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After Katrina's fury, relief on a grand scale

140 trucks of commodities help thousands of members and others now homeless

Editor's note: With the scope of damage from Hurricane Katrina so large and number of people impacted so great, the following overview is more representative than comprehensive. Additional reports will be published in the coming weeks and, most likely, months. Church News Associate Editor John Hart was on assignment in the hurricane-ravaged areas from Aug. 30 through Sept. 11.

SLIDELL, La. — After Hurricane Katrina severely damaged an area the size of Kansas and flooded metropolitan New Orleans, residents including Church members are picking up the pieces and trying to put their lives back together.

The storm's death toll continues to rise and is now more than 700, but many more are missing from the effects of the storm that destroyed some $100 billion in thousands of homes, businesses and vehicles as it peaked with 145 miles-per-hour wind gusts and a nearly 30-foot wave surges from the gulf that pulverized beach and low-lying areas. Five members are among the dead, and several others remain on the missing list. (Please see Church News, Sept. 3, 2005.)

The deadly force of the hurricane destroyed an estimated 90 percent of the buildings within half a mile of the 130 miles of shoreline. Toxic mud fills soaked homes and millions of trees are littered from Baton Rouge, La., east to Mobile, Ala., and north beyond Hattiesburg, Miss. More than a million people are homeless and a large proportion of them are also without employment. Many have lost all their property and personal belongings. It is a catastrophe so extreme as to defy real description; nearly three weeks after the hurricane hit, evacuee families are still separated and people are scanning American Red Cross lists in search of loved ones with whom they lost contact after that fateful Aug. 29 morning when Katrina struck.

As of Sept. 13, 140 truckloads of commodities and supplies, about 5.6 million pounds or 2,800 tons had been shipped into affected areas; with thousands of LDS volunteers giving 9,204 manpower days helping 1,606 Church members and 3,226 people not of the LDS faith, according to Garry Flake, director of Church Emergency Response. In addition, some 3,500 volunteers served Sept. 10-11.

Church facilities lost in the New Orleans Louisiana Stake include the stake center, which is submerged and lost, and the Port Sulphur meetinghouse, which was destroyed. The meetinghouses in LaPlace and Ponchartrain suffered wind damage.

In the Slidell Louisiana Stake, the Chalmette Ward building was submerged and lost, and the stake center sustained some wind damage to the roof. The Covington meetinghouse was slightly damaged, and the leased Amite meetinghouse was damaged; the Hammond, Picayune and Bogalusa meetinghouses received slight damage.

In the Gulfport Mississippi Stake, the stake center received some wind damage and the Pascagoula meetinghouse was flooded, as was the Waveland meetinghouse. There was minor damage in the Biloxi/Ocean Springs meetinghouse while meetinghouses in the Hattiesburg, Jackson and Mobile stakes escaped damage. The Baton Rouge Louisiana Temple and adjacent stake center were unharmed.

In a post-disaster atmosphere rampant with finger-pointing, where some officials were quick to blame higher-ups when relief was not forthcoming, the Church stood exemplary in disaster relief and service.

The Church responded early, provided essential commodities and launched a clean-up effort significant beyond its numbers. In addition, senior Church leaders, including President Boyd K. Packer, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve, and Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve and others, visited to personally inspect sites and shelters, and to check on members and missionaries. (Please see Church News, Sept. 3, 2005.)

After a command post was established at the Slidell Bishops' Storehouse, located in the heart of the damage zone, trucks with food and emergency supplies were sent to establish temporary storehouses in Gulfport, Pascagoula, Biloxi and Hattiesburg. Cultural halls were stacked with boxes filled with supplies for members and their neighbors. In the early hours of the disaster, Federal Emergency Aid Administration (FEMA) provided some preliminary supplies, but most Church members in affected areas were provided for by the Church.

In an area where the Church is not prominent, it impressed many local leaders with its experienced response.

Also pertinent to the storm, relief workers contacted many less-active members and helped with damage cleanup, instilling within them a new spirit of belonging, said Elder John Anderson, Area Seventy. Many have already attended Church services.

Elder Anderson is the Church's Emergency Operations Center director and coordinator of emergency response to Hurricane Katrina. Such emergency conditions, he said, "demand that the saints be together," and that the camaraderie of Church brotherhood provides support. He described the storm as reminiscent of the atomic bombs that exploded in Japan in World War II. "The devastation of the storm is terrible."

Soon after the storm, "We had thousands of people calling (to volunteer), and we told them to stay home. It was a difficult decision when there was such dramatic need." He explained that without gasoline, volunteers would have come in and added to the evacuee problem.

