "I had a stream, a wall, and a hill behind my home," he explained, pointing to a few small squares on the napkin. "And now all that's left is just rocks and mud."

Cochrane is not alone in his loss. As many as 15 to 20 other homes were completely wiped out when torrential rains deluged the small southwestern New Hampshire town over the weekend. A culvert at the north end of town backed up with debris and then failed, sending a wall of water rushing through the center of town.

To help those residents whose homes were damaged or destroyed, the Third Congregational Church opened its doors to feed and support anyone in need. Stacks of fruit and snacks lined tables. Thursday afternoon saw several residents and local police officers grateful for the church's generosity.

"We've had many churches calling in with help," said the Rev. Janice Howe, pastor of Third Congregational Church. "People just want to help." She added that the United Church of Christ Disaster Ministries office sent funds, as did the New Hampshire Conference of the United Church of Christ. As Howe spoke, several people showed up with more donations. One family with kids brought in trays of brownies. Another woman asked where she could donate money. That generosity, Howe said, is helping the church to focus more on the personal needs of affected residents.

Across the street from the church are two homes that look almost normal from the front. Around back is a different story, however. The ground is washed away along the bank of the river, leaving sagging and splintered boards and gaps where the foundations used to sit. Further down the river a home leaned precariously over the edge of the river, the bank washed away beneath much of it. Some residents worry about rebuilding because even their land was washed away.

Howe said she's also keeping abreast of everyone's spiritual and emotional state. She said most are doing remarkably well. Others are angry.

To help the entire community cope with the devastation and loss, this Sunday at Third Congregational will be a service of prayer and unity. "All are welcome," said Howe, who added that it will most likely include time for everyone to share if they want. For residents, the consistent "open door" at Third Congregational is one of few consistent aspects of their lives at this point.

Now community officials and police are telling residents to not drink the water because of all the contamination. When the flood roared through, sewage, gas, oil, propane and more went into the water as well.

A spokesman for the New Hampshire Bureau of Emergency Management (NHBEM) said damage assessments are just now beginning as the water recedes. There is no estimate of how many homes were damaged or washed away yet. "We're just making incremental progress right now," said Jim Van Dongen, spokesperson for NHBEM. "We're getting power restored in one area where it was out in large numbers. But we're in this for the long-term."

Van Dongen added that the state is seeking a disaster declaration from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. National Guard troops have been activated and are assisting in communities like Alstead. More than 50 roads suffered severe damage from the floods and several crucial bridges washed out as well. Many other small towns like Alstead suffered damage, including Marlow, Walpole and Acworth. High water flooded into bigger cities like Keene, too. Aerial photos of the city show entire neighborhoods surrounded by water.

"We had many parishioners affected, but it was mostly very flooded basements," said the Rev. Sue Phillips of Keene's Unitarian Universalist Church. "Fortunately none suffered physical harm, just home damage."

The flooding did provide a glimpse into everyone's vulnerability, she added. "We're much more vulnerable than we think, and this was an experience in that. I've spoken to a number of parishioners who are experiencing that vulnerability and their own fragility. I think that's a good thing - especially if it compels us to greater compassion." Phillips said her church is helping.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

1. Pray for people who live in communities affected by floods.

2. To help those affected by disasters you may send gifts payable to your congregation marked for "Emergency USA" with the request they be sent through your Conference office on to Wider Church Ministries.

OR

3. Send gifts payable to Wider Church Ministries and marked in the memo portion "Emergency USA" to the Office for Global Sharing of Resources; Wider Church Ministries; 700 Prospect Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44115.

OR

4. Make a secure on-line donation now to Emergency USA. 

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