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LDS duo haul aid to victims

Volunteers from Bay St. Louis Emergency Management Agency rescue a family from the roof of their suburban in Bay St. Louis, Miss.
Volunteers from Bay St. Louis Emergency Management Agency rescue a family from the roof of their suburban in Bay St. Louis, Miss.
Ben Sklar, Associated Press

SLIDELL, La. — Benny Lillie and Rick Long of the LDS Church's Welfare Services Emergency Response team left Salt Lake City for the Gulf Coast on Monday; by Wednesday they were in the thick of Hurricane Katrina's swath of disaster, methodically visiting town after town to deliver goods — and offering help and hope.

Lillie and Long headed first to Dallas, Texas, where they loaded a pickup with supplies and followed a semi filled with cots, sleeping bags, generators, tarps and chain saws as it made its way east, stopping at shelters along the way.

One of their first stops was in Alexandria, La., to which about 200 people from New Orleans had been evacuated. Among them were Marbely Barahona with her 11-month-old son, Jared.

Jared rolled on the floor of the Alexandria LDS stake meetinghouse with his shirt off, entertaining refugees of all ages who had just eaten breakfast. Barahona said the stake president had asked them to evacuate before the storm. It was a notification system that Scott N. Conlin, president of the New Orleans Louisiana Stake, had automated earlier. His telephone message was sent by computer to each family in the stake, and all but about seven families elected to leave.

Marbely's neighbors who didn't leave were forced to the rooftops after a levee was sliced by wind-driven waters and Lake Pontchartrain waters flooded 80 percent of the low-lying New Orleans area with from 2 to 20 feet of water.

Area LDS Church officials said most meetinghouses escaped serious damage, but several in the New Orleans area are expected to have sustained serious damage. LDS missionaries were evacuated two days before the storm arrived.

Lillie and Long continued their trail of relief to Baton Rouge, where other residents of New Orleans had found refuge. Two of these were Jacob and Johanna Tolpi of Chalmette, a parish that took the brunt of the storm.

Owners of two well-kept sorrel-colored hounds, the Tolpis elected to face the storm rather than abandon their dogs. They waited in a nearby hotel, where the windows were soon blown out. The wind pounded away so fiercely that it changed the direction of the river's current, Jacob Tolpi said.

"Every tree was blown down, every window was broken," he said. As the wind howled, the hounds yelped and barked. "It was pretty scary," he said.

After the storm, they fled the city on a nearly empty tank of gas in their SUV, finding refuge in Baton Rouge.

Lillie and Long then stopped in Hammond, La., where the storm had damaged the homes of several LDS members and where the tarps they delivered were soon put to use over damaged roofs.

Their next stop was Slidell, northeast of New Orleans, which also faced hurricane winds of 140-160 miles per hour. A checkpoint on I-12 blocked traffic into Slidell, but officers allowed the relief supplies in.

Broken trees lay everywhere — tall, loblolly pine snapped half way up and stately, ancient live oak and pin oak, whose strength kept them intact, only to be betrayed by their shallow root systems. Snapped power poles lay shattered in the streets, connected by a spaghetti of cable. With all the power and telephones out, danger from the powerlines was minimal.

Lillie sent Long to Mississippi, where reports had been received of trees strewn across the countryside. Because of looters, the Mississippi Highway Patrol sealed the borders and it wasn't known if Long made it through.

Regardless, said Lillie, trucks from Orlando, Fla., and Atlanta, Ga., will be headed their way today with more supplies and equipment.

He said the truck from Dallas they followed unloaded at a storehouse in Slidell. Then, reloaded with commodities, it returned to each site.

Meanwhile, the disaster was reaching new crisis points in other areas.

Even as leaders of Louisiana's Jefferson Parish pleaded on the radio for supplies, begging for food for refugees, medical aid and help from law enforcement, I-10 at dusk was a miles-long caravan of yellow blinking lights as service vehicles from other states filled both lanes. Some carried heavy equipment, some tree equipment, some components of one kind or another.

They rumbled forward, people intent on helping however they could.