"Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; men and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds of the air were wiped from the earth." Genesis 7:23

North Carolina officials have recalled the biblical story of Noah in describing floods caused by three hurricanes in less than two months--Dennis, Floyd and Irene--that knocked homes off foundations, washed caskets out of graves and claimed at least 50 lives. And they have called on religious groups here and in neighboring states to help flood victims rebuild their communities and restart their lives.

"We have a tremendous need out there," said Edgecombe County Manager Joe Durham, whose jurisdiction includes Tarboro and Princeville, two of the worst-hit communities in eastern North Carolina. The storms "struck a disproportionate number of people in low-income families," many of whose homes were in low-lying areas, he said.

The greatest impact came from Hurricane Floyd, which dumped up to 20 inches of rain in a day and caused rivers to rise to unprecedented levels, displacing thousands of residents in dozens of communities. In some cases, the water submerged entire towns.

"It looked like the great flood from Noah's time," Durham said. "We knew that some flooding would take place, but when the calls started coming in from people on rooftops, we knew that there was the potential for tremendous loss of life." As many as 6,500 people were forced into shelters in his county, up to 1,500 homes were destroyed and 200 coffins were unearthed by the flood, he said.

Overall, 10,000 houses have been destroyed in 66 of the state's 100 counties, with about 30,000 more seriously damaged or still uninhabitable. Dozens of churches were damaged or destroyed.

Rain from Irene caused some flooding this week, with comparatively little damage. But the cumulative effect of the three storms has been devastating, said Sara Kempin, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Crime Control and Public Safety.

What's needed most are money and volunteer labor--not clothing, water and cleaning supplies, Kempin said. Disaster relief "goes in stages," and the initial need for water, food and electricity has been met, she said. Now people need to replace automobiles, rebuild their homes or make repairs, such as replacing wiring or wallboard.

The Rev. William Clayton, pastor of the Eastern Star Baptist Church in Tarboro, said his church was heavily damaged and needs to be reconstructed. All donations are appreciated, but he said his and other churches primarily need "grant writers, technical assistance, contractors, electricians and philanthropists" to help in the rebuilding process.

The idea to involve churches in the massive recovery effort came from Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. (D) and Richard H. Moore, the state's secretary of crime control and public safety. After Floyd hit Sept. 16, Hunt and Moore took a series of helicopter flights to survey the effects of the hurricane's torrential rains. Each day, the governor said in a telephone interview, they noticed the water levels getting higher and higher on what often were the tallest buildings in a community--its churches.

"I saw the waters coming up, halfway up to eaves, then almost to the steeples," said Hunt, a Presbyterian who grew up near Wilson, a flood-washed town south of Rocky Mount. He believes that churches help form the foundation of civic life in his part of the state and that restoring them would "in a sense rebuild the community."

So he and Moore crafted Church2Church, a program in which congregations outside disaster areas are paired with damaged or destroyed churches. Leaders and members from both congregations determine the greatest or most immediate need--such as clearing the sanctuary of debris or replacing a ruined organ--and find a way to address it.

Cleanup and repair efforts have begun on 35 flood-damaged properties, and 35 more are in the process of being paired with a church, synagogue or mosque, Kempin said. More than 250 congregations, including a half-dozen in the Washington area, have expressed interest in helping.

"We are using a group of volunteers across geographic and denomination lines to set up partnerships for the next three months to a year," said Jonathan Williams, North Carolina's deputy general counsel for crime control and public safety and the person Hunt appointed to coordinate the program. "We are trying to be a clearinghouse to give churches a place to begin creating these partnerships."

Next week, a consortium of more than 50 clerics in the state will meet to determine long-term goals for the religious community's involvement in the rebuilding effort, which "is going to take years," Hunt said. "The greatest work being done to help us recover from the floods is being done by the churches."

Clearing Away Debris

Some denominations and individual congregations have initiated their own flood assistance efforts.

