Paying Sandy Forward

“I had never seen anything like it,” Eddie Cole wrote in his church’s blog last fall. “Large boats on the roofs of houses, cars carried several blocks from where they had been parked, homes demolished.

The devastation from Hurricane Sandy in 2012 (pictured here) motivated Staten Islanders to offer help after the Sept. 2013 Colorado floods. Photo courtesy Salem EFC

“Some parts of Staten Island looked like a war zone.

“But the worst thing I saw,” added the pastor of Salem Church EFC, “were the blank stares and the hopelessness.

It’s been almost a year since Hurricane Sandy blew across the eastern seaboard, ravaging New York and New Jersey in particular, and leaving unbelievable destruction in her wake. Salem Church is still well in the thick of Staten Island’s recovery efforts—rebuilding homes and helping those in the community adjust to, and find hope amid, a new normal.

But when the September floods devastated Colorado’s Front Range—killing at least eight people, damaging nearly 20,000 homes and washing out hundreds of miles of roads—Eddie Cole and three others from Salem felt compelled to offer help.

“We just had to go,” Eddie says. “Our work here will still be going for quite a while, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore others who now find themselves in the same kind of painful situation.”

The team from Salem flew out to Colorado and spent four days with leaders from four different churches around Estes Park, Colo. The area averages 1¼ inches of rainfall each month but received 18 inches in four days during the most intense period of flooding.

What they found looked and felt familiar: trees on top of houses, cars tumbled about. But perhaps most notable was the look on some people’s faces, Eddie says, reflecting loss and a desperation to regain any sense of equilibrium.

Hundreds of miles of roads—including this one in an Estes Park, Colo., subdivision—were washed out by flooding in September. Photo: Barbara Trofholz

Pastors trying to figure out first steps were eager to learn from the Salem team’s similar experiences, as well as insights, warnings and ministry ideas they had to share.

“Having the pastoral leadership come from Salem was a Godsend,” says Jess Mahon, lead pastor of Rocky Mountain Church (EFC) in Estes Park. “Counsel is always clearer and more hearty when others have been where you are.”

Indeed, this is a road the Salem team has walked and that it’s still walking, says Mark Lewis, director of EFCA ReachGlobal Crisis Response. Not many churches are engaged in active recovery efforts of their own, he adds, and are able to share what they’ve been learning through the process. And the team flew 2,000 miles to do so.

To the Salem team, such actions felt less like a sacrifice and more like a way to say thank you—to pay it forward in hopes that their experiences can help compress the learning curve for others in crisis.

“We know what it means,” says Keith Miraldi, Salem Church’s executive pastor, “to have churches attempt to stand in the gap for you in a time of great need.”

In the year since Sandy hit, Salem has received more than $500,000 in cash donations, Keith says, and at least that much in supplies. “It was actually quite overwhelming at times, the way the church around the world stepped up and gave to help the people of Staten Island.”

The scope of damage to property and infrastructure in Colorado means that long-term recovery efforts there will be tremendous. And yet—only a month out from the flooding—local church leaders are already talking about joining with ReachGlobal to extend a hand to others.

“How we respond to our crisis is preparation for God to use us in other environments and churches,” says Jess. “God will use us to encourage others, in the same way Salem did for us.”

Paying it forward, it seems, cycles on.

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