Mennonite Disaster Service partners for rebuilding in Binghampton area

by Scott Sundberg, MDS

doug-and-lewlyn.jpgEditors note: Broome County, New York, particularly the Binghampton area is the home of numerous persons who attend Franconia Conference’s Lakeview congregation in Susquehanna County, PA.

Conklin, NY–The fall colors and slow flow of the Susquehanna River belied the reality that was June 27 just this last summer. Standing on the banks of the river, the cold October air was threatening snow,

but around us were images that seemed to have more in common with the Gulf Coast than with this part of New York State. A FEMA trailer occupied a driveway to the right, and to the left, a gutted house stood, mold reaching up the siding, and a large spray-painted “X” decorated the window telling whether there were any fatalities in this particular house.

As a nation still focused on the devastating affects of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, towns in this area of New York suffered the worst flooding in their memory. One disaster management official was recently heard recently saying that he thought the area was all taken care of.

Working together with Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) on rebuilding the area is Lorna Kinsman, who is working with Presbyterian Disaster Service (PDS). Kinsman said she appreciated the loyalty of those who realize that the area is not “taken care of.” She added, “Every time we hear the Mennonites are coming, it’s just a gift from God.”

MDS and PDS are working together. PDS is helping to secure funding and accomplish the weighty task of casework and MDS is working on how and when to start working on the many devastated homes. “Maybe those who are close by would consider coming here rather than go south, as long as they don’t mind getting their fingers a little cold,” said Llewellyn Zehr, MDS Unit Chair for New York, who is coordinating MDS’response.

This severity of flooding basically unheard of.

The rains started on a Tuesday night, and by morning, houses were flooded. People were being evacuated by helicopters to islands of high ground. Some houses saw water up to their gutters. One man tried to escape the waters by climbing into his attic with his dog, while the waters lapped at his feet.

The Conklin Fire Station became a temporary refuge for many. Some churches that were not affected offered showers for people, as well as cots. The Conklin Presbyterian Church at one point was serving 1,500 meals a day, and started assisting people impacted by the flood the day of the flooding. People whose houses were not impacted by the flood also opened their homes for volunteers. Local food distributors also donated food. The Salvation Army was in the area early, providing initial cleanup and food.

Almost all mobile and trailer homes in the area have been destroyed, and there are virtually no rentals available. Single-family homes that had seemed secure on their foundations floated downriver.

Reports have stated that as many as 1,000 homes were destroyed in the Southern Tier area of New York, and as many as 3,500 homes were damaged. Some 500 homes in Conklin alone, just north of the Pennsylvania border, were damaged. Some have been gutted, others need gutting, and still others that were condemned have been burned down.

Though the flooding only lasted a day or two, its impact is still strongly felt today. Driving through just this one town of Conklin one sees house after house empty, moldy, marked on the window with the infamous “X.” Numerous businesses have failed to return.

The work is more than any one community, group or organization can manage on their own.

“The community is strapped, and it is hard for them to help themselves. It needs outside help, moral support and a persistent presence that will show the community that others care and are concerned,” said Doug Horne, volunteer coordinator with the Presbytery of the Susquehanna Valley.

FEMA trailers that dot the town are some help, but they have not been built for winter in New York. Mud, leftover silt and debris from the river, still fill many yards. Mold can be seen colorfully decorating the sides of many homes, and the high water mark is still evidenced above some garage doors. Soon after the initial cleanup, debris and flotsam filled one store’s parking lot end to end, and was 30 feet high.

While many volunteers look for opportunities in the Gulf States this winter, MDS is mindful that local units have projects that offer many of the same challenges for fulfilling MDS’ mandate of responding, rebuilding and restoring. MDS will be one of the only volunteer groups working in the area over the winter. “We’re in a little different situation up here: we’re not in the Gulf where it doesn’t freeze,” commented Zehr. As one volunteer said, “There’s going to be a lot of work–a lot.”

mds-logo.jpgMennonite Disaster Service is a channel through which various constituencies of the Anabaptist church can respond to those affected by disasters in North America. While our main focus is on clean up, repair and rebuilding homes, this activity becomes a means of touching lives and helping people regain faith and wholeness.