Confronting what one meteorologist has called a “once every 26,000 years” event, New Englanders are reeling from the cumulative effect of multiple winter storms that have dumped more than 100 inches of snow within a 30-day period. And it may not be over. More heavy snow is expected this weekend, making a critical situation even worse. Coupled with frigid temperatures that have not allowed thawing, these storms may have long-term implications for the future survival of Presbyterian congregations in Boston and northern New England.
“We could see churches cease to exist because of these storms. It could result in 20 or more church closings, nearly a third of Presbyterian congregations in the area,” says Cindy Kohlmann, resource presbyter for the Presbyteries of Boston and Northern New England. “These are churches that have vibrant congregations but don’t have the resources to deal financially with the issues brought about by the snow and cold temperatures.”
Many churches in the region are looking at significant structural damage, including potential roof collapse as well as water damage resulting from ice dams and frozen pipes. The cost for snow removal from roofs and parking lots, in addition to increased heating and electric bills, is hurting congregations significantly — at a time when the forced cancellation of services further strains the ability of a congregation to pay its bills.
“The financial impact to local congregations is devastating. No one has budgeted for this; even basic city services are paralyzed,” says Kohlmann. “Snow removal capabilities are extremely scarce right now, and if you can get it removed, there is literally no place to put it. There’s a sense of desperation; one church was quoted $20,000 to get the snow off their roof, but they don’t have that kind of money. A contractor within the congregation offered to pay his workers out of his own pocket to remove the snow before the roof collapsed.”
The Boston metro exceeded the 100-inch mark earlier this week, and while other Northeastern cities have had just as much snow, it’s important to note that nearly all of the area’s eight feet of snow has fallen in just 30 days — 10 times the average for the period. At the same time, New England is experiencing its all-time coldest 30-day stretch.
The financial impact of the storms has a domino effect. Most affected are hourly workers, especially in retail stores and restaurants, which have been forced to close for days at a time. If they do open, patrons are staying home because of travel and parking issues. Public transportation is on a reduced schedule, further burdening employees’ ability to show up for work or get home.
Synod of the Northeast leaders reached out this week to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance for financial support during the crisis.
“The repeated and powerful snowstorms have had catastrophic impacts on our congregations where heavy snowfall, cancellation of services and limited resources have created a second perfect storm–increased vulnerability,” says Laurie Kraus, PDA coordinator. “Working in collaboration with the synod, PDA is responding to the synod’s request for $300,000 and [for] disaster-support services to provide emergency relief and long-term recovery efforts in the affected presbyteries.”
Funds will go toward three general areas of assistance: snow removal from strained roofs and parking lots, alternative worship locations during the crisis and support for pastors and congregations to pay utilities (heat and water).
When the temperatures finally move above freezing and the snow begins to melt, emergency managers anticipate another challenge, severe flooding. High water from the melt will likely impact communities downstream that are currently not affected by the snow.
PDA will send response teams in the coming days and weeks to assess the damage and community needs. Thirty-three congregations and seven immigrant fellowships have been impacted by the successive storms. Assessment teams will work with churches to determine the best ways to meet needs, help churches resume worship and provide emotional and spiritual care.
“Not being able to gather for worship with your faith family and meet in the presence of a caring community is missing for many of us. There is a spiritual component in our lives that has been lacking going on a month or more,” says Kohlmann.
PDA volunteers experienced in working with insurance companies will help congregations resolve coverage issues. Others will provide emotional and spiritual care for pastors and church leaders. Teams will be organized in the spring to assist with building repairs.
Many may view snow as not much more than a nuisance that must be dealt with, but in this instance the sheer magnitude of consecutive winter storms has Boston and northern New England reeling toward the kind of catastrophe unseen since Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in 2012.
“If you wish to stand with us in this effort, please add to your prayers the generous support of One Great Hour of Sharing which makes an immediate response possible. Responding immediately and compassionately to the urgent needs is precisely what One Great Hour of Sharing does. To help with the long term recovery of our neighbors, additional support will be needed. Gifts to DR000015 will help with these ongoing efforts,” Kraus says.