Following a hurricane’s wake of destruction in Florida with a message of love, appreciation and hope

Credit: Scott Taylor, Deseret News
Credit: Scott Taylor, Deseret News
Credit: Scott Taylor, Deseret News
Credit: Scott Taylor, Deseret News
Credit: Scott Taylor, Deseret News
Credit: David Guerrero

NAPLES, Florida

A week after Hurricane Irma cut a devastating southwest-to-northeast swath through the state of Florida, President Henry B. Eyring, first counselor in the First Presidency, followed a similar direction, spreading a message of love, appreciation and hope through his words and his presence.

“That’s why you come,” President Eyring told the Church News while stopping to salute a crew of volunteers sporting the bright-yellow Mormon Helping Hands T-shirts while removing fallen trees and limbs and debris enveloping a Naples, Florida, residence Saturday afternoon, Sept. 16.

The intent, he explained, is to try and extend the feeling that the Lord is with them and appreciates and admires them. “I think the people here feel that,” he said. “And so by coming, I think I helped them feel it.”

While the Church is prompt to respond with aid and relief work in the face of natural disasters, it is noteworthy that in a span of 15 days, two members of the First Presidency made separate — and rare — visits to hurricane-ravaged areas. President Dieter F. Uchtdorf toured parts of Houston earlier in the month, after Hurricane Harvey deluged southeastern Texas and southern Louisiana with massive rainfall.

President Eyring said his Florida visit allowed him to witness that those he met and others who gathered around him in work details and worship services have a love for the Lord and a love for their fellow man.

“I’ve heard of the idea of the city of Zion, where the people take care of themselves, where there’s no poor among them, and I’m seeing that spirit here,” he said. “It’s wonderful, and it has touched my heart to see how wonderful the people are — both the Latter-day Saints and the others I’ve met who are working so well together.”

A day after visiting the Caribbean islands of Puerto Rico and St. Thomas to witness damages from Irma’s Category 5 forces and uplift the Saints there, President Eyring first stopped in Naples on Florida’s Gulf-side coast, where Irma — downgraded to Category 4 but still packing a wallop with its 142-mph winds — left a wake of destruction Sept. 10 and 11.

In Naples, he visited the Golden Gate meetinghouse, one of a number of Church buildings throughout Florida that had been turned into staging centers. There he visited with individuals compiling and distributing thousands of work orders for volunteer crews, and he chatted with those who were inventorying storehouse supplies and others helping neighbors and community members seeking relief to fill much-appreciated boxes of food and relief items.

President Eyring was accompanied by Elder Jörg Klebingat, a General Authority Seventy, and Bishop Dean M. Davies, first counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, both of whom interacted with volunteer crews and spoke at the large gatherings at the meetinghouses.

“I’m proud to be wearing the yellow shirt — to be part of this wonderful kind of people,” said President Eyring, as he and others traveling with him donned Helping Hands tees while among volunteers.

Following the visit to the Naples clean-up site, he returned to the meetinghouse for an early afternoon devotional with about 400 individuals who either had been working at sites earlier in the morning, preparing to go out on later crew assignments, or who were taking a spirit-filled break while doing both.

In Naples and other parts of southern Florida from the Keys to Fort Myers, Irma easily snapped trunks and limbs of trees and simply uprooted others, doing the same with metal signs, poles and structures by bending and twisting some and toppling others. The hurricane was blamed for nearly 40 deaths in the state.

Florida experienced extensive power outages from the storm’s onset, with about a quarter of the state — including much of Naples — still without electricity a week later and well into the next.

Heavy rains coupled with the storm surges flooded much of the area, including Jacksonville in the state’s northeast area, where record floods levels were recorded. Storm and sewage systems backed up in Naples, forcing water to be shut off in some parts as officials feared the threat of contaminated water and dysentery.

During Irma’s rage, some members and missionaries took refuge in meetinghouses — President Joseph Lindsay of the Fort Myers Florida Stake and his family joined 30-plus missionaries weathering the storm in the Fort Myers stake center, while 45 members of the stake’s Bahia (Spanish) Ward rode out the hurricane for more than two days in the Golden Gate meetinghouse in Naples.

Later Saturday afternoon after time in Naples, President Eyring’s group visited with volunteers at a work site in Jacksonville, about 350 miles northeast from Naples. And the next morning, President Eyring presided over a Sunday morning, Sept. 17, sacrament meeting at the Jacksonville East stake center, where 700 gathered — some in Sunday dress, others in work clothes, and some changing from the former into the latter after the service.

In fact, that stake center — with food supplies loaded on the stage, box generators stacked in the back of the cultural hall, the parking lot lined with water, cleaning kits, shovels and tarps — was the site of two sacrament meetings that morning. Nearly 1,000 workers gathered for a brief session at 6:45 a.m. before heading out to help in volunteer crews averaging about 10 workers each in Jacksonville, where wind damage — while substantial — was less than the Keys, Naples and Fort Myers, but flooding reached historical levels.

“What you’ve done during this time of difficulty and with others around you, a lot of you have forgotten of yourselves and gone to work in doing what the Lord would do — you were the Lord’s servants,” said President Eyring in his sacrament meeting remarks in Jacksonville.

“I want you to know that I admire all that you’ve done — and the Lord admires you,” he added. “It may not have been everything you could have done, but you did what you could do. And you’ll surprisingly find yourself the next to do even more, because you have grown — and in His service, you grow, you’re magnified, you’re getting better.”

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