UM chaplain shares tales of ‘ordinary heroes’ during flood search-and-rescue

By Jessica Brodie

COLUMBIA—One United Methodist pastor got up-close-and-personal with flood response—and had the chance to minister to the disaster’s heroes in action.

The Rev. Michael Bingham, who pastors Pond Branch United Methodist Church, Gilbert, is also the volunteer chaplain with the South Carolina Emergency Response Task Force. When the flood watch began early Oct. 3, he reported to the state fire academy in Columbia and spent six-and-a-half days supporting those who did search-and-rescue during the storm, as well as going on some calls himself.

“It was surreal,” Bingham said of the disaster, calling it overwhelming and exhausting overall. “I was deployed during Hurricane Katrina, and this wasn’t as bad as Katrina, but it was really bad.”

Thousands of houses flooded, and Bingham was witness so many things—including the selfless and Christ-like response of countless first responders who did extraordinary things, he said. Bingham said the search-and-rescue teams worked more than 8,000 hours, with the task force on call 240 hours. They searched more than 5,000 structures and traveled more than 3,000 miles in their efforts, making contact with approximately 400 citizens in need. They performed more than 100 swiftwater rescues/evacuations and 28 helicopter rescues, 10 of them involving children under the age of 9.

“I saw real heroism, civilians and first responders who risked their lives for the sake of others,” Bingham said. “We rescued people who would’ve died had we not been there, that’s for sure.”

Bingham’s job was to support those on the front line of search and rescue. The shifts were brutal—20 hours on, then a quick nap, then go again all day as hard as possible, he said.

“It’s stressful, overload, a lot of pressure—people’s lives are on the line,” Bingham said.

The rain began early Saturday, and the state, hydrologists and meteorologists were spot-on in their assessment of the disaster, he said. Saturday afternoon, they had to send two boat rescue teams to Charleston, then two more boat teams to Dorchester County after another desperate call. They deployed helicopter teams, as well, and ultimately rescued dozens of people, including assisting in the rescue of the Columbia firefighter who made headlines after he went missing in the relief efforts.

After the Charleston and Dorchester counties’ emergency wound down, it was Columbia’s turn. They deployed their whole team on the ground in Richland County, clearing neighborhoods and responding to calls for help. Firefighters from around the state pumped hundreds of thousands of gallons of water each day by fire truck into hospitals in the region so they wouldn’t need to evacuate after the Columbia Municipal Water Supply was affected.

These teams, especially the Columbia Fire Department, “were tested and responded heroically,” Bingham said the week after the flood. “Community after community, ordinary men and women rose up and did extraordinary things.”

A highlight of his experience came Sunday morning, Oct. 4, when Bingham was able to do a brief Communion service for the first responders, and he had numerous occasions to pray with the crews.

“There’s a level of seriousness there—they know they may be laying down their life,” he said. “This is real, the big time, not a dress rehearsal.”

As the state begins its long road to recovery, Bingham encourages United Methodists to think hard about becoming part of the disaster response network, whether becoming a member of the South Carolina United Methodist Volunteers in Mission Early Response Team or some other way to help. He felt God’s call to be a chaplain the night of Sept. 11, 2001, when the president addressed the nation, and he knows God is using him. He hopes people will step up and let Him use them, too.

“I hope everyone gets motivated to volunteer through disaster response,” Bingham said.

For information on how to help the UMCSC with flood recovery and response, click here.

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