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Heroic response

4,000 volunteers work at vast clean-up project

Volunteers cleaning up after Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi have donated 17,400 days of service, and have completed about 7,100 work orders, said Elder John S. Anderson, an Area Seventy who is director of the Church's Emergency Operations Center and coordinator of emergency response following Hurricane Katrina.

He said about 3,000 orders were completed Sept. 17-18. Among the stakes participating were Houston and Houston South from Texas; Atlanta, Albany, Ga.; Mobile and Birmingham, Ala.; Jackson, Miss.; Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Pensacola, Orlando, Orlando South, Fla.; and Shreveport, Baton Rouge, and Alexandria, La. Individuals and groups from other stakes also participated.

"We probably have 75-80 percent initial phases completed for members," he said. "the majority of what we are doing now is for first responders — the hospital, police and other personnel, and for other churches," he said.

In hard-hit Pascagoula, Miss., for example, last week, "they ended the work week with more work orders than they started with, all from non-members."

In the face of the massive clean-up effort that will require additional work, including the weekend of general conference, "we are continuing forward and are grateful and thankful for all that has been contributed, for all of those wonderful people who have given of their time and talents to support this effort," he said.

"We feel the prayers of the membership as a whole, and are grateful for the priesthood action, and the support the Church has given us overall."

Slidell Louisiana Stake President Terrence M. Donahue said, "Volunteer service has been incredible. We have just been overwhelmed by the generosity of the brethren who have come so far at their own expense."

Bishop Robert P. Garrett of the Waveland (Miss.) Ward said some neighbors who were helped in his ward area said of the volunteers: "That is what true Christians do for each other in times of crises."

Examples of such support are many. During the past weeks, members of the Norman Oklahoma Stake have provided 300 hot meals each night for Katrina evacuees sent to their area. Members of the Apex North Carolina Stake watched as evacuees to their area — literally on their way to their first shower after the disaster — received hygiene kits they had assembled. And members of the Hamilton Alabama Branch, Tupelo Mississippi Stake, provided relief to victims in Hattiesburg, Miss.

Each weekend, 4,000 volunteers have traveled to the disaster zone from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina and Texas. Another 3,500 are scheduled for each of the coming weekends. That's in addition to the 140 truckloads of commodities and hygiene items the Church provided to support food pantries and supplement limited community resources in the Gulf Coast. It translates into 5.6 million pounds of supplies, or 2,800 tons.

And that is just the beginning.

Church members continue to provide volunteer labor in many of the evacuee shelters, including the Astrodome in Texas and Camp Williams in Utah. Church employment centers are working with priesthood leaders to assist those who have permanently and temporarily lost employment. And LDS Family Services continues to provide counseling to Church members and others affected by the disaster.

But perhaps no image can better capture what the Church is doing than the volunteer tent cities that on weekends surround Latter-day Saint meetinghouses in Collins, Bogalusa, Columbia, Covington, Gulfport, Hattiesburg, LaPlace, Laurel, Meridian, Pascagoula, Picayune, Slidell and Waveland. These cities temporarily house the thousands of Latter-day Saints who are reaching out on the most personal levels.

David Frey and 14 other Church members from Houston, Texas, traveled to Slidell, La., to help hurricane victims. There they met a 74-year-old German woman — who had been sleeping on a towel in her kitchen because her home had been severely flooded. Mold was growing on the sheetrock.

When the team knocked on the door, they were met with hesitation. They followed another man who had called on the woman earlier in the week. He said he was with a tree cutting business and needed a deposit to start work removing downed foliage from her yard. The woman, not a member of the Church, paid the man and never saw him again.

The Church crew assured the woman they were different, that they were doing service and did not want money. She let them into her home and showed them what appeared to be insurmountable tasks: removing her carpet and sheetrock. Immediately the men went to work — for most the day they performed exhausting work pulling wet carpet.

At the end of the day, the men told the woman they wished they could do more, but were out of time. With the carpet removed, they marked "done" on their work order, returned to the Slidell storehouse and reported to their project supervisor.

"I mentioned how hard a project it had been and that she still had mold on her walls," said Brother Frey. "The work project supervisor looked at me in silence and slowly slid the work order form back to me and told me, 'You need to go back and remove the mold-infested sheet rock from this woman's home.' "

The next day the men returned to the woman's house. With the help of another LDS work crew, they pulled all the moldy sheetrock.

A member of the relief team, Rob Carver, served a mission in Germany and had the chance to speak to the woman in her native tongue. "Rob was giving her something more important than a mold-free home. He was giving her hope, comfort, and friendship," Brother Frey observed.

  • Contributions by volunteers include:

More than 150 Church members from the Augusta Georgia Stake descended upon Mississippi to help jump-start debris removal, cleanup and reconstruction needs stemming from Katrina's devastation. Their efforts came on the heels of distribution of food, water, emergency equipment and relief supplies that the Church has sent to Biloxi and other hurricane-stricken areas from their local bishops' storehouse. They worked weekends, sending the most needed aid.

"We know we are not just putting an item on a truck," observed John Hopkins, manager of the Church's Tucker, Ga., storehouse. "We know who will be receiving this — a mother with children who has real needs for formula, water and diapers. On Sunday, we would normally be putting on our white shirts and ties, since this is our Church day, but I'm here helping a mother somewhere."

In Petal, Miss., an observer asked Latter-day Saint labor crews if they would be able to clear the debris from the yard of that town's police chief, who had been too busy helping others in the storm's aftermath to clean up his own property; that became their next stop.

LDS Families from Taylorsville Utah and Bennion Utah stakes assembled 50,000 hygiene kits to aid families left homeless by Katrina. The kits were shipped to a Church storehouse in Georgia for distribution.

