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Communities turn to prayers and chainsaws in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida

“This is just people helping people,” said one South Jersey church member.

Members and volunteers head out from Fellowship Bible Church Sunday, walking down closed roads to help clean up the property of neighbors following the destruction from a tornado spawned by the remnants of Hurricane Ida.
Members and volunteers head out from Fellowship Bible Church Sunday, walking down closed roads to help clean up the property of neighbors following the destruction from a tornado spawned by the remnants of Hurricane Ida.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

They came to church Sunday morning in work boots and gardening gloves, lugging gasoline and wheelbarrows through the parking lot before stepping inside to pray.

“Does anyone know how to drive an excavator?” Phil Moser, pastor of Fellowship Bible Church in Sewell said as he entered the building.

Moser’s service was quick. Don’t ask “why,” he said, when it comes to the destructive tornado that tore through the surrounding South Jersey neighborhoods and devastated Mullica Hill on Wednesday night. Instead, ask how you can help. So, after a brief reminder of the Good Samaritan tale, at least 150 attendees left and walked down a street lined with cornfields and cows to begin their true Sunday service with a choir of chainsaws.

“This is just people helping people,” said Bill Drennen, a retired Philadelphia firefighter and church member.

» READ MORE: Ida’s legacy: 5 deaths, 7 tornadoes, record flooding, hundreds of water rescues, one incredibly soggy mess

Wednesday night’s EF-3 tornado snapped hundreds of trees on both sides of the gravel driveway that led to Cynthia Koch’s home in Mantua Township. Koch, 46, was overcome with emotion from all the support, watching children and the elderly church members drag branches and logs away from the house. Her mother was serving up Dunkin’ doughnuts.

“It makes you believe there is still good in this world,” she said.

Even farther up the gravel driveway, Karen Santoro said the 50 or so church and community members clearing the fallen trees from her property had likely saved her tens of thousands of dollars. She said her entire community, from the fire department to the mayor and the church, have been helpful since the storm passed.

President Joe Biden is scheduled to survey storm damage in Queens, N.Y., and Manville, in Somerset County, N.J., on Tuesday but there’s no plan for him to visit South Jersey. Santoro, whose home is 30 miles east of Biden’s residence in Wilmington, said she didn’t mind.

“I mean, can he use a chainsaw?,” she asked.

On Face The Nation on Sunday, Gov. Phil Murphy said the state “will continue to ask for more [federal assistance] because we need it.” Last week, Biden approved New Jersey’s emergency declaration, opening the door for additional federal help in the Garden State.

» READ MORE: Biden hints at aid for states but it’s unclear whether Pa. and N.J. will get federal disaster relief

“We’ll do all that we can in the state, but we need the federal government in a big way,” Murphy said before turning to Biden’s visit on Tuesday. “I’m confident they will be there for us and I’m looking forward to having the president with us on Tuesday and seeing it up close with our own eyes.”

Murphy said he believes it’s time for the state to “update its playbook for storm responses,” and advocated for more federal infrastructure funding, saying New Jersey has “infrastructure that was built for a different reality.”

“We screamed loud and clear: tornado warnings, flood warnings, flash flood warnings. We begged people to get off the road,” he said. “And still, you’ve got 27 losses of life and enormous destruction.”

» READ MORE: Ida’s fatal power didn’t shock scientists who study how climate change primed the pump

The National Weather Service said the tornado was 12.6 miles long and just 400 yards wide. That narrow path of destruction was most evident on Salvatore Drive in the Mullica Hill section of Harrison Township. Most homes were missing parts of their roofs and others had outer walls sheared off to reveal children’s bedrooms.

Anthony Dagrosa’s home used to sit between two of them. Now it’s gone, nothing but a floor and stairwell to the basement where he hid with his children.

“When we came up from the basement, this is what it was like,” he said Sunday amid the cleanup. “The whole house was blown away.”

Dagrosa said he had “more important things to worry about” than a presidential visit.

While some families grappled with the loss of their home and belongings, another Gloucester County family tried to salvage their livelihood. The Angelo Grasso & Son farm in Mullica Hill was in harvest season — tomatoes, green peppers, and eggplant — when the tornado tore through the 100 acres.

“If you’ve ever had pico de gallo, you’ve had our tomatoes,” Katie Grasso, 38, said on the farm Sunday.

The Grassos have been farming in the area since 1957 and most of their processing buildings and barns were gone or so damaged that they’d need to come down anyway. Trees were scattered about the property and a six-wheel box truck was on its side.

Both Angelo and his son, Leonard, have homes on the property and both were damaged.

“My parents have a shed in their living room,” Katie said.

While they haven’t begun to tally the damage estimates, Katie and her father embraced for a moment by the overturned truck, the losses evident in their eyes. Their mother was cooking a “huge” tray of lasagna for the workers.

Katie, who works for U.S. Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, said she’s been uplifted by the outpouring of support from neighboring farmers. A GoFundMe account set up by the Gloucester County Board of Agriculture has raised nearly $60,000 so far for the farm.

Grasso said she would be happy to see Biden in South Jersey.

“Any time our elected officials show compassion and care and want to help, we’ll accept that, and that extends to President Biden,” she said.

Meanwhile, across the Delaware and off the banks of the Schuylkill in Philadelphia, cleanup from historic flooding persisted Sunday. As the second day of Made in America pulsated on the Parkway, the Vine Street Expressway had returned from contaminant-laden canal back to road.

Kelly Drive, which in the floods had become an extension of the Schuylkill, was opened to traffic again. City workers found and repaired two sinkholes caused by the flood, a spokesperson said.

Volunteers gathered to clean the debris-ridden trails. Over the next several days, the city said its Office of Emergency Management and Department of Licenses and Inspections will partner with FEMA, PEMA and the U.S. Small Business Administration to assess damage across Manayunk, East Falls, and Center City.

» READ MORE: Philly wants to hear from homeowners and businesses with Ida damages

In the suburbs, about three dozen roads still remain closed, mostly in hard-hit Bucks and Montgomery Counties, said a PennDOT spokesperson, and teams of inspectors are assessing hundreds of bridges for storm damage in Philadelphia and its collar counties. Aqua issued a boil water advisory for portions of East Whiteland and Charlestown Townships.

» READ MORE: Storm cleanup continues after Ida: ‘People have come through’

On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia President Michael Balaban said the organization has spent the past days helping the community across the region navigate FEMA and insurance claims, and relocating those whose homes may have been destroyed. Many, he said, still have a long path ahead, including the families of those who died in the storm.

The Schuylkill flood waters swept into the Jewish federation’s headquarters at 2100 Arch St., but, “our building, you know, it’s a building,” said Balaban.

It’s a double-edged sword, he said. “You go into the holidays, and you want to be able to focus, whether it’s preparing the meals for your family ... or going to synagogue. But it’s also a good reminder of what we have.”

In times of hardship, he said, “you can choose to see the darkness. Or you can be the light, and your focus is really to bring up the other lights of the community.”