By Janine Ungvarsky, Diocesan ERD Development Project Manager
Forty years ago this past Saturday, like thousands of others I was awakened in the predawn darkness to the sound of blaring sirens and urgent warnings to evacuate immediately. It was June 23, 1972—the day Hurricane Agnes sent the Susquehanna River on a rampage that ravaged the Wyoming Valley. On that day, life changed forever for over 200,000 local residents, none of whom were prepared for the extent of the devastation and the clean up task before them.
Last Saturday, June 23, 2012, I once again awoke in the predawn darkness, this time to a blaring alarm. Instead of the fear and confusion that followed on that early morning 40 years ago, this time I was filled with hope and anticipation. It was our first regional work day at the newly reborn St. George’s Disaster Recovery & Outreach Center, and I was eager to see what the response would be to our call for help and how far we would get in our efforts to be ready to assist in disasters yet to come.
Father John Major and I arrived at the center at around 6:15 a.m. to prepare for the volunteers we were expecting around 7 a.m. We didn’t have long to wait. Sue Ellen Andreas came in with tools in hand at around 6:45 and promptly set to work loading piles of brush from the overgrown parking lot into the dumpster. Later, Sue Ellen would begin the hard and dusty work of sanding the elevated wooden platform where the altar will stand in the worship area, preparing the formerly carpeted surface for staining and refinishing.
The volunteers came in quick succession after that. Deacon Liz Miller and her husband, Terry, spent the day painting four large closets in the community center, creating bright, clean storage areas for non-perishable foods and clean-up supplies. Deacon Marion Meiss took on the yard sale, setting up displays of various odds and ends from St. George’s former life to be sold to the dozens of area residents who stopped by. Proceeds from the yard sale will be used to purchase supplies for the center. Deacon Marion’s husband, George, was also on hand helping to load the dumpster and taking on some repairs to water damaged walls.
Father Charlie Warwick put his back into the work, providing muscle to load the dumpster and taking on several tedious but very necessary repair tasks. Father Charlie also helped Trinity West Pittston Senior Warden Rick Logan dismantle a pew, which he later helped Rick take to his home workshop. There, Rick will put his carpentry skills to work refashioning the pew into an altar and cross to be used in St. George’s worship area.
Trinity West Pittston Sunday School teacher Annie Sonday also arrived with some of the older students from her class. Annie, along with Daria and Lara Whyne, Erica Kline and Shane Sonday were all over the center, helping with everything from loading the dumpster to working the yard sale to pulling up floor tacks to cleaning pews and windows. They even used sidewalk chalk to create artistic signs directing yard sale customers from the outside portion of the sale to the inside tables. Volunteers and visitors alike commented on the kids’ great attitudes and dedication to their tasks.
Father John and I planned the day as a regional day of Episcopal service and prayer, but it took an ecumenical turn when Dale Zmeyeski, a member of neighboring St. John’s Lutheran Church, stopped by to shop at the yard sale and stayed to help scrape peeling paint in the narthex. The good folks from St. John’s and the local Lutheran churches have been working with members of the diocesan Disaster Recovery and Community Resiliency Committee to plan ways to help those affected by the September 2011 flooding and prepare to help in the future as well.
After five hours of steady, hard work, the volunteers took a break and Father Charlie led the group in a Noon Prayer service that included prayers for those affected by the Agnes Flood in 1972 and the September 2011 flooding, as well as those who are working to be ready to help in disasters yet to come. And, while the crew had steady access all morning to a supply of homemade baked goods donated by Annie Sonday, and Trinity West Pittston parishioners Helen Biles and Charise and Bill O’Konski, they still found room for a slice or two of pizza and some fellowship in what will eventually be the center’s office, before returning to work for another few hours.
It wasn’t planned as part of the event, but throughout the day Father John and I found that we had the opportunity to welcome some old and new friends into St. George’s. A number of former parishioners and some neighbors stopped by to shop the yard sale and see what was going on, and many shared memories of the dinners and other events held there in the past. Representatives of several other local churches and the Nanticoke Historical Society also stopped by to chat and offer their assistance in various ways. All expressed happiness that the building is experiencing new life to serve in times of disaster.
At the end of the day, a community room that had been filled with a combination of debris and yard sale treasures was all but empty, a 30 yard dumpster was full, work was well underway on several reconstruction projects in the narthex and worship area, and fresh paint was on the walls in several areas.
It was reminiscent of the days following the 1972 and 2011 floods, when people came together and rolled up their sleeves to help those whose homes were affected – efforts that are still ongoing in West Pittston and several other area communities that will be among the first to benefit from this new center. The difference on Saturday was that the work done by the volunteer crew that day won’t just help those affected by one disaster but by any number of disasters in the years to come.
It might seem a little pessimistic to be so focused on planning for future disasters, but a quick glance at this week’s news shows us they are an inevitable part of life, with thousands across the US fleeing from both floodwaters and firestorms. The past has shown that no matter what the experts do to try to prevent or minimize disasters, they will come anyway. The floodwaters of Hurricane Agnes topped the levees built to protect from water levels reached by the destructive flood of 1936; the newer levees built to protect against Agnes-level flooding barely protected Wilkes-Barre and Kingston last September from the same fate they suffered in 1972, and also had the unfortunate side effect of causing floodwaters to back up and reach record levels in communities upriver from the cities, such as West Pittston, Harding, Plains and Duryea.
If we can’t escape the disasters, we can at least be prepared to help those affected by them. The regional Episcopal Church in the disaster-prone Luzerne County area took a giant step forward towards that preparedness on Saturday, the anniversary of a flood that still ranks as one of the ten worst disasters in US history. I woke that day filled with hope and anticipation of what could be accomplished, and the day certainly lived up to those expectations. It was truly a joy to watch people of different ages and abilities working shoulder to shoulder to help prepare St. George’s to serve our neighbors when the need arises, and for me personally, it added some wonderfully positive memories to a day that for 40 years has meant only recollections of sadness and loss. Thank you to all who helped by giving of your time and talents to help move this project forward. Your help was very much needed and Father John and I deeply appreciate your assistance and your presence that day.
More work days will be planned, but if you want to help, you don’t need to wait for a scheduled work day. Some volunteers have already made arrangements to come up at times convenient to them to work on projects at St. George’s, including Sue Ellen Andreas, who is planning on making the trek from Jim Thorpe several times over the next few weeks to continue working on the worship space, and a mason who will be coming up to fix some cracks in the concrete and brick front of the church. Your help is needed and welcome, whether that help comes in the form of on-site work or organizing collections of supplies that will be needed in disasters (more on that to come soon). Please come join us and put your faith to work. And whether you are able to help us physically or not, please keep our efforts and our neighbors still struggling to recover from the September floods in your prayers.
Diocesan Episcopal Relief & Development Project Manager