Mennonite groups are beginning the process of responding to Hurricane Florence’s devastation along the Atlantic coastline.
The Category 4 hurricane had maximum sustained winds of 130 mph, but weakened and was downgraded to a Category 1 hurricane before it made landfall Sept. 14 in North Carolina.
Rivers swelled to record levels after the slow-moving storm dumped more than 30 inches of rain in some locations. Damage in North and South Carolina and Virginia is estimated to be more than $17 billion.
At least 42 deaths have been attributed to the storm. More than half were people trapped in vehicles.
Christian Aid Ministries, supported by conservative Anabaptist churches, reported in a news release that team members traveled to North and South Carolina before the storm arrived in order to respond as quickly as possible.
CAM search-and-rescue teams moved stranded people to safer locations, in one incident moving more than 40 elderly people from their housing complex to higher ground as floodwaters rose.
A mobile “Loaves and Fishes” kitchen served hot meals to evacuees in Lumberton, N.C., as CAM chaplain ministry workers worked alongside kitchen workers to respond to spiritual needs.
The Church of the Brethren’s Brethren Disaster Ministries already had work crews scheduled to visit the Carolinas to continue rebuilding efforts addressing Hurricane Matthew damage from 2016. Volunteers traveled to the area in early September to rebuild what they could ahead of Florence.
BDM volunteers are keeping an eye on Nichols, S.C., where significant rebuilding work has taken place in the last year. Many residents had not returned to their homes prior to Florence. The water began entering Nichols on Sept. 18 and eventually flooded all the homes BDM had worked on.
Most Mennonite Brethren and Church of the Brethren congregations are located in the western part of North Carolina and avoided the storm’s full fury.
“By the grace of God we were not affected at all by Hurricane Florence,” said MB North Carolina District Conference minister Terry Hunt, who is also pastor of The Life Church in Lenoir, N.C. “All of our churches were spared, and there were no damages at all.
“I have been in contact with Mennonite Disaster Service, if we can send a few volunteers to help with the cleanup.”
Mennonite Church USA’s Virginia Mennonite Conference did not hear about significant damage in communities where it has churches. In North Carolina, the denomination’s churches are clustered in the central and western parts of the state.
“Our MC USA congregations have not suffered from the hurricane,” said Isaac Villegas, pastor of the centrally located Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship.
There are no MC USA congregations in South Carolina.
On Sept. 19, Mennonite Disaster Service partnered with Harrisburg, Pa., news channel ABC27 to raise more than $202,000 in a telethon, with other donations continuing to come in. Volunteer Frances Hillenbrand of Lititz said it was important for her to answer phones because she couldn’t go help out on-site.
“I’ve worked in flood-torn areas before, and I know what that’s like. I know how it paralyzes people,” she said in an MDS news release. “It takes months and years for them to recover. I’m so glad I live so close to MDS so I can give something back.”
MDS regional operations coordinator Larry Stoner was evaluating the scope of the hurricane’s damage and working to identify a site for volunteer accommodations and jobs. The organization indicated volunteers who show up with no place to stay after a disaster can risk being a burden on the very community they seek to help.
MDS anticipates recovery in North Carolina could take years. MDS volunteers spent seven years rebuilding homes along the Gulf Coast after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. MDS sustained a continuing presence in Princeville, N.C., after Hurricane Matthew struck in 2016.