Minor church damage reported as Diocese of West Texas assesses impact of Hurricane Hanna

By David Paulsen
Posted Jul 30, 2020

[Episcopal News Service] Episcopal leaders in the Diocese of West Texas are assessing the impact of Hurricane Hanna, which made landfall on July 25 as a Category 1 storm and prompted Gov. Greg Abbott to declare a disaster in 32 counties.

The diocese has congregations in 19 of those counties, with up to 51 congregations potentially affected. At least five have reported structural damage from the storm, according to a July 28 diocesan news release, and minor damage also was found at the Mustang Island Conference Center in Port Aransas.

“I’m thankful that damage in the Coastal Bend and in the [Rio Grande] Valley is relatively minor, though ‘minor’ only applies if it didn’t happen to you,” Bishop David Reed said in the release. “I’m also profoundly grateful for the ways our clergy and lay leadership in the impacted areas responded.”

The Diocese of West Texas is based in San Antonio, and its 90 congregations are spread over 60 counties, from the Gulf of Mexico along the Rio Grande to the border city of Del Rio. The diocese was among those hit hard three years ago by Hurricane Harvey, which made landfall near Port Aransas as a Category 4 storm.

Hanna was the first storm to reach hurricane strength during this year’s Atlantic hurricane season. It made landfall on Padre Island, south of Corpus Christi, with winds up to 90 mph. Thousands lost power in the region, with some areas reportedly facing a sustained threat of flooding this week from more than 15 inches of rain.

In addition to Abbott’s disaster declaration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency granted a federal emergency declaration for the region to make additional resources available to communities and residents in responding to Hanna’s aftermath.

Texas also has been hit in recent weeks by a surge in COVID-19 cases, which Abbott noted during a July 28 visit to the Rio Grande Valley. While there, he announced a convention center in McAllen, Texas, will be converted to a health care facility to help the region handle the increase in coronavirus patients.

Reed, too, addressed the ongoing pandemic in his statement on the hurricane. “Almost all of the places Hanna visited are in the midst of serious COVID-19 spikes, and yet our people were able to turn their attention to the multiple threats posed by the storm and prepare,” Reed said.

On July 24, as the storm was approaching, staff at the Mustang Island Conference Center sent family camp participants home to safely prepare for the hurricane’s impact, Reed said. The diocese reported that the storm surge damaged a 60-foot section of boardwalk, as well as equipment that had been stored in a beachside platform.

The diocese had announced in May that it was canceling or postponing various summer camps, youth programs and retreats, though it continued taking reservations for families wishing to plan weekend getaways at Mustang Island through Labor Day. The center implemented health precautions and modified activities in response to the pandemic, and with repairs underway this week, the center expected to begin welcoming families back on July 30.

Trinity by the Sea Episcopal Church in Port Aransas posted a Facebook video of the hurricane’s wind and rain lashing the church building on July 25. The Rev. James Derkits, the rector, said the next day in a follow-up video that “things are looking pretty good around the church.”

St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in nearby Rockport also fared well in the storm, the Rev. James Friedel, the church’s rector, said July 26 on Facebook.

“We have just been though a hurricane, again,” he said, “but fortunately we were on the north end of that storm and did not get the severe storm surge, as well as rain and heavy winds, as our friends to the south, and so our thoughts and prayers are with them.”

To the south in McAllen, St. John’s Episcopal Church reported July 26 on Facebook that the power was out, but damage there was minimal: “We have some fences blown down as well as tree limbs and palm fronds. We did get some water in the church building, but nothing that is damaging yet.”

The diocese continues to assess the needs of all congregations in the path of the storm. Most of those who have responded so far report no damage.

“The rapid development and changing track of Hurricane Hanna are strong reminders to all of us to pay attention and never become complacent during hurricane season,” Jennifer Wickham, the diocese’s deputy for disaster recovery, said in the news release. “It’s important for our congregations and households to prepare ahead of time so they’re ready for whatever may happen.”

Diocesan officials also are encouraging Episcopalians to be alert to the needs of neighbors who are dealing with flooding and other damage and to seek opportunities to help. Response to those needs at the diocese level will be led by the Commission for Disaster Preparedness and Response.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.