Helping Hands volunteers aiding thousands affected by ‘hidden storm’ Hurricane Sally

Some are calling Hurricane Sally “the hidden storm.” 

Drive through, say, the main streets of Pensacola, Florida, and the severity of the disaster may not be immediately apparent. And Sally hasn’t snagged the volume of media attention of other historic hurricanes in recent years.

“But when you actually go to people’s homes, and see their needs, you realize it’s quite significant,” Elder Douglas Carter, an Area Seventy, told the Church News on Sunday after helping coordinate the ongoing Helping Hands volunteer relief efforts.

For the second consecutive long weekend (Sept. 25-27), legions of Helping Hand volunteers from several states converged upon heavily-impacted Gulf Coast regions stretching from Pensacola to the east end of Mobile, Alabama.

Helping Hands volunteers in Alabama clean-up interior of home damaged by flooding during Hurricane Sally.
Helping Hands volunteers in Alabama clean-up interior of home damaged by flooding during Hurricane Sally. Credit: Courtesy of Julia Fellows

Carloads of Latter-day Saints from 35 stakes began arriving as early as Friday morning. They pulled on yellow Helping Hands t-shirts, prayed together and got to work — responding to thousands of work orders in homes and yards across the region.

About 2,600 Helping Handers, including hundreds of full-time missionaries, answered calls to serve in recent days. Most have been involved in tree work, clearing fallen trunks and broken branches from yards and roofs.

“Hurricane Sally really pruned Pensacola, so there’s a lot of this kind of work to do,”  said Helping Hands volunteer Troy S. Schoonover. “We were working out in the rain part of the day, but it was a lot of fun.”

“It’s been gratifying,” said Elder Carter, marveling at the “can-do” spirit embodying each volunteer.

Tri-state Helping Hands response arriving this weekend after Hurricane Sally deluges U.S. Gulf Coast

For families and individuals whose lives were literally upended by Hurricane Sally, witnessing Church-sponsored relief crews cheerfully clear out fallen debris from their yards or pulling out rotting drywall from their flooded homes offers fortifying hope.

“The people being served are so grateful and tearful when they see our people arriving to help,” said Elder Carter.

The Area Seventy met with one man coming to terms with a recent cancer diagnosis and had just endured his initial chemotherapy infusion, “when his backyard was just destroyed by Hurricane Sally.”

Within days, a seasoned Helping Hands crew was cleaning up his yard and lifting a measure of his burden.  “It’s people like that man who remind us why we do this,” said Elder Carter.

Helping Hands volunteers of all ages from Montgomery, Alabama, work together to clear debris from yard damaged by Hurricane Sally.
Helping Hands volunteers of all ages from Montgomery, Alabama, work together to clear debris from yard damaged by Hurricane Sally. Credit: Courtesy of Julia Fellows

The Hurricane Sally/Helping Hands relief effort is also a reminder that the line between “serving” and “being served” is always fluid.  Many helping with the disaster recovery effort are storm victims themselves.

“I was working at the Pensacola Florida Command Center when my husband called to tell me that some men in yellow shirts had arrived asking where they could help,” said Billie Nicholson. “Tears filled my eyes. I didn’t know how we would handle cutting up all that wood. Those volunteers made short work of it, and then they were on their way to another assignment. We have worked on many service projects for others. I had never really known what it feels like to be on the receiving end of service until now.

“[I am] grateful, very grateful.”

Several of the Latter-day Saint Helping Hands workers from Louisiana were on the business end of Hurricane Laura’s wrath just weeks ago.

“You can be a giver of service or a receiver of service, but it takes a special act of humility to be both,” said Elder Carter. 

Meanwhile, the effort to deliver post-Sally relief continues. Helping Hands volunteers will be responding to work orders again next weekend and possibly the weekend after that, said Elder Carter.

— Church communications specialist Margie Westenhofer contributed to this report.