Dennis torments coast

Destructive storm an unwelcome reminder of 2004 hurricane season; Church assisting

Last year a barrage of hurricanes battered the homes and spirits of people living in the Caribbean, Florida and along the eastern U.S. Gulf Coast. Now those same folks are enduring an unwanted encore of sorts — cleaning up after Hurricane Dennis, the first destructive storm of the 2005 hurricane season.

Fueled by 130-140 mph winds, Hurricane Dennis smacked Haiti and Cuba on July 7 before hitting the Florida Panhandle and south Alabama three days later. The storm reportedly claimed more than 30 lives in victimized Caribbean nations and caused extensive property damage.

No Church members or missionaries were harmed, although many were forced to evacuate their homes. LDS meetinghouses throughout the region doubled as shelters as members and others — still shaken from last year's wave of storms — gathered together inside. One portable, Church-owned building being used by the Atmore Branch in south Alabama was destroyed by two uprooted pecan trees.

"(Dennis) hit hard," said Mobile Alabama Stake President Harlan Spencer as he helped direct Church relief efforts in Atmore, Ala., a city severely disabled by the hurricane. "There are trees down everywhere. Businesses gone. Homes destroyed."

Still, members throughout the region are relieved Hurricane Dennis did not inflict the level of damage caused by Hurricane Ivan last September.

Few priesthood leaders embrace the title "hurricane veteran." Still, lessons learned during the 2004 hurricane season served storm-savvy bishops and stake presidents well when Hurricane Dennis arrived. Pensacola Florida Stake President Mark Daniels reluctantly jokes that he and his counterparts living along the Atlantic hurricane alley have become "old pros."

President Daniels estimates some 40 percent of the members living in vulnerable areas of his stake evacuated. Dozens of members and missionaries took shelter in Pensacola-area meetinghouses. Sunday services were canceled as folks waited out the storm.

Several LDS families also found lodging in the Atmore Branch meetinghouse.

Even as Dennis was shifting, the Church was activating an international relief effort. A small shipment of basic food items was airlifted to Haiti to assist needy members and their neighbors. Meanwhile, three truckloads of emergency supplies and nonperishable food from the bishops' storehouse near Atlanta, Ga., were dispatched July 11 to the Pensacola area.

When a United Way official in Pensacola learned the Church was sending in relief shipments, she reportedly expected three small trucks. When the trio of massive, Church-operated semi-tractor trailers pulled into the United Way's command center, "she was overwhelmed," said President Daniels.

A Church truck filled with generators was also sent to Atmore, where power is expected to be out for at least two weeks. Canned food, baby items and other provisions were also shipped to Atmore.

A day after Dennis passed Atmore, President Spencer visited some of the communities' poorest areas to let needy residents know help was on the way. When he opened the doors of the Atmore Branch meetinghouse July 12 to begin the humanitarian distribution "we had a crowd 200 yards long outside."

Recipients of the humanitarian items were eager to do what they could to assist with the distribution. When one of the Church trucks arrived, recipients formed a line stretching from the truck to the meetinghouse. The entire truck was unloaded in just over an hour, President Spencer said.

Folks who received a few cans of food or some hygiene kits were touched by the Church's efforts.

"I've never had so many hugs in all my life . . . people were so impressed with the Church," President Spencer said.

LDS muscle is also being enlisted. Some 1,000 LDS volunteers from Pensacola and neighboring areas were expected to spend the weekend of July 16-17 helping anyone who needs roofs patched and yards cleared.

A similar weekend work effort was planned for Atmore, with members reporting from Alabama's Mobile, Birmingham and Bessemer stakes, along with Mississippi's Gulf Port Stake.

Members who have been repeatedly targeted by hurricanes in the past year are understandably fearful of yet another string of destructive storms. The Church is expected to provide emotional counseling to any members in need.

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