"We wanted to be with them."
That simple, direct statement by President Boyd K. Packer summed up the reason two members of the Quorum of the Twelve, two of the Seventy, the Presiding Bishop and two Area Seventies went to be among Hurricane Katrina's survivors in three states on Sunday, Sept. 4.
President Packer, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve, and Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Twelve were accompanied to Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi by Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Presidency of the Seventy, Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Seventy and executive director of the Missionary Department, and Presiding Bishop H. David Burton. Elder John S. Anderson, an Area Seventy from Florida, joined the Brethren on the visits. Elder Jon M. Huntsman Sr., an Area Seventy and a member of the Board of Governors of the American Red Cross, took the group to see the needs of hurricane victims, reinforcing the partnership of the Church and Red Cross in providing relief and alleviating suffering in the wake of such disasters.
Also assisting and joining the group at various locations were Allan F. Packer, infield representative from the Missionary Department; Peter Huntsman, CEO of Huntsman Corporation; and James Huntsman and David Parkin of Huntsman Corporation.
The group visited evacuee centers in Beaumont, Texas; Baton Rogue, La.; and Hattiesburg, Miss.
President Packer described the scene in Beaumont where thousands of people were being cared for: "There was a very large room filled with cots, all of which came from our (the Church's) supplies. The Church was there early; our materials were the first to reach the evacuee center." He said that Red Cross officials said, "These cots and this bedding are from what you have sent us."
At each place, President Packer said, were "families sitting and waiting, as they had for days, to know where they would go and what they would do. There was no disturbance of any kind. They were quiet, resolute. There were a lot of mothers with little children. The children were very well behaved. They're trying to do everything they can to take care of them."
The Brethren saw many examples of people helping others. "One of the Red Cross officials hosting us pointed out that there has been an enormous outpouring of brotherly love among all the people," President Packer said.
He commented on the courage of the people. "We saw a sign that read, 'Katrina can't beat us.' They're all trying to help one another."
President Packer, Elder Ballard and Bishop Burton spoke at meetings in chapels in Baton Rogue and Hattiesburg.
While their schedule didn't allow much time for personal interactions, "the power of the Spirit was there," President Packer said.
He described the hurricane as a "monstrous tragedy." He told of recently visiting areas hit by the tsunami last December and explaining to officials there that the humanitarian aid of the Church was given without expectation of anything in return.
"We want nothing except the opportunity to help," he told members and others gathered in the meetings. To those in Baton Rouge, he said, "This is going to be a long, long, difficult road ahead of us. And at the end of that long road, we will still be there. We stick with it and we stay with it until we do everything we can to help.
In both meetings, President Packer offered the closing prayer and included in it a blessing upon all the people involved in the disaster, "fathers and mothers and the children," and for "those families where there is not a father present," and for "the mothers and their little children who have little or nothing now," and those "reaching out to help." He asked that family members can "find one another in all this difficulty of people moving back and forth."
After he returned to his office, President Packer reflected upon the experience of visiting the areas affected by Hurricane Katrina, which the Brethren described as "one of the worst natural disasters in United States history," in which it is estimated that more than a million people have been dislocated. He and the other Brethren expressed concern about the overall impact on children and families.
"The thing that kept going through my mind everywhere we were was the children," President Packer said. "They don't understand, and can't understand, what has happened. And then there were the mothers with their little children; in many cases, the men were not there."
Elder Ballard said, "One of the things that was so heart wrenching were the people trying to get in touch with their own, people trying to find their families their parents, children, siblings, cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles. They were just trying to make some connection."
Elder Ballard described it as "pure inspiration when President Packer offered the prayer and pronounced a blessing upon the people an apostolic blessing upon them, and it weighed very heavy on him, I think, as he pled with Heavenly Father to watch over the children, the mothers and the single people who were alone who needed to be fortified. It was very touching."
He said that people were appreciative that the Brethren had come to visit. "They knew that they weren't out there alone, but that the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve, the Seventies, and Presiding Bishopric care about them. When all is said and done, that visit is as important as anything we've done."
Bishop Burton told the Church News, "The scope, nature, power and fury of Mother Nature and her impact on civilization is an incredible thing to behold."
Amid that destruction, however, he said he witnessed "the desire of good people everywhere to be involved in looking after their fellowman."
"Everywhere we went," he explained, "we saw volunteers reaching out to those who have been victims of nature's devastation. . . . . We saw people setting aside their own interests for the benefit of the whole."
He said while serving as Presiding Bishop he has seen devastation in other places after Hurricanes Andrew and Dennis, and, of course, after the tsunami that struck southeast Asia.
"It is like the tsunami, in that the devastation is so complete," he said, noting that other natural disasters have been terrible "but were focused over a much smaller area, so the similarity ceases."
And, as after the tsunami, the Church is committed to helping communities, including many members, along the Gulf Coast over the long term not just months, but years, he said.
Thousands of homes and livelihoods have to be rebuilt and restored, he said. "We are there. Not only for our members but our communities and the people of the South for the longer term."
Finally, Bishop Burton said, it was an emotional experience to watch "an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ invoke the blessings of Heaven" on people and a region in need.
That sacred blessing, he said, was "received so magnificently."
Elder Christofferson said he was impressed with local priesthood leaders along the Gulf Coast and their work to meet the immediate needs of Church and community members.
"The stake presidents and bishops, many of them struggling with some of their own losses, are doing a very good job of organizing the efforts with volunteers and the resources the Church is supplying to help others," he said.
The Church, he added, is "expecting a large influx of volunteers from the South over the next several weekends, to help meet the needs of members and others."
Elder Cook said he was touched that missionaries evacuated from affected areas before the storm are now helping the Red Cross and with other relief efforts. "We are very pleased that they are being so productive," he said.
Elder Huntsman described the visit to devastated areas and evacuation centers in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi as "a very emotional experience."
"We did a lot of listening and tried to understand above all else the current and future needs of the Church members and those wonderful people who are not of our faith," he said. "I was personally impressed with the upbeat and positive nature of the thousands of evacuees, and was particularly moved by the large number of children and their sense of calmness.
"President Packer and Elder Ballard were deeply involved in all aspects of visiting evacuees in all three states, FEMA, medical centers, food distribution outlets, and devastated homes. They left beautiful blessings from our Heavenly Father to both the members of the Church and those not of our faith."
Regarding how the Church and the Red Cross have worked together so well and made such rapid response to the disaster, he said, "It has been a great joy to be heavily affiliated with the Red Cross and to be an Area Seventy at the same time."