The North Carolina Baptist Men, a missionary arm of the Baptist State Convention, has sent teams of volunteers to communities throughout the disaster area, helping clear debris from damaged churches and houses and assisting in rebuilding efforts. Similarly, the United Methodist Committee on Relief is coordinating volunteer cleanup and recovery work. Last week, the Rev. Joseph Weaver of First Baptist Church of Capitol Heights dropped off a truckload of furniture at Union Baptist Church in Tarboro, a town with 4,330 residents near Rocky Mount.

"This is my second trip down here, and I am coming back with more," said Weaver, a native North Carolinian.

The Rev. Earl Trent, pastor of Florida Avenue Baptist Church in Northwest Washington, said his congregation plans to send a team of builders to eastern North Carolina as part of its plan to help North Carolina churches rebuild.

"This will be our mission project for the entire year. What the people in the area need is long-term economic development," said Trent, whose church is part of an effort by the Progressive National Baptist Convention to help with flood relief.

The convention has appointed another D.C. pastor, the Rev. Morris Shearin of Israel Baptist Church in Northeast Washington, to coordinate a national fund-raising effort. Shearin, a former pastor and county commissioner in eastern North Carolina, said one project would be to replace dirt dikes and levees--which were no match for last month's floods--with a series of locks and dams. Such projects are expensive and "don't happen overnight," he said.

The District's Nineteenth Street Baptist Church has developed a partnership with Shiloh Baptist Church in Greensboro, N.C. The two churches plan to assist the churches and the 2,100 people of Princeville, which was settled by freed slaves in 1865. The historic Tar River community is just across a bridge from Tarboro and at one point was completely under water.

"We have an obligation to care about people who are in difficult situations," said the Rev. Derrick Harkins, pastor of Nineteenth Street Baptist Church.

Other Washington area churches have collected household goods, personal items, toys and canned food and have rented vans or trucks to take the items to flood victims in Virginia and North Carolina. The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington is encouraging parishes to donate flood relief funds through Alexandria-based Catholic Charities USA or to the Diocese of Raleigh, N.C.

Horace Hussey, chairman of the trustee board at Union Baptist Church in Tarboro, said the response to his community's plight has been overwhelming.

"We are getting support from churches not just in the State of North Carolina, but from Florida, New York, California," said Hussey, who is coordinating a faith-based recovery effort for five Tarboro churches.

Before the hurricanes, 35-member Union Baptist held services on the first and third Sundays of each month. Now, because Union Baptist suffered less damage than other churches, it has become a community worship center, with two services every Sunday.

It also serves as a flood relief center, hosting volunteers from other cities--including Washington--and acting as a warehouse for donated goods.

Last week, the church's grounds were filled with piles of clothing, hundreds of water jugs and volunteers who outnumbered those in need. As they unloaded a Ryder truck full of donations, someone played a cassette tape of a gospel quartet singing, "Dr. Jesus Will Make Everything All Right."

Gloria Kelly, a 36-year-old taxi driver and single mother of four teenagers, was one of those on the receiving end. Her home was destroyed when strong winds knocked two trees onto it and snake-infested flood waters rushed in. Despite her losses, Kelly is not bitter.

"I am still counting my blessings because He spared our lives," she said. "He could have taken it all. We have to be thankful."

Harris reported from North Carolina, Broadway from Washington. For information on the Church2Church program, call 919-733-4564; the governor's help line for donations is 888-835-9966.

CAPTION: After Hurricane Floyd, Princeville, N.C., which was settled by freed slaves in 1865, was submerged. In the aftermath, churches across the country have sent volunteers and supplies to assist residents.

CAPTION: The Rev. William Clayton, right, pastor of Eastern Star Baptist Church in Tarboro, N.C., prays with members of Zion Baptist Church in Salisbury, N.C., thanking them for their support.

CAPTION: After Floyd blew through the area, debris littered the grounds of a Baptist church in Seven Springs, N.C. A state Baptist men's organization sent volunteers to assist with the cleanup.