The Northwest Detroit Flood Recovery Project hopes to finish 25 waiting rebuilds before the end of 2016.
Senior Editor-Writer, Michigan Area
Two years ago the rain fell in Detroit, and fell, and fell. When the rain stopped falling on August 11, 2014 the city and its environs had endured what was to later be named the largest federally declared disaster of the year. However, it was not the government but The United Methodist Church that stayed the course of long-term recovery over the 24 months that followed.
When the water started rising that day, a woman named Becky Wilson was in her basement working on a sermon. “I noticed my feet getting wet,” she remembers. “I had no idea in that moment what that would mean for my ministry.”
Becky’s basement was easily dried out. But her position as the Director of Justice and Mission for the Detroit Renaissance District would keep her feet wet for the next two years. Reporting for work, her District Superintendent, the Rev. Melanie Carey, said, “We have food for the flood victims. A lot of churches have been affected. You may have a few responsibilities relating to this storm.”
Enter The United Methodist Committee on Relief. Within hours of the city’s soaking, two semi-trucks full of cleaning buckets rolled into Detroit. By January 2015 the U.S. Disaster Response Unit of UMCOR had done assessment and a grant was given. Deacon Becky Wilson was hired half-time as Director of the Northwest Detroit Flood Recovery Project. By March she went full-time in that role and two case managers—Cheryl and Linda—were trained by UMCOR and brought on board. With the help of volunteers from around the Detroit Conference, Second Grace United Methodist Church provided space for an office.
At that point—six fall and winter months after the flood —scores of families were still without heat and had a foot of water in their basements. In fact, today—two years after the deluge—there are families without heat with mold growing up their walls.
The Project has provided services to 200 families. Sixty of those “rebuilds” are still in progress and another 25 families are on a waiting list. UMCOR will continue to cover operational costs through the end of 2016. “We are working at a good pace,” Becky says, “but we will run out of money before we run out of work.”
Asked about the difficulties the effort has faced, Becky says, “The disaster has been a low attention or even no attention event. It received little media, locally or nationally. So in addition to doing the day to day work, we have had to fight to lift up needs. We have fought for every dollar.”
She gives big thumbs up to UMCOR, not just for funding and training but for “giving encouragement and support when we were stuck.” Further, the agency also “has been instrumental in building partnerships, both faith-based and secular. They have pointed people to Detroit.” These partners have included Mennonite Disaster Service and All Hands Volunteers. Currently Brethren Disaster Ministries is committed to work through the end of December.
The volunteers, some who have come from as far as New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Iowa, did not fend for themselves. In August 2015 Kayla Flannery joined the Project Team as coordinator of volunteers. Kayla is a Global Mission Fellow (US2) of the General Board of Global Ministries. “She has this work down to a science,” Becky says. Kayla schedules volunteers, organizes the food and lodging for the workers and even labors alongside them in the basements. Housing – beds and showers — for workers is provided by Detroit Calvary United Methodist Church.
On the occasion of this second anniversary of the disaster, the Rev. Becky Wilson is asking the Michigan Area for two things. First, since August 2014 churches have donated around $40,000 to the flood recovery. “If we could raise another $40,000,” Becky says, “we could give clean basements, warm houses, and new life to the 25 families on our waiting list.” Second, “To finish strong between now and December, we need churches to send experienced teams of volunteers who can hang drywall, put down floor tile, or muck out basements,” Becky explains. “We will take all skill levels but volunteers who can supervise themselves are a plus.”
“This has been about people coming together to help other people who said, ‘I didn’t know where else to go.’”
While there have been challenges along the way to recovery from “The Disaster No One Knows About” (stated by All Hands Volunteers), in true deacon-spirit, Becky Wilson has experienced some joys. “This has been about people coming together to help other people who said, ‘I didn’t know where else to go.’ It’s about neighbors saying, ‘You came and you did everything that you promised you would do.’” One of Becky’s favorite memories involves picking up the phone and hearing a scream. “It was unsettling but then I heard the woman shout, ‘Thank you! I am enjoying the first hot shower I have had in a year and a half!’”
Most of all the Northwest Flood Recovery Project has been about relationship. “Churches around Detroit—St. Paul’s with a Food Pantry, 2nd Grace with an office, Calvary with hospitality—have stepped up to the plate and have found new life themselves,” Becky notes. “From local church, to district, to annual conferences here and all over the country, the project has shown the positive ways our Connection can work.”
Even as she celebrates the greater Connection, Becky brings the focus back to each and every individual life the project has touched. “For many,” she states, “the flood was just one more thing that got them down.” She describes how Case Managers Cheryl and Linda listen and give personal attention to each man, woman or child in their care. “There’s a gentleman we’ve met who is studying for his barber’s license,” Becky reflects. “He takes his test week after next. We are helping him believe in himself. That’s what we do. We walk beside each of them.”
Perhaps in the end, listening is the key. People cried and UMCOR heard. And so did the Detroit Renaissance District. The cries continue today and the Michigan Area is asked to listen and make a difference as the Northwest Detroit Flood Recovery Project enters the last four months of ministry.
Those who wish to volunteer may contact Kayla Flannery at (313) 646-4052. Donations may be sent to the Detroit Conference Treasurer, 1309 North Ballenger Hwy, Suite 1, Flint, MI 48504, memo NW Detroit Flood Recovery.