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First response to storm-stricken area

Albany Georgia Stake members rush to aid victims after Katrina

GULFPORT, Miss. — Along I -10 on the Louisiana/Mississippi Gulf Coast, convoys of semis, military police and trained relief workers were rushing to the Hurricane Katrina disaster area early Saturday morning, Sept. 3. So were LDS volunteers, including more than 175 members of the Albany Georgia Stake, among the first responders to the storm-stricken area.

Departing at 3 a.m. and driving more than 360 miles to the disaster site, crews were initially dispatched to the immediate area to help local homeowners cut down fallen trees, remove water-soaked carpet, and place tarps over gaping holes in roofs. After completing tasks in the immediate vicinity of the stake center, work crews were either dispatched to various neighborhoods or assigned to unload arriving trucks with needed commodities at the stake center.

Many neighbors of Church members not only expressed gratitude for help but also inquired about Church beliefs and life experiences while working alongside the LDS volunteers identified by T-shirts printed with the words "Mormon Helping Hands."

For instance, Gary and Mike Bergin had driven in from out of town to help their wheelchair-bound father remove debris and reconstruct damaged portions of his house. As a 20-person LDS work crew finished another large assigned job nearby, the brothers asked if they could have some assistance in removing two large trees lying on their father's roof. In less than an hour, the trees were cut up and stacked on the curb for later removal. With tears in his eyes, Gary hugged two LDS brothers and emotionally added, "God bless the Mormons and God bless Georgia. A job that seemed overwhelming is now done."

Jan Henderson and her teenage daughter Tara, who had moved to the area less than a month before, were also homeowners who were helped when an LDS work crew completed a work order for an LDS neighbor. The Hendersons were asked if they wanted the work crew to cut down their fallen trees before they left the area. Gratefully, they accepted. In addition to cutting down fallen trees, the work crew also saw other needs, and after removing carpet from their home, brought in buckets of bleach to wash down floors, walls, and baseboards.

"You've given us hope when it was almost gone," Mrs. Henderson said as the crew was leaving. Living only a short time in the area, she exclaimed, "We didn't know where to turn, where to look for help. And imagine, we didn't even go out and find you; instead you found us!"

Work crews spent the night in the stake center without electricity or potable water and rose the next day to have an abbreviated sacrament meeting before being dispatched to fill more work orders. As the only speaker, President Barry Griggs of the Gulfport stake briefly bore his testimony and remarked, "I've never been to Albany Georgia and didn't know anyone there before this week. But I'll never have anyone refer to it again without getting a lump in my throat."

Norman Hill, from Houston, Texas, was visiting family in Albany, Ga., when Hurricane Katrina hit. He joined the Albany Georgia Stake's volunteer crews that went to Gulfport, Miss.