Pennsylvania churches flooded by Ivan, ERD ready to assist

September 19, 2004

By the time Ivan reached the 14 eastern and northeastern Pennsylvania counties of the Diocese of Bethlehem, its wind had decreased. The onetime hurricane dumped an unusual amount of water, however, that flooded several rivers and streams and submerged the undercroft and six to eight inches of the main floor of St. Peter's Episcopal Church, Tunkhannock, about a 30-minute drive north from Scranton.

It seemed surreal to the church's rector, the Rev. Cynthia Guthkelch, because she could not get near the church on Saturday. Three routes leading there were closed. Water from a creek covered two bridges just east of Tunkhannock along the major road that passes near the church. She assumed from initial reports people gave her based on pictures transmitted from a local TV station's helicopter that the church building was a total loss.

An eyewitness report, 1:00 a.m. Sunday, from parishioners Peter and Jane Nurse indicated that the flood waters "reached six inches into the main floor. Obviously mud is everywhere. But the hymnals, prayerbooks, and most altar furnishings appear to have escaped the waters. We were comforted that the sanctuary light continued to burn, providing the only illumination. The undercrofts are still under water. We have no idea what, if anything, might be salvageable of the equipment and furnishings downstairs. The water was dropping several inches per hour when we left so we may be able to start a more complete assessment in the next two days. We expect we will need to pump out the last 3-4 feet of water and mud in the undercroft as this is below the drain in our dike."

Bishop Paul Marshall of Bethlehem arrived at the church during the early afternoon on Sunday. "There were four pumps running," he said, "and the nave had been drained. A bit of the basement could be seen."

The basement includes the parish hall, kitchen and the rooms used for the Monday to Friday Hearts and Hands preschool. It was entirely under water.

Marshall noted that the church had become "a bit of a tourist attraction." When he stopped at the Walmart for a camera battery, people were asking each other "Have you seen St. Peter's?"

"The bad news," the bishop said, "is that it is not clear whether the building can be salvaged. The water had a large sewage content, plus petroleum products, so there is a bio- as well as a chemo- hazard. This is not something amateurs can handle, of course, and we will see what the insurance company has to say. Because water was on both sides of the nave floor, vestry members expect that the building will have to be gutted and essentially rebuilt.

"The best news was the vestry meeting. I put out fires every day, but this was my first flood, and I did not know what to expect. The vestry was serious, focused, and did what they needed to do. They were calm and purposeful.

"We reflected for a few moments on the collect for today, which reminds us not to confuse what is eternal with what is temporal. The rector and vestry were focused on doing what would make their parish the most effective community of disciples. It was a very encouraging moment. So even in this dreadful moment, I am thankful for St. Peter's—the people."

Guthkelch said the vestry would meet again on Tuesday and there would be a parish meeting on Thursday. She referred to the church's mission statement, saying they were still "celebrating God's unending love in the Endless Mountains."

Other churches in diocesan river towns were on watch after hearing that rivers, including the Delaware, Lehigh and Susquehanna, were expected to crest late Sunday beyond flood stage.

The Susquehanna River at Wilkes-Barre crested early Sunday morning at about 35 feet, the third highest level in history. The highest was in 1972 during Hurricane Agnes. Many bridges crossing the river in the Wyoming Valley were closed.

"Though roads were flooded," said the Rev. Andrew Gerns, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, Easton, "Trinity's aptly named Ark Soup Kitchen served at least 48 people on Saturday. The soup kitchen opened early and provided bag lunches to some folks who needed to get outta Dodge early since bus service was terminated at about noon."

Marshall asked congregations across the Diocese of Bethlehem to be ready to organize work gangs to help those parishes needing assistance in clearing out.

Episcopal Relief and Development, a ministry of the Episcopal Church that provides emergency assistance in times of disaster, is exploring ways in which to provide financial support to the Diocese of Bethlehem.

More information will be available day by day on "Bethlehem of Pa," the diocesan internet list. To subscribe, send your email address to communication minister Canon Bill Lewellis: