Hurricane Ida destroyed their church in New York. They came back at Easter

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On the steps outside First Baptist Church, two men in suits and overcoats embraced on a chilly Sunday morning.

“We are back!” cried a man. “Glory to the Lord!” the other answered.

It was just after 8 a.m., two hours before the start of the Easter service, the Christian holiday marking the resurrection of Jesus Christ after his death by crucifixion. It was also when First Baptist, a historically black church on Howard Avenue in Mamaroneck, reopened seven months after Hurricane Ida flooded the building and surrounding neighborhood.

“It’s hard to explain, it’s a feeling,” said Brandon McKay, one of the men who kissed, a church usher who wore a white suit. “We’re talking about the resurrection of the church, but also the resurrection of our hearts and minds, and faith that the Lord is real.”

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The floods devastated the surrounding area known as Washingtonville, a 125-acre low-income neighborhood made up mostly of people of color. This is what is commonly called the Flats. Decades-old Washingtonville planning documents show the area is prone to flooding, but the pace and depth of Ida’s waters the night of September 1 were different.

Ida was the village’s most devastating flood in recent memory, costing more than $100 million and affecting more than 500 homes and totaling 310 cars, according to Village Manager Jerry Barberio. Officials and residents say the floods are getting worse due to climate change.

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The waters of Ida razed a wall outside the First Baptist Church, which was built in 1938 and sits just yards from the Mamaroneck River. The river overflowed during Ida and gouged a hole behind the church and swamped the sanctuary with murky water. Its interior must have been emptied of pews and rotting carpets, although its stained glass windows withstood the currents.

Before the start of the service, some two dozen worshipers stood on the sidewalk out front, near a house that had been vacant for months. They bowed their heads in prayer as Reverend James E. Taylor addressed them. For many, it was their first time doing it in person after the COVID-19 pandemic and then the destruction of Ida.

Reverend James E. Taylor, pastor of Mamaroneck First Baptist Church, leads parishioners in prayer before entering the church for services April 17, 2022. The church was rebuilt and reopened on Easter Sunday after being severely damaged by Hurricane Ida in September of 2021.

“As we come this morning to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and Savior, we also come to celebrate the resurrection of our new home,” said Taylor, senior pastor for 35 years. “It’s the same building, but a new internal structure.”

Then they went inside. As they ascended the stairs ahead, they sang the spiritual chant “We’ve Come a Long Way.”

McKay, the usher, held the front door open with white gloves.

There were no more bulky benches, but a few dozen purple chairs that can easily be moved around. Wood has replaced the carpets.

These changes are better suited to withstand the next flood that will occur “99.9%,” Taylor said. The rebuild cost around $250,000, but another Ida-like event can put them out again.

Donations came from all over the neighborhood and the surrounding village.

Leilani Yizar-Reid, who grew up in First Baptist’s Kitten Corner, said the community came together during Ida.

In December 2020, her father, Keith, died, and Yizar-Reid and her sister had to figure out how to drain three to four feet of floodwater inside her childhood home during Ida. A neighbor loaned a generator and pumps to drain his house.

“People help each other because we’re all going through the same thing at the same time,” Yizar-Reid said.

The only recourse, Taylor said, is the Army Corps of Engineers’ $88 million flood risk management project, planned for decades.

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Reverend James E. Taylor, pastor of Mamaroneck First Baptist Church, greets a parishioner before services April 17, 2022. The church was rebuilt and reopened on Easter Sunday after being badly damaged by Hurricane Ida in September 2021.

It is expected to reduce flooding by more than 4 ½ feet at the confluence of the Mamaroneck and Sheldrake rivers, which border the Flats, with higher retaining walls, as well as widened and deepened river channels. It also describes the elevation plans of the structures.

But there is no clear timeline when that will happen.

Deshawn Bowser, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, said in an email that the first part of construction should begin with the replacement of the Ward Avenue Bridge, less than half a mile away. downstream on the Mamaroneck River, in an area that has not been flooded as severely as the Flats.

Construction usually starts downstream before progressing uphill, Bowser said. A public project meeting is scheduled for May 18.

The Sanctuary of First Baptist Church in Mamaroneck, pictured March 9, 2022. The church was closed after being badly damaged by several feet of flooding caused by Hurricane Ida in 2021. Reconstruction continues and Reverend James E. Taylor hopes the church can reopen for services at Easter.

In addition to the Army Corps of Engineers, Mamaroneck officials are preparing to clear and dredge five areas along the waterways to reduce the risk of flooding, according to Barberio. It will cost over $200,000.

In the meantime, Taylor worried about what was to come. A week ago, heavier than usual showers flooded the basement of the church and brought ankle-deep water to the street.

Some houses are already vacant in the Apartments due to damage caused by Ida, as reported by The Journal News/lohud. In March, more than a dozen families remained homeless.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project report showed that the census blocks encompassing the area are considered Environmental Justice Communities, federally defined as low-income communities of color in need of protection from the effects harmful to health and the environment. Recently, New York State’s ambitious draft plan to fight climate change considered census tracts to be “disadvantaged communities” that could receive 35% of the benefits of spending on clean energy and climate change programs. ‘energetic efficiency.

“The longer they sit around doing nothing, the more likely it is to happen again,” Taylor said. “If that happens, you will see most of this community disappear.

“Sometimes you wonder,” he added, “are they really concerned about this? No action speaks loudly.

Opposite the church, Lauringle Mitchell, 46, plans to sell his two-story wood-shingle house, which his father bought. Even though the house is elevated, allowing flooding to normally submerge only the garage, Ida’s waters reached the first floor.

Lauringle Mitchell, 46, stands on the porch of her home on Howard Ave.  in Mamaroneck on April 17, 2022. Mitchell, who has lived in this home for 40 years, has seen the area experience increasingly severe flooding.  After Hurricane Ida produces the worst flooding in living memory, Mitchell plans to leave the area.

“We had never seen anything of this magnitude,” Mitchell said, while clutching an altered King James Bible and another text to teach Sunday School. “This one had a particular dynamic. The water was high, almost destroyed everything in its path.

Waking up at 4:30 a.m. that morning, Sheila Miller could barely contain herself to reenter First Baptist, which she has been attending for a decade.

She dressed in purple, to match the decor of the church. Upon entry, she signed in worshipers and took temperatures, measures to contain COVID-19.

While she and others might return to First Baptist, she is still displaced from her own home in Port Chester because of Ida. She prays to come back at the end of June.

“We’re back here,” she said. “Hopefully I’ll be back in mine soon.”

At 10 a.m. the Easter service began. Some still assisted by Zoom.

About this project

USA Today’s reporting teams in New York are working on a series of high-profile investigations designed to shed light on processes central to public life but often hidden. Thematic areas for 2022 include government accountability and oversight, policing and public safety, health and environmental justice, and consumer rights. We welcome your comments and suggestions to help inform our reporting priorities. Email: [email protected]

Eduardo Cuevas covers diversity, equity and inclusion in Westchester and Rockland counties. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @eduardomcuevas.

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