It took him three days to travel across the area of destruction, he said in an address in a meeting held Saturday, Sept. 10, in Picayune, Miss., where the Church had distributed relief supplies at that time. He held other meetings previously, including one at Pascagoula, Miss. Bishop Jay Taylor told him that 70 percent of the Pascagoula Ward had left. They joined a number of other members whose homes or apartments were destroyed, so they packed what little they saved and left the area in search of work. Others are staying away until they can find housing.

In Pascagoula, Elder Anderson planned a meeting for the remaining members.

"How many do you expect at the meeting?" Elder Anderson asked.

"None," Bishop Taylor said.

But at the appointed hour, 10 people arrived, said Elder Anderson.

Elder Anderson and Bishop Taylor waited longer, and in 15 more minutes, 80 people gathered. Some of them hadn't been in the building for many years. "There were people there who had lost the touch of the Holy Ghost," said Elder Anderson. "They said, 'We thought we had been forgotten.' "

The Church was the only entity that had come to help them. As food was delivered, and homes and yards were cleaned, "that group will rise and make the ward strong," he said. "We are on a mission of mercy."

Local members showed resilience and self-help. Some shared food storage with their neighbors.

"We're surviving," said President Ole Christensen of the Denham Springs Louisiana Stake, regional welfare chairman. He coordinated extensive Church efforts in relief, physical facilities, locating members, and support of bishops in affected areas.

Because of the extent of the damage, many residents are simply waiting for some sign of progress before returning. Among them are members of the New Orleans 2nd (Spanish) Ward, many living in the Alexandria Louisiana stake center.

"I'm the kind of person who has to be doing something," said Rudolfo Pacheco, a high councilor who is hoping to find work rebuilding New Orleans. He said about a third of his ward has dispersed to live in other areas but expects the rest of them to eventually return. He has lived in New Orleans for about seven years.

In Slidell, some resources at the storehouse were extended to first responders as supplies were taken to the families of police, firefighters and some medical personnel.

Two of the volunteers at the command post are Richard and Charlene Kirby. He is second counselor in the Slidell stake presidency, and she is stake Relief Society president. They live temporarily in a motor home at the storehouse. President Kirby told of receiving an e-mail from the stake president, Terry Donahue, in June. In the message, President Donahue said he had awakened in the night feeling "extremely impressed to get an emergency plan immediately." The plan included identifying those at risk.

"We were as prepared as we could be," said Sister Kirby. They had a large food supply, 72-hour kits and, in May, had helped organize and put on a stake emergency preparedness fair. "We covered all the bases," she said. "But nobody expected this."

The Kirbys evacuated 90 miles west to Jackson. The way there was a labyrinth around downed trees and past trees whipping back and forth in the wind.

"We had to snake our way" along the freeway. Once a large tree blocked the way and when one pickup alone could not budge a huge tree, "they used three pickups to move it off the freeway."

In Jackson, the group of evacuees waited out the storm with no power. They shared peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with missionaries and others from the stake.

"We read the scriptures by flashlight. We felt protected with 30 missionaries; for three days, it was home."

They came home to 4 feet of water in the garage and ruined cars, and 2 feet of water in the house. Even so, their concerns were more for others than themselves. She lamented the loss of the Chalmette Ward, located in the St. Bernard Parish which had flooded. "We are a small stake, and to lose a ward is huge," she said.

She said the ward likely will take years to rebuild.

"It was a little bitty ward and close-knit," she said. At one time, they used a school for a meetinghouse and "we met in the hallways, and we loved it."

In Waveland, Miss., where a ward of some 380 families had been established, Bishop Robert Garrett said only 11 homes remained habitable. Most of the ward evacuated prior to the storm and Bishop Garrett and a counselor, Donald Cuevas, hosted a dozen families — some members, some not — within the water-soaked meetinghouse without power or plumbing. Church LDS Family Services workers helped ward members cope with their losses.

Among the scant congregation to attend services Sept. 4 was a reporter from the Wall Street Journal, who saw firsthand how the Church responds to disasters.

Members are gaining spiritual understanding from their ordeal. Mike Dohm, high councilor in the Slidell stake who had come to Louisiana from California, was scheduled to begin a new job Aug. 29 in New Orleans. The company was flooded.

Now, as he waits unknowing for future volunteering his time to the Church, he cites Alma 26:6-7:

Yea, and they shall not be beaten down by the storm at the last day; yea, neither shall they be harrowed up by the whirlwinds; but when the storm cometh they shall be gathered together in their place, that the storm cannot penetrate them; yea, neither shall they be driven with fierce winds whithersoever the enemy listeth to carry them.

But behold, they are in the hands of the Lord of the harvest, and they are his; and he will raise them up at the last day.

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