Area Seventies in U.S. Southeast consider gospel lessons following historic hurricane season

The 2020 hurricane season in the Southeast United States was akin to a grueling boxing match where the blows keep coming, fast and furious, round after round after round.

Latter-day Saints and their neighbors living across the Gulf Coast region and beyond likely shudder a bit when they hear the names Laura, Sally, Delta, Zeta or Eta — that eponymous roster of storms defining the Atlantic region’s most active hurricane season in history.

And, of course, no 2020 storm came at a convenient time. Each new hurricane competed for headlines with COVID-19. 

This year’s Atlantic hurricane season staggered Latter-day Saints. Many of their homes were flooded and damaged. Lives were upended. But like sturdy-jawed prize fighters, the members absorbed each attack, fought back and answered every bell to help others.

Meanwhile, local priesthood and Relief Society proved to be astute learners. With each new storm, they became a bit wiser on preparing for, responding to, and recovering from a disaster. Those lessons leave them better equipped for when future hurricanes arrive, even while doubling as examples to anyone enduring life’s inevitable storms.

The Church News reached out to three Area Seventies from the U.S. Southeast— Elder Matthew S. Harding, Elder Art Rascon and Elder Douglas B. Carter — to glean their front-line observations following an awful (and, yes, instructional)  hurricane season.

Benefactors and beneficiaries of service

Each of the Area Seventies marvel at the selflessness demonstrated by the members.

“The Saints in the Southeast respond when needed to help their fellow Saints — and those they know not,” said Elder Carter. 

Power poles lean or are broken due to Hurricane Zeta damage Oct. 29, 2020,, in Grand Isle, Louisiana. The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season was the largest of record, prompting several Latter-day Saint-sponsored relief projects.
Power poles lean or are broken due to Hurricane Zeta damage Oct. 29, 2020,, in Grand Isle, Louisiana. The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season was the largest of record, prompting several Latter-day Saint-sponsored relief projects. Credit: Bill Feig/The Advocate via AP

Few weeks passed during the 2020 hurricane season when members were not offering their time, treasure and talents to assist anyone in need, he added. 

The “benefactors” of service following a hurricane often became the “beneficiaries” of service when the next storm hit. About 75% of the members living along the U.S. Gulf Coast had opportunities to both help and receive help within a 90-day period.

“Despite being ‘storm weary,’ the Saints kept responding and giving of themselves,” said Elder Carter. “It has been an honor to serve with these good Saints who love their neighbors.”

A North Carolina native, Elder Harding said division has defined much of 2020 in the United States. But in the aftermath of each major storm, Latter-day Saints in yellow “Helping Hands” T-shirts served those in need regardless of their faith, race or political beliefs.

And, of course, each act of service was performed under the backdrop of the pandemic.

“So we social distanced, wore gloves and masks and sanitized hands often,” he wrote. “We set up outdoor command centers so that we could help relieve suffering and to give hope to those in despair.”

This was Elder Rascon’s first hurricane season as an Area Seventy. But as a veteran journalist and a longtime priesthood leader in the Houston, Texas, area, he knows the capacity of Latter-day Saints to care for others following natural disasters.

“I’ve been so amazed and humbled watching the resiliency of the Saints — both those who continue to serve and those who have been hit by as many as three hurricanes,” he said. “And yet, they are willing to step up, help out and serve.”

Refining hurricane preparation and response

The Area Seventies also note refinements in responding to local disasters.

“Because of our depth of experience across many stakes, we are able to call upon stakes and leaders outside of the affected stakes to establish the command center, train work team leaders and distribute work orders,” said Elder Harding. “This assures that experienced leadership and volunteers are in place to help — whereas the local affected stake membership and leaders may have evacuated or are dealing with the devastation to their own properties.”

Mason Sagers of Canton, Georgia, along with other volunteers help clean up debris and fallen trees caused by Hurricane Sally in Pensacola, Florida, on Sunday, October 18, 2020. The hurricane brought 100-mile-per-hour winds and millions of dollars in damage to homes and property in the region.
Mason Sagers of Canton, Georgia, along with other volunteers help clean up debris and fallen trees caused by Hurricane Sally in Pensacola, Florida, on Sunday, October 18, 2020. The hurricane brought 100-mile-per-hour winds and millions of dollars in damage to homes and property in the region. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

Following each hurricane that battered the Gulf Coast communities in Texas and Louisiana, Elder Rascon’s phone began ringing with calls from local lawmakers and civic leaders. They knew well of the Church’s ability and desire to provide relief.

“And each would say to me, ‘Here are the problems we are facing, can you help?’ Then we would answer that call directly.”

Elder Carter is grateful that the experiences of 2020 have helped refine coordination between welfare officials at Church headquarters and their counterparts out in the field.

“Many of our improvements have made the participation of the volunteers smoother and easier once they reach the field of work,” he said. “Other improvements have resulted in more efficient use of Church resources, so we are seeing less excess equipment. We look forward to continual improvement as we go forward.”

Still, the learning never ends. With each emergency relief effort, priesthood and Relief Society leaders have prayerfully sought guidance on streamlining the process while strengthening relationships with community leaders.

Divinely guided shelter from the storm

Most Latter-day Saints don’t live in hurricane-vulnerable communities. But all would be wise to look to the lessons learned by members affected by the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season.

Fires, earthquakes, tornadoes, severe weather and, of course, COVID-19 have affected people worldwide over the past year.

“We need to listen to the prophets, seers and revelators as they ask us to do what the Lord would have us do,” said Elder Carter. “This year has shown us that everything they have asked us to do has been a benefit and a blessing in our lives, if we have been obedient.”

Life storms will come to all, he added. Don’t procrastinate putting one’s temporal and spiritual life in order.

A young Helping Hands volunteer clears away a fallen tree branch on Sept. 27, 2020, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sally.
A young Helping Hands volunteer clears away a fallen tree branch on Sept. 27, 2020, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sally. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

With the arrival of each hurricane, Elder Harding found himself pondering Doctrine and Covenants 88:90: “And also cometh the testimony of the voice of thunderings, and the voice of lightnings, and the voice of tempests, and the voice of the waves of the sea heaving themselves beyond their bounds.”

Those inspired words, he said, “remind me that [the day’s events] are no surprise to Heavenly Father, but that it is all part of His wondrous plan.  These are signs of the Savior’s return.  This is a wonderous time to serve and help others as the Savior would.”

Developing an “attitude of hope” with an eye “singularly focused on Christ” can help anyone weather any sort of threat, said Elder Rascon. 

“As we look to Christ,” he said, “we will understand that He will allow us to make it through the storm.”