Hours after tornadoes leveled parts of central Florida Feb. 2 — killing 20 people and damaging 1,800 homes — local Church leaders began to organize relief crews.
They contacted county and state officials for necessary permits. They coordinated with the local LDS storehouse and with Church leaders in Salt Lake City. They asked for volunteers and they prayed.
Less than 24 hours later, 545 volunteers from five stakes arrived carrying chain saws and sporting "Mormon Helping Hands" T-shirts. Supplies arrived from the storehouse, and permits from the government were issued.
"It was an incredible day," said Douglas B. Carter, president of the Leesburg Florida Stake. "We were blessed by the Lord in helping everything come together."
As a result, Church members made up the largest volunteer organization in the field Feb. 3. Together they put in 3,800 work hours. "We were pleased with the response of the members to come out on such short notice," said President Carter.
The 70-mile path of destruction left by the tornadoes is the largest in Florida state history.
No members or missionaries were injured by the tornadoes that touched down across a five-county area north of Orlando and left more than 40,000 people in central Florida without power. Two member homes were destroyed, another 13 received significant damage. Two Latter-day Saint meetinghouses sustained minor roof damage.
In response to the disaster, the Church sent tarps and cleaning kits and coordinated distribution with local emergency operation centers. In the hard-hit area near Paisley, Fla., the Church distributed water, diapers, baby food, cleaning supplies and hygiene kits.
"Even though we have done this quite a few times and we know how to do it, we still stand all amazed at the organization of the Church," said President Carter.
Kenneth A. Lowe, second counselor in the Orlando Florida Stake, coordinated some of the volunteer efforts for the cleanup. "It was a great effort," he said, noting that one woman looked at the Latter-day Saint work crews and asked, "Where are all these men coming from?"
Another woman couldn't believe the kindness members showed her. A tree removal company told her they expected $10,000 cash to do the work Church members did for free. She offered to make a donation to the Church.
"We do this because you are our neighbor," President Lowe told her. "Even though we live 60 miles away from you, we are all neighbors and children of God. The payment is that when you see someone in need, you will provide."
Still, he said, work crews barely scratched the surface of the need throughout the area.
President Carter said the Church will look at organizing more work crews in future weeks.
He said much of what was accomplished in a short period of time came about because of established relationships with government officials after previous disasters. "The Church has definitely succeeded over the last number of years in establishing itself as an organization to be counted on," he said.