9/8/2011 10:00:00 AM HURRICANE EFFECTS CONTINUE Irene devastates several counties
The hardest-hit areas of the Albany Diocese have begun to report the massive damage caused by Hurricane Irene. National Grid workers replace a power pole not far from St. Gabrielís Church in Rotterdam (Nate Whitchurch photo).
• Sacred Heart parish in Lake George said that nearby businesses experienced flooding and they supplied food from the parish food pantry to a local hotel that was housing people who had evacuated their homes, but area residents are rugged: "Mountain people, they just say, 'Oh, well,' and move on."
• St. John the Evangelist parish in Schenectady's Stockade district reported that Sister Joan Vlaun, CSJ, who lives on Front St., was "one of the lucky ones" who got through the severe flooding there. However, a parish maintenance worker suffered a lot of damage to his home and a parishioner living in hard-hit Rotterdam Junction had to be evacuated from her home by boat.
• Our Lady of Fatima parish in Delanson reported that Rev. Peter Chepaitis, OFM, was "wiped out." He escaped the floodwaters with only "the clothes on his back, his violin and some of his puppets." Father Chepaitis is a Franciscan friar from Middleburgh who coordinates Bethany Ministries, leading parish missions and retreats, often using hand puppets.
Bishop Howard J. Hubbard asked parishes of the Albany Diocese to take up a special collection to provide relief support for those impacted by Hurricane Irene.
"The magnitude of devastation to families, farmers, businesses and local communities is astronomical. Initially, emergency response will include shelter, food, medicine and counseling," he said. "The struggle to meet basic human needs will last long after the cleanup is over: affordable, safe housing has to be found; children need to prepare for the upcoming school year; and soon after the need to replace warm winter clothing and to pay for heat and electricity - the list goes on. Efforts to restore the lives of everyone affected by Hurricane Irene will continue for a very long time."
HOW TO HELP
Catholic Charities of the Albany Diocese is working with its agencies in areas affected by Hurricane Irene -- including Delaware, Greene, Montgomery, Schoharie and Schenectady Counties -- to assess short- and long-term community needs and provide help. To donate online, go to www.ccrcda.org. Send checks, made out to Catholic Charities Irene Relief, to: Catholic Charities, 40 North Main Ave., Albany, NY 12203. For more information, call (518) 453-6650.
The word "devastated" is being repeated over and over again as residents of areas of the Albany Diocese torn apart by Hurricane Irene try to describe what's happening in their towns.
At least 18 families from Our Lady of the Valley parish in Middleburgh have lost everything; some hadn't checked in yet as of Sept. 1.
The Schoharie County parish only has about 237 families on its rolls, said office manager Jody Bartholomew; but already, "people are calling in to see what they can do to help.
"It's so devastating, nobody really knows what to do right now. They just need to know they have clothes on their back and a place to stay."
Parishioners have been making sandwiches and lunches for volunteers helping with cleanup, she said. Grief counseling is being set up in the parish hall. Our Lady of the Valley is taking up extra collections for victims.
The parish itself was hit by flooding, but on the scale of things in Middleburgh, the losses are being counted as minor.
"We lost everything in the [church] basement," Ms. Bartholomew told The Evangelist, "but the church only had three feet of mud and silt in the hall and six inches in the entrance. A tree did fall on the roof, but it did not go through."
Local businesses have been completely washed away. One of Ms. Bartholomew's family members worked at a hair salon that was filled with seven feet of water. The town was temporarily re-evacuated Aug. 29 because of propane leaks.
"The electricity started to come back on and we've already had two barns burn" when live wires hit wood and water that had mixed with fuel, Ms. Bartholomew added. "One disaster leads to another."
Parish life director Lynn O'Rourke said she's been doing "triage" at Our Lady of Fatima parish in Delanson. When St. Joseph's parish in Schoharie closed in 2009, she "inherited" an enclave of mostly-elderly Catholics living in Schoharie.
Since they don't tend to have cell phones, she said Sept. 1, "I can't find out where they are" after evacuations during the hurricane. She is assuming - and hoping - they're all safe.
When she did reach one man, she learned that his "house is no more. Where his neighborhood stood looks like Hiroshima after the bomb - and this is just the tip of the iceberg."
Mrs. O'Rourke said the man later told her, "I'm OK. God is good."
The PLD is working on ways to help. Already, she said, the parish's Knights of Columbus chapter had "adopted" Community Maternity Services of Schoharie, a Catholic Charities agency that was under seven feet of water after the storm.
Mrs. O'Rourke also plans to take up donations for CMS during a parish waffle breakfast and teaching day on the new Roman Missal.
"It won't be a lot; this is not a wealthy community. But we'll send it down to CMS," she vowed. An annual collection of school supplies that's usually sent elsewhere will also go to Schoharie students instead.
Rather than calling to ask for help, people are calling to offer it, Mrs. O'Rourke added: "People are saying, 'How can I help? What can I do?'"
One woman passing through on her way home to New Hampshire saw the damage in Schoharie County and decided she could afford to spend $100 on groceries for those affected. She filled the trunk of her car and prayed for a sign from God about where to bring it - and then saw Our Lady of Fatima parish and stopped there.
"I am so humbled and blessed," said Mrs. O'Rourke.
The Evangelist reached Gen Overholt, director of the Schoharie CMS office, on Sept. 2.
