The unrelenting hurricane season that has tormented Florida and the island nations of the Caribbean has left members displaced, physically and emotionally spent and, understandably, sick with storm fatigue.
"It is exhausting," said Douglas B. Carter, president of the Lake Mary Florida Stake.
Folks anxious to close the chapters on Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Ivan had to instead deal with tenacious Hurricane Jeanne — a storm that caused deadly destruction in Haiti before embarking on an unwelcome sojourn through Florida Sept. 26.
In all, thousands of Church members were victimized by Jeanne, which claimed the life of an elderly LDS man in Haiti, further damaged storm-weakened homes in Central Florida and all but leveled the Ft. Pierce meetinghouse in the Stuart Florida Stake.
At press time, members from Gonaives, Haiti — where Hurricane Jeanne-spawned flood waters destroyed or severely damaged some 80 percent of the city's homes — were still waiting to return to their home town. Some 140 displaced members from Gonaives had to be relocated to a tent city adjoining the St. Marc meetinghouse, about 50 miles away.
"Today, thanks to the support of the Church, these people have food, clothes, medicine and shelter," said Haiti Port-au-Prince North Stake President Ghammald Francillon.
Hurricane Jeanne has marked an unsettling episode for President Francillon and other Haitian Church leaders. Shortly after the storm passed through Gonaives, President Francillon learned the massive flooding had forced members to seek safety atop roofs. The Church responded as quickly as possible. "We were the first people to arrive in Gonaives with humanitarian aid for the people," President Francillon said. "We brought hygiene kits, rice, beans, water and sugar with us. Nevertheless, we couldn't do much because most of the houses were severely flooded with water."
The Gonaives meetinghouse was also inundated with mud and water. Still, it was being used to shelter people.
"Despite all these conditions, we found the Church members in good spirits," President Francillon said.
The Gonaives members were later moved to St. Marc where they reportedly found lodging in 18 large tents. Many had not eaten in several days, so the local members in St. Marc had food waiting for them. Most arrived with few possessions outside of what they could stuff inside plastic sacks.
On Sept. 26, the members from Gonaives were able to worship as a branch for Sabbath services.
Following Hurricane Jeanne, LDS humanitarian response leaders met with Haitian government leaders, asking how the Church could best help. They were told storm victims were in desperate need of blankets, clothing, shoes and hygiene kits. In response, the Church was expected to fly some 400,000 pounds of clothing and shoes into Haiti. About 14,000 hygiene kits were also Haiti-bound, said Church Humanitarian Emergency Response Director Garry Flake.
"It's quite an emotional thing to see people, who have lost absolutely everything they have, trying to start (over) again," said Brother Flake, who visited Haiti in the storm's aftermath.
Meanwhile, Church members in Florida continue with their seemingly Sisyphean task of disaster recovery.
Even as LDS work crews were assisting Hurricane Ivan victims in Florida's Panhandle on Sept. 26, Hurricane Jeanne was battering members along the state's central-eastern coast. The most recent storm traveled essentially the same path blazed by Hurricane Frances weeks ago, re-damaging many of the homes that had been patched up earlier. Thousands were expected to be without power for up to three weeks due to shortages of repair supplies.
President Carter and his family weathered the hurricane inside their home near Orlando. Their windows were boarded up, limiting the visual spectacle. Still, surging winds, he said, mimicked "the sound of a constant freight train rolling by."
Once again, work crews were expected to travel to the Stuart and Cocoa stakes on Florida's east coast to help with clean up and roof repairs. Thankfully, Jeanne did move faster than Frances — but the winds were stronger. No members or missionaries were harmed in Florida, although the Stuart stake's Ft. Pierce meetinghouse will likely have to be rebuilt. The structure suffered extensive roof damage and was inundated by more than four inches of water. Church buildings in Kissimmee and Wellington, Fla., were also notably damaged.
Though taxed by earlier hurricanes, the bishop's storehouses in Atlanta and Orlando had been replenished in time to send rapid assistance to Hurricane Jeanne victims. "We were chock full of everything we needed," President Carter said.
Some 2,500 members — including fresh workers from Georgia, South Carolina and Jacksonville, Fla. — are expected to converge on heavily impacted regions during conference weekend. A similar number arrived in Florida's Panhandle a week earlier to assist Hurricane Ivan victims. Workers there performed the all-too-familiar storm recovery tasks: patching roofs, clearing out fallen trees and, in some cases, helping members recover valuables from the rubble of their destroyed homes.
"It's tough, starting all over again," said Pensacola Florida Stake President Mark H. Daniels.
Signs of pre-Ivan normalcy were beginning to emerge in the Panhandle region, although schools were expected to be closed for another two weeks. Clean-up projects have also prevented members in the Pensacola stake from resuming regular Church services and activities.
The Hurricane Jeanne recovery effort will mark the fifth weekend in recent months that Church members from Florida and neighboring states have participated in organized work campaigns. Many who have helped on one weekend have found their own property damaged days later. A blurry line has formed between hurricane relief workers and hurricane victims. Priesthood leaders throughout Florida have asked LDS Family Services to provide counseling for members struggling with the relentless 2004 hurricane season.
"We're starting to see a lot weariness," admitted President Carter.
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