Dozens of volunteers on Wednesday began the long, meticulous work of cleaning up and moving forward after historic flooding inundated Trinity United Methodist Church in Conway in the wake of Hurricane Florence last month.
Some 50 people – including Trinity members and staff, and volunteers from other churches (both United Methodist and otherwise) – spent hours pulling up flooring; spraying down walls, sidewalks and outdoor furniture; and sifting through what was left behind after the church’s sanctuary and four other buildings sat flooded for more than two weeks.
In addition to the threat of black mold that accompanies any flooding in South Carolina, the waters that overtook Trinity were contaminated with raw wastewater, the result of the flooding of a nearby sewage plant that released millions of gallons of sewage into the Waccamaw River.
As volunteers peeled back layers of carpeting, tile and particleboard underlayment, it became clear that months and years of work lie ahead for a congregation fighting back after its third flooding in four years.
“The good news is that we got started today; the bad news is, it was worse than we thought,” said the Rev. Dr. Kim Strong, who has been Trinity’s pastor for just over three months. “We know this is Day 1. It may be Day 1 of 300 days, but every major project starts with a first step, and this was our first step today, to get to work in our sanctuary.
“We’re guessing six months before we’re able to worship in our sanctuary again, but we’re one day closer.”
Much of the church sanctuary – which drops slightly in grade from the back of the nave to the chancel – experienced a few inches of flooding. The congregation had worked ahead of the storm to evacuate the wooden pews and other portable items.
After removing the carpeting from the sanctuary, volunteers pulled up the soaked particleboard beneath. It was meticulous work, much of it done a half-inch at a time with a hammer and prybar. They hauled everything away in wheelbarrows, dumping the waste into five industrial dumpsters parked outside the church.
“Unfortunately, the more we remove, the worse the damage we have found,” Rev. Strong said. “The moisture in our other buildings is worse than we thought. We had to throw away a lot of our paper materials and some of the furniture we thought would be safe.
“Our buildings sat with floodwater in them for a couple of weeks. Condensation not only ruined the bottom floor of our education building, but it’s also in the process of causing our second floor to decay.”
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Dale Grunsky has been a member of Trinity UMC for four years, and a specially trained Early Response Team member for about a year. Less than two years ago, the retired construction executive was volunteering to help flood victims in Nichols after Hurricane Matthew struck.
On Wednesday, Grunsky was helping clean up his own church.
“When Hurricane Matthew came through here in 2016, the water came up into the entry stairwells of our education building,” which are a few steps lower than the first floor, Grunsky said. “This time, it came all the way up into the building.”
Cindy Smith and others spent much of Wednesday in the two-story education building, trying to salvage whatever materials and supplies they could. Sadly, not much had been spared from the floodwater or the subsequent condensation onto nearly every surface – upstairs and down.
“I wanted to see what resources we use in ministry with our children and youth that we could salvage,” said Smith, who started work as Trinity’s director of programming the same day in July that Rev. Strong began his appointment as pastor. “There’s a lot that we can’t salvage, just by nature of what it was.
“You just don’t want to take a chance that there’s some black mold somewhere, but you go in and you save what you can.”
Three other church buildings also lay in soggy ruins, with floor tiles curling, hardwood floors buckling, and just gunk everywhere.
Even while the floodwaters kept them away from the church, Trinity’s staff already had been working to keep their ministry going:
- Trinity’s congregation now meets for worship Sunday afternoons in the sanctuary at First United Methodist Church, just a couple of miles away.
- A relative of a church member has donated office space, where the staff will set up shop until they can return to the church itself.
- The Trinity seniors group had its first get-together after the flood Thursday morning at Eggs Up Grill, where the program was “Love, Encouragement and Scrambled Eggs.”
- Younger children’s groups – known as “Big Fish,” “Little Fish” and “Minnows” – meet Thursday evenings at First UMC’s Fellowship Hall.
- Middle and high school youth held their first post-flood gathering on Sunday at the Pizza Hut a few blocks from the church. They will then meet weekly in the homes of church members.
“It feels like the early church – meeting as small groups in homes and other places, then coming together to worship,” Smith said. “We’re going to start over, and it’s going to be OK.”
Rev. Strong has invited the congregation to a question-and-answer session after they meet for worship on Sunday.
“We want to let our folks know where we are, what we have found,” he said. “The first estimate we got for the cost of drying out the buildings was about $178,000, but that was a ballpark figure and we don’t know enough yet to say how much it will really cost.”
“We have more than 21,000 square feet of heated building space here. Hopefully, we’ll have some formal appraisals in fairly soon, and we’ll know exactly how much we are talking about.”
And that’s just the beginning. The biggest decisions remain for the church. Among them: What changes need to be made to better protect the sanctuary from future flooding? Can any of the other four buildings be saved?
“Whatever we do, we’re going to do right, not just to put us back to where we were – that would be foolish,” Rev. Strong said. “We’re going to have to rebuild so we can avoid flood damage in the future. That may mean that we one day have to decide that it will be cheaper to build a new building on an elevated plateau than to refurbish these buildings.
“Everything is on the table. We will be spending a lot of time in prayer, seeking God’s guidance in which direction we go.”
Amid the pastoral and business challenges that result from a flooded church, Strong and his staff are trying to maintain a sense of humor. Sunday’s message, he said, will be “about putting new wine into old wineskins – anything but Noah and the great flood.”
Smith has taken her share of ribbing about the programming theme she and others implemented just weeks before the flood: “Dive In!”
All of the church’s programs – from children and youth through adults – had been planned around that water theme. Youth were going whitewater rafting in the spring and to a water park in the summer. Smith had even lined up a SCUBA diver friend to come to speak to the younger children’s groups.
“I cannot believe I came up with a water theme, and this is the fall that we have,” Smith said with a well-tested grin. “After you go through all of this, you have to smile. It’s overwhelming and sad, but we know that God is with us. We know God has plans, and we know it’s going to be good.
“In the middle of it, you can’t help but feel sad, sometimes, so every now and then we just have to smile.”
As for next year’s program theme?
“We’re picking something with sunshine,” Smith said. “We’re going to let the light of Christ shine in us. Maybe a desert theme. Anything but water.”