"It came through like a tsunami," she said of the 10 feet of water that roared over the Gilboa Dam and through Schoharie. "Our office got washed out. There was seven feet of water in our office. We didn't have power for three or four days. There's no electricity in the village because there's so much fuel oil in the water. My lifelong friends, their house was destroyed, so they're living with me."
But she most wanted to communicate the "human side" of the story: The amazing amount of help with cleanup she continues to receive - sometimes, without even asking for it.
"Three young men I didn't even know came on bicycles and said, 'Can we help you?' And they spent days cleaning. I didn't even know their names" beyond "Corey, Nick and Eric."
When Ms. Overholt called Our Lady of Fatima parish in Delanson for help, Knights of Columbus, parishioners and their children showed up within an hour.
"You're seeing God's work in everybody," the CMS director declared.
Working from home, Ms. Overholt and her staff have touched base with clients and learned that they are OK. "My staff is wonderful," Ms. Overholt told The Evangelist. "I love living here. I'd never leave."
But the human and material toll of the hurricane continues.
"People are working nonstop. The biggest problem is mildew. Right now we're in recovery cleanup mode. With something of this magnitude, you can only think of one little thing at a time; so since Sunday, my goal has been to clean everything out of the office because of the health hazard.
"Everybody has lost," she added, but "the community is determined to rebuild."
'A war zone'
Windham "is like a war zone," said Rev. James Schiffer, pastor of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus parish there.
All the Greene County parish had was water in the basement, he said, but at least two local residents lost their lives: "One lady, the water just took her house off the foundation, and she was in the house; the owner of one of the businesses in Prattsville had a heart attack."
When he spoke to The Evangelist Sept. 1, Father Schiffer was on his way to see a parishioner who lost a home in the flooding. "We wanted to tell them we're thinking about them," he said simply.
St. Theresa's, located on the end of town that escaped the worst flooding, had become an aid station. Newly-homeless Windham residents were coming in for water, food and fuel. Only one store in the town was able to reopen after the hurricane.
About 500 families attend St. Theresa's year-round, but Father Schiffer hopes the hundreds of tourists who come to Sunday Masses and own second homes in the area will help the town rebuild.
"We're the largest church in town," he noted. But all the other local churches are pitching in with aid, as are residents who are suffering themselves: "It's a good human interest story - it's neighbor helping neighbor down here."
Parish secretary Siobhan Lavery is coordinating the aid efforts. Father Schiffer said that The College of Saint Rose in Albany was planning to ship non-perishable food to the parish and that Bishop Howard J. Hubbard had called to offer support.
"We appreciate all the help we can get," the pastor said, but added that even reaching the town is still difficult: "The best thing you can do is stay out."
Rev. Paul Catena's shock and exhaustion was evident Sept. 1. He'd finally gotten a little sleep the night before, he said, but that was after being up for several nights.
"A lot of my parishioners are safe," Father Catena reported. "Probably 90 percent made it out without a problem," though some parishioners in nearby Fleischmanns reported losses.
Sacred Heart parish in Margaretville, his first pastorate, was ironically one of the hardest-hit places in the Delaware County town.
"Sunday to Wednesday were really insane," Father Catena reported. "The National Guard is here; FEMA is here; the Governor's been here. I'm learning on the job about disaster relief."
The priest has been staying in an apartment above a store owned by parishioners. The first floor of the parish rectory where he lives had been filled with 15 inches of water; when it receded, it left behind "mud that's basically toxic, because fuel oil got into the mud," he said. He'd been doing the rectory clean-up himself, since his personal property was affected.
There had been two feet of water in Sacred Heart's parish hall. An inch of mud remained throughout the building. The garage took the worst blow, with water so deep it totaled Father Catena's car.
Everything else in the garage was also lost, he said: "The sacramental wine was swept away. The envelopes for next year were swept away." Statuary from a closed mission church is gone before parishioners had the chance to decide where to use it.
Sacred Heart Church itself hadn't had much "real damage" aside from 15 inches of water and a "trail of mud," according to Father Catena, because he'd had time before the flood hit to move items to higher ground. He remarked that all the Mass vestments will have to be dry-cleaned, since the bottom couple of inches of each item had been soaked.
The priest and volunteers had been concentrating on moving debris and raking until insurance adjusters arrived to do any major cleanup.
"A Red Cross worker asked me a bunch of questions," Father Catena said, sounding bewildered. "People are asking me what the needs are. And I don't know."
Sharon Stein, an organist for the Parish of St. John the Evangelist and St. Joseph in Rensselaer, died Aug. 28 while trying to evacuate her Clarksville home during the storm. She was 68.
Mrs. Stein was a retired state worker and held a master's degree in healthcare administration. In recent decades, she served as organist for other Christian churches in Rensselaerville, Unionville, Delmar and Mechanicville.
An Episcopalian, she educated herself on Catholic theology when she was hired in Rensselaer seven months ago. She and the parish also paid for lessons to enhance her lifelong organ skills.
"People here are devastated" to hear of her passing, said Rev. Adam Forno, pastor. "She folded herself into the life of the community."
Mrs. Stein's job required 10 to 15 hours of weekly work, but practice time often put her near 40 hours. "That's true ministry - where you don't count the cost of the time you're putting in," Father Forno said. "She had a passion for liturgy, a passion to give glory and praise to God."
Mrs. Stein left her organ shoes beneath the parish's Italian pipe organ. In memoriam, Father Forno plans to enshrine them in the gathering space of the church.
(Staff writer Angela Cave contributed to this story.)