NEW YORK CITY (BP) -- The death toll from Hurricane Sandy had risen to at least 50 people Wednesday as 6 million electric customers remained without power in the Northeast, crippled by damaged infrastructures and hazardous floodwater. Amid the devastation, Southern Baptists rallied to help.
George Russ, executive director of the Metropolitan New York Baptist Association, managed to return home to Long Island after being stranded in Florida when the storm hit. He flew into the former Islip Airport on Oct. 31 and saw "lots of trees down, power lines down all over the place" as he drove home.
"My house has power, which is a miracle. So [extended family members are] huddling over here all the time for showers and meals and all of that," Russ told Baptist Press.
"We've heard from several pastors who are asking for help, for teams to come at different intervals so they can help some of their members clean out houses that have been damaged or pretty much destroyed. I've got several pastors on Long Island that need help with that," he said.
In the New York area, access to basic necessities, such as water, was growing difficult.
"Wherever a store opens, it's flooded with customers. You have to wait in line a long time for gas, milk, bread, eggs, stuff like that," Russ said.
"... It's still a little early in that it's the third day, but it's getting colder now. It's about 50, 48 degrees. As it gets colder or if they go longer without supplies, I think people do get a little bit frustrated," he said. "Waiting in line for an hour for a tank of gas, that's not what people are accustomed to."
Communication is challenging too, he said.
"A lot of people have their phones tied to their Internet and stuff, so if that's down -- and a lot of cell phone towers are down," he told Baptist Press. "I noticed when I drove home from the airport that my cell phone went in and out reception-wise. Usually I have no problems at all. So I think a lot of towers are down."
In an era when cell phone use is so common, people were unprepared for the difficulty in communicating after the storm.
"People are trying to share. They're huddling in apartments or they're coming over to people who do have access to the Internet or to cell phone reception and trying to get out as much information as they can," Russ said.
The hardships present opportunities to share God's love.
"We do have church members that are volunteering to help supply trucks unload supplies. Our disaster relief teams are going to be deployed tomorrow or Friday," Russ said. "At least two units will be here, and they're going to be working with our local churches to be the contact follow-up point for people as they receive this help.
"One will be at Rutgers University, which is a major university in New Jersey, and the other one is waiting for a location to touch down and deploy either on Long Island or Staten Island," Russ said. "So our churches have been alerted to that and they can help with the food distribution. In those locations especially, they'll have an opportunity to share the Gospel with community residents."
The Metropolitan New York Baptist Association is set up to receive calls from across the country at 212-580-0655, Russ said.
"If people want to call the office, we have people ready to at least get the names of churches that want to help in some way. We're in the process now of compiling a list of ways that people can help, and we'll try to match those needs with some of the resources that people are offering," he said.
Russ spoke with an Arabic pastor in Jersey City, for instance, whose car was underwater and would be a total loss. Graffiti Church on the Lower East Side of Manhattan had about five inches of water in the basement, Russ said, and they were having trouble getting the water out because there was no electrical power. Russ thought they had now secured a generator.
In Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker told CNN, "We are in a state of crisis all across this state." The governor there described the scene as "unthinkable." Hurricane Sandy was responsible for at least 108 deaths from Haiti to Canada -- 22 in New York City alone.
New York's massive subway system, which serves 5 million commuters each day, remained severely hampered Wednesday and was expected to stay offline for several more days, according to CNN.com. Bus service had resumed nearly a full schedule, and two of the area's three main airports were offering limited service.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York tweeted instructions to residents: "Clean and disinfect everything that got wet. Mud left from floodwaters can contain sewage and chemicals." Property damage and lost business along the East Coast was estimated to cost as much as $20 billion, CNN.com reported.
Kenny Pritchett was among 16 members of Cross Central Church in Lexington, S.C., en route to use their chainsaws to clear the damage that superstorm Sandy left in New Jersey, but his focus wasn't only on the physical labor.
"It's just about being able to hug them and pray with them and share Jesus with them. You get a lot of opportunities to do that, more than people think," said Pritchett, a 48-year-old building contractor. "We have a lot of opportunities to share Christ, and we try to take everyone single one of them."
Pritchett was among 49 disaster relief volunteers the South Carolina Baptist Convention was sending to Hammonton, N.J., to help victims in that state. They were to be joined by a team of 75 volunteers from the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina and 32 from the Georgia Baptist Convention.
While Pritchett had participated in rebuilding projects, he was excited about his first disaster relief trip.
"It's not about the trees, or cutting trees. It's really not about the work, although we all enjoy the work. It's really just helping folks. They have a tremendous need," he told Baptist Press. Part of their ministry, he said, is to "listen to their story and just share, share Jesus with them."
"You can point them to a local church. Get them a meal. Get them some clothing. Get them a shower."
These are the services Southern Baptist volunteers from several states were preparing to provide to Sandy victims in New Jersey and New York.
North Carolina's Steve Reavis, overseeing Southern Baptist feeding operations in New Jersey, was coordinating teams to prepare up to 80,000 meals a day, beginning as early as Wednesday evening.
"Currently, we have a request from the Red Cross to [serve] 80,000 meals. That's what we're working on right now, trying to meet that need. That would be 40,000 at lunch and 40,000 at supper," Reavis said. "We're working in conjunction with the Red Cross and New Jersey Emergency Management to fulfill those needs."
Reavis had worked with officials to open feeding sites at Rutgers University and in Hammonton, N.J., and was working with the Red Cross to position another site in southern New Jersey.
"We have people lined up and people on alert and standby back in various states that are ready to come and serve us," Reavis said. "As far as putting out a plea for various people to come, I don't think we need that at this point in time."
Meanwhile, volunteers from the Baptist Convention of Pennsylvania/South Jersey, led by disaster relief director Karlene Campbell, were assisting with feeding operations in southern New Jersey.
Compiled by Baptist Press assistant editor Erin Roach and staff writer Diana Chandler. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress
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