In the days and weeks following twin hurricane disasters on the Gulf Coast, a remarkable volunteer effort mounted by the Church is helping people pull their homes and lives back together.
As the effort after the first hurricane is nearing completion, the second is reaching its peak.
In the area between New Orleans, La., and Mobile, Ala., where Hurricane Katrina devastated thousands of square miles from the coast northward on Aug. 29, Church members have since donated 32,023 days of labor, filling 10,766 work orders. They sawed and removed fallen trees, patched roofs, or cleaned homes of mud and removed damaged drywall from a total of 2,315 members' homes, and 7,122 homes of first responders or neighbors. In addition, they did the same type of work at 1,339 community centers or local churches, said Elder John S. Anderson, Area Seventy, who is coordinating the effort for the Church.
Work will continue at a lesser pace for a few more weeks, he said.
"We are having some great experiences," he said. "Last weekend was our first major weekend in New Orleans. We had about 1,000 men in the area. We literally had people coming up to us and saying, 'We have heard about you. Won't you please come to our subdivision.' "
Work is being done in the Hattiesburg Mississippi, Gulfport Mississippi, Mobile Alabama, Slidell Louisiana and New Orleans Louisiana stakes.
President Scott Conlin of the New Orleans stake said regular meetings have resumed in five of the stake's meetinghouses, and nearly all areas are open for homeowners to check their property.
"It is quite emotional for them to see the extensive damage," he said. "Many of those can't stay in their homes. It will be a very slow recovery. They have tremendous support from those areas who are able to provide longer-term assistance."
He said priesthood leaders went to every home of members and, by the notes written on the home by the National Guard, determined that no members had been lost. One elderly woman who was seriously ill died while being evacuated, however.
"We can't thank the saints enough for the continued outpouring and outreach," he said. Some distant units have adopted some of the New Orleans units and they supply small support items, such as toys for children, baskets, and temple packets. "This is greatly appreciated."
Volunteer clean-up after Hurricane Rita, which struck Sept. 24, is hitting full pace. "The stake presidents, from the beginning, continue to do an amazing job," said Elder Stanley G. Ellis, Area Seventy who initially coordinated the Church's response. "They are shepherds in a Christlike mode."
John B. Larsen, Houston regional welfare specialist, who is now coordinating the response, said the Church's relief efforts in the devastation along the Texas-Louisiana border are being handled by 11 Houston-area stakes and the Longview Texas Stake, which was also in the hurricane path.
Brother Larsen said some 900 volunteers worked over the Oct. 1 weekend, and 980 on the Oct. 8 weekend. The number of volunteers will increase as more residents from Lake Charles and Orange return to their homes and approve work orders. Those in Port Arthur returned last week, and Beaumont the week previously.
"Almost everything we are doing is tree removal and cleaning up yards," Brother Larsen said, describing how a forest of timber has fallen. One crew of 10 volunteers using three chain saws spent an entire day in one yard and didn't finish, he said.
He said those neighbors being helped are often emotional as they express their appreciation.
Church members seem to have more underlying confidence that they will be helped, said Bishop Steven L. Baxter of the Lake Charles Ward. "They know they are not going to be abandoned," he said. But sometimes "their neighbors have lost hope and don't know where to turn." After the Church's work crews spend a few hours and clean up their places, "they are most touched."
He said homes of about 10 LDS families were destroyed in the Cameron-Creole area on the coast. The surge of gulf water destroyed some homes while others were lifted and moved from their foundations.
As Hurricane Rita approached, the ward's leaders evacuated those who were most dependent, and expected the others to evacuate and call an 800 telephone number to report their whereabouts, he explained. "We had people from Tennessee to Utah to Kentucky; they've got to find you you can't find them."
After the storm passed, Bishop Baxter learned of a household where a grandmother caring for grandchildren and great-grandchildren had not evacuated. They were completely out of food. He returned with supplies and was among the few allowed into the closed city. After supplying this family, he and others from the ward who had also returned, including Dave Zachary, a clean-up professional with local resources, established a command post and began checking on member homes. Within 48 hours, truck from the bishops' storehouse in Houston had arrived with tarps and supplies and food. Satellite telephones had also been delivered. The group of 15 or so men did emergency repairs on 40-50 roofs, said Bishop Baxter.
"I can't say that our love for (evacuees is greater than anyone else's but) what Hurricane Rita showed me is that the organization of this Church and its preparation for dealing with disasters is unprecedented. No other church functioned like that. It is a great blessing."
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