BATON ROUGE, LA.
Beginning August 21, Mormon Helping Hands volunteers responded to historic flooding that inundated 20 counties in southern Louisiana. The flooding affected 146,000 homes, according to the Baton Rouge Area Chamber of Commerce.
Latter-day Saints from surrounding states wearing the yellow Mormon Helping Hands shirts joined with volunteers from other organizations to provide assistance to the soaked and battered residents. The first priority was to muck out homes including areas that had never before flooded.
“Right now, the waters have receded,” said Elder R. Randall Bluth, Area Seventy in the North America Southeast Area on Aug. 31. “On the streets in Baton Rouge, drywall, clothes — most anything — is stacked out on the curbs waiting for trucks to come by and pick it up.”
Elder Bluth said most of the houses have been or soon will be gutted to the floodline, be it 18 inches, 2 feet or, in some instances 4 feet.
He said two Church meetinghouses were flooded. The Denham Springs Stake Center received about 6 feet of standing water, and the Baton Rouge 1st Ward meetinghouse about 2 feet.
Command centers have been set up in four area meetinghouses in Hammond, Baker, the Baton Rouge Stake Center (located next to the Baton Rouge Louisiana Temple) and Gonzales.
“The command centers are where volunteers check in to get supplies, receive work orders and go out to work on the houses,” Elder Bluth said.
With several large scale service projects planned over the next several weekends, Church members willingly volunteered to help. Volunteer support comes from Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, according to Martha McKay, the South Louisiana Church public affairs director. Church Welfare Department goods, including clean-up kits, were shipped from Atlanta. Some volunteers drove over six hours and then camped overnight in tents due to the shortage of motel rooms. The difficulty of the work was heightened by hot humid summer weather and more rain.
In Hammond, Mayor Pete Panepinto said, “Hammond is blessed today. It’s an incredible sight to see you and know how far you’ve come to help us. It’s great to see the tents all here. We’ve been hit hard, and we thank you.”
“I left my house, I live right around the corner. I turned the corner and I could see the cars and the yellow shirts ... and I was overwhelmed. ... This is only something that God can put together,” remarked Baker, Louisiana, Mayor Darnell Waites.
At a sacrament meeting on Sunday, Aug. 28, held at the Baton Rouge Stake Center, more than 1,000 of the weekend’s 4,300 yellow-shirted volunteers, most standing for the hour-long service, gathered before receiving their work assignments for the day.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards addressed the group. “I am a child of God, and He has sent me here,” Edwards said, quoting Hymn 301 that had just been sung. “I have no doubt God sent you here. This was an unnamed storm that the nation has not paid attention to, but you have. Even though the storm had no name, every victim has a name and is our brother and sister in Christ.”
Gov. Edwards continued, “You are an example of the partnership we will need going forward. The faith-based community response has been excellent from all denominations.”
Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden also spoke to the assembled volunteers. “I’m very grateful you left your homes to come to the great city of Baton Rouge. Look at these numbers! There was no hesitation for you reaching out. You are our family. In a family, the strong help the weak. This shows the hearts you have. It shows the minds you have. It shows the desires you have. We are the recipients of your good will, and we will never forget you!”
When the call went out through priesthood channels, response was immediate and great.
On Aug. 21 and 22, 18,650 hours of service were given by 2,250 volunteers; 91,693 hours were worked by 4,349 volunteers Aug. 27 and 28. In total, volunteers have completed 1,400 work orders for homes in Baton Rouge.
Bishop Mike Kennington of Sugar Land, Texas, said, “The folks of Baton Rouge seemed to be in good spirits considering what had happened to them. We heard many accounts of neighbors rallying together to help each other out and much of the local religious community responded within hours of the storm. The folks of the community were very appreciative of our help and extremely friendly.”
Volunteers brought their own tools, tents and supplies with them, working even when the rains returned. “It is also very humbling to see thousands of LDS members rally from all over the region by leaving behind family, work and other duties and use their own resources to answer the call for help,” Bishop Kennington added.
The Church will continue to respond to needs, as another push will be made over Labor Day Weekend for volunteers to exceed previous accomplishments.
As residents face many challenges and hard work in the months to come, they will also face hope and help from many sources. President Michael Flynn of the Sunny Side, Branch of the Friendswood Texas Stake shared, “My wife and I are excited about our call to serve as full-time missionaries in Baton Rouge. We will likely join in the long-term recovery efforts upon our arrival.”