Alegion of volunteers - some 6,000 Latter-day Saints - came from neighboring stakes and states to assist victims of the worst flooding in south Georgia's history.
By Friday evening, July 22, the LDS volunteers were arriving in a steady stream, setting up hundreds of tents and turning a YMCA campground about 2 miles west of Albany into a virtual tent city. They worked all day Saturday, July 23, and Sunday, July 24 - applying the philosophy that the ox was in the pit and needed to be pulled out (see Luke 14:5) - they partook of the sacrament, had prayer at the campground and then went out to do the manual labor required to clean up in the flood's aftermath.The LDS workers, mostly priesthood members coming from throughout Georgia, Florida, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, helped swell the ranks of other volunteers who poured into southwest Georgia over the weekend. The 6,000 LDS volunteers came on the heels of an initial contingent of nearly 500 who showed up July 15-17, while flood waters still covered much of the area. They came in response to a call for help issued under the direction of Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Council of the Twelve and Elder Alexander B. Morrison of the Seventy and president of the North America Southeast Area, who visited the flooded region July 17. (See Church News July 16 and July 23.) Some 1,500 LDS volunteers are assisting flood victims July 29-31.
Elder Morrison said of the LDS volunteers: "I'm immensely proud of the southern priesthood brethren. They have been wonderful. We had stake presidents from 600 miles away calling and asking, `Can't we please send people to help?' They have been devoted in their service and anxious to help. It has been a thrill to see this kind of response."
Elder Morrison said such response comes out of more than 150 years of history. "We have been involved in cooperative groups, giving assistance from the earliest days of the Church to the present," he said.
Reputation of that history of service - and the organization that makes well-executed service possible - has received widespread notice and appreciation in Albany and surrounding communities. From the Red Cross to other churches and service organizations, the LDS Church has been looked to for leadership in overseeing much of the relief efforts in the affected areas.
Columbus Georgia Stake Pres. Ritchey M. Marbury III, a native of Albany, is the Church's regional welfare chairman and a veteran of relief service rendered after Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1992. He is also engineer for the Lee County Utility Authority.
A number of circumstances could have led to difficult consequences had it not been for the Church's well-honed emergency reponse plan. Citizens in certain areas near the Flint River had been warned they might have to evacuate by the evening of July 7. But, as it turned out, the flood came much earlier.
Ron Tucker, second counselor in the Albany Ward bishopric, said he learned of the rising waters when a friend from work knocked on his door at 5 a.m. July 7. "The National Guard had rousted him out of bed in such a hurry that they wouldn't even let him drive his car out," Brother Tucker said.
Brother Tucker found himself in the lonely spot of being the only priesthood leader in the ward who was immediately available to carry out any emergency response plans. "I hadn't even seen an emergency response plan," said Brother Tucker. "I am as new in a bishopric as you can be." He's so new, in fact, that he hasn't even been sustained. The new bishop, Kurt Anderson, was sustained on June 12. Brother Tucker was then called to the bishopric. Bishop Anderson then left town before the counselor could be sustained. Bishop Anderson returned July 10, but with the emergency of the flooding, regular ward business was suspended the next Sunday.
The ward's first counselor, Randy Cooper, administrator at the hospital, was pressed into 24-hour emergency service there. Stan McWhorter, the executive secretary, had been a bishop, but he was tied up with running food shelters in the county, responsible for feeding more than 3,000 people a day. The high priests group leader, Bob Abbott, was flooded out of his home. He was staying with friends on the opposite side of the river from the ward meetinghouse and found himself stranded there when all bridges were flooded or closed. To cross the river required a drive of more than 100 miles. The elders quorum president, Chris Schilt, had his hands full with his own emergency. Publisher of the Albany Herald, he was up all night trying to keep his paper going, and watching his building for flooding. The ward's Young Men president, James Sizemore, was among the hardest-hit by the flood. The Sizemore home was flooded up to its ceiling. Even the Relief Society president, Mary Fournier, was battling her own emergency as about 3 feet of water flooded her home. "Ron Tucker had to do the job of the entire priesthood executive committee by himself the first few days," Pres. Marbury said. "You would think he was a professional at it, he did the job so well."
When Pres. Marbury authorized the Red Cross to use the Albany Ward meetinghouse as an emergency shelter, Brother Tucker needed to find Church members to help staff and run the shelter. "Missionaries took over the night shift at the shelter, along with Michael Harvey, who just graduated from high school," he said. "They stepped right in and pretty much lived at the meetinghouse as long as it was a shelter."
Although priesthood leaders were otherwise occupied, Brother Tucker found plenty of help, at first among the rank and file ward members and then from throughout the stake and surrounding areas.
Those who provided that help were more than willing and happy to do so. The work was hard, in muddy and filthy conditions and, in some areas, in such strong stench that workers put menthol toothpaste inside face masks to counteract the foul smell. The heat and humidity added to the burdensome tasks, and everywhere volunteers were on the lookout for snakes - and even alligators - that might have crawled into houses and other buildings.
The LDS volunteers did whatever was needed. They cleaned 1,569 houses, in some cases stripping everything from ceilings to floorboards, right down to building studs. They hauled out ruined and damaged furniture and did repairs that ranged from minor to major.
The 6,000 volunteers' service was used efficiently. Brother McWhorter worked until 2 a.m. Saturday, July 23, entering into a computer database names of volunteers who had signed up. By 8 a.m. 80 percent of the volunteers had their specific work assignments; by 9 a.m., all the volunteers were at their work sites.
Just two days before the volunteers arrived, ministers of various churches in the flooded area called a meeting to coordinate with the LDS Church volunteer efforts so work would not be duplicated. It was also arranged for the ministers to provide lists of names of people in their congregations who needed assistance. Utilizing a sort of triage system, the most immediate and pressing needs got top priority.
Information was constantly updated, as jobs were completed or as new requests were made. Sid Hancock and Larry Bynum from the bishops storehouses in Atlanta and Tampa traveled to Albany to assist. Among their tasks during the weekend were taking phone calls with requests for help and orchestrating work on the site.
Tampa Florida Stake Pres. Gregory L. Williams went to the flooded area with 95 others, mostly members of his stake but also a few non-members who wanted to help. They were assigned to work in Moultrie, Ga.
"There was a great esprit d'corps at the YMCA campground," Pres. Williams said. "When we arrived, there were hundreds of people there. They were organizing equipment, giving out assignments, even giving tetanus shots. I heard it expressed more than once, `This must be what it was like to be part of Zions camp.' We were reminded of other experiences in Church history.
"There was a lot of mud and filth," Pres. Williams said. "We were working in circumstances that were less than ideal, but everyone was in good spirits and caught up in the importance of what we were doing. It felt like it was right to be there. We didn't feel what we were doing was drudgery; we were helping people and we were excited about it.
"The devastation of an event like this is always surprising when you're there and close to it. When you watch the news on television, you don't experience the feelings of people who have lost everything."
Bishop Anderson said the magnitude of the work done by the LDS volunteers has been incredible. "There is basically no one here who doesn't know of the LDS Church and what the Church is all about," he said. "It has been wonderful to see how well the different churches in the community have worked together to see that people from all religions have been taken care of. Religious philosophies have been put aside. There has been a great need here, and the focus has been on taking care of the people, helping them back on their feet."