The Rev. David A. Fleming has every right to feel relieved that Community UCC in Margate, N.J., is still standing almost unscathed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy's destructive path along the Eastern seaboard. But he says his relief is muted, because some of his congregants are not as fortunate.
Margate, a island community along the Atlantic Ocean, was evacuated because it sat in the middle of Sandy's path. The storm made landfall on Monday, Oct. 29, destroying houses and buildings with high winds, and causing more damage across the Eastern U.S. with flood waters.
"[A] good number of my families that live on the island have suffered major flooding in their homes," Fleming said. Two of those families from Margate and Longport have had their homes declared total losses from water and electrical damage. Fleming said there were at least six more families who have homes that took on water.
Witnessing the effect of the storm on the community has given the congregation, and others like it, a new purpose.
With nearly 500 members, Margate is a regional church with members on and off the island. About 50 members reside in Ocean City, N.J., and Fleming said several of them suffered flood damage to their homes, while many mainland members experienced power outages, downed trees and river flooding. Travel in some areas has been hampered by impassable roads.
"Margate has taken on a whole new environment since the storm," Fleming said. "We are living with the beeping sounds of large front-loaders and earth movers as they try to take the beach sand out of the streets and back to the beach or ocean. Piles of sand sit in the streets waiting for removal. What few stores we have are closed and surrounded by water and damage restoration trucks. And scattered around the city are dumpsters awaiting the discarded home furnishings and appliances and family items that have been water soaked and destroyed."
The church sits on higher ground than other nearby buildings, and aside from wind damage to the roof and related leaking, it escaped the full brunt of Sandy's force. The building didn't take on any water, while homes just a few blocks away are flooded, with water reaching as high as 6 feet. Community UCC has electricity and heat, so it proceeded with its scheduled Sunday worship and will focus on helping its members and the community recover.
Fleming said food and clothing drives are already underway in the area, and Community UCC will "find its place in this service and my mission group will become active in efforts to rebuild or restore homes once an effort is organized and under necessary supervision."
Central Atlantic Conference Minister the Rev. John R. Deckenback said there are as many as 13 churches in New Jersey still without power after the weekend. Union Congregational UCC in Montclair, N.J., held Sunday worship without lights.
Other New Jersey UCC churches have become temporary shelters to families seeking hot meals, or to charge their mobile phones. "Many of them are doing it at the request of their local governments," Deckenback said. "But we know there are some communities not getting the kind of publicity as larger ones.There are small towns that don't make headlines and don't have churches. It has to be in the scope of our concern."
The UCC national setting has already started collecting donations, and will continue to monitor the recovery effort in all 17 affected states and address the needs and requests of local churches as they recover from the storm.
"Life will go on," Fleming said, "but we will most likely find that this storm has redefined and widened our mission and purpose."