On Sunday, April 15, 2007 a late-season Nor’easter overtook the region. At FUSW, members of the congregation divided their attention between the service, presented by the Social Action Committee, and the thunderous, sheeting water clearly visible through the large window behind the pulpit.
We’d had floods before—the worst one in memory had come in the mid 1970s when the minister had to be rescued by police and removed from the building in a small boat. But since that time work had been done to make the building less vulnerable to the elements. Now, as the creek at the back of the property began to pour out of its banks, it became clear that it was time to end the service and get out of the building.
More than 24 hours would pass before it would be possible to get back into the building. What we found was worse than we’d expected. Throughout our one-story building the high-water mark was 18 inches off the floor. In addition to mud, branches, leaves and water, fuel oil from our storage tank had floated into every space, adding an acrid overlay to the musty smell, intensifying the damage within the building and threatening the mini eco-system without. The destruction was profound: carpeting and computers and every stick of wooden furniture that belonged to the society or its tenant nursery school had to be discarded. Our precious baby grand piano, which had been up to its knees in the water, had to be carefully and professionally moved, and handed over to restoration specialists. Even our archives—irreplaceable photos and written records of our 150 year history—had been immersed in the murky sludge.
The clean-up was a massive undertaking, involving dozens of members of the congregation along with friends and neighbors from the surrounding towns. Everything had to be removed and much of it discarded and then the building had to be thoroughly cleaned, restored and repainted. Four local houses of worship offered to shelter us and let us hold Sunday services. A neighborhood grocery store allowed us to freeze our saturated archives until they could be taken out a few at a time and dried piece by piece. People worked day and evening to get the building into a state where it could be safely used, even if it would be months before it was complete.
Three weeks later, May 6, was the date of our Coming of Age service. Our COA students had been very clear about their strong desire to be at “home” even if the building was still far from finished. And so on that morning, we returned to 25 Old Jackson Avenue. Families of the COA youth brought potted plants and vases full of flowers. They hung tapestries on the walls and spread area rugs to cover the bare plywood floors. A COA teacher provided a keyboard so that we could sing hymns. We laughed and cried—even more than we usually would on a Coming of Age Sunday. We were inspired by our youth and the spirit of our community. The future began to look a little brighter that day.
By the end of the summer, after hundreds of human hours of hard work, the building was done: clean, “greener” than before and a tangible symbol of how dearly we all loved and valued our society. We had gained so much from the experience, but we also had to come to terms with what we had lost. Our congregation had long been saving for an expansion. Instead, we had to spend our savings and more—more than $100,000—to restore our building and undo the damage of the spilled fuel oil in the surrounding land. The flood thrust us into an austerity phase, just as our nation was about to plunge into a large-scale economic downturn. Realistically, we knew that it would take us some time to regain the ground we lost. We have been careful and wise in our choices and we have a tremendous sense of the value of our society. We know it is worth fighting for.
First Unitarian Society of Westchester 25 Old Jackson Avenue, Hastings on Hudson, NY 10706 914-478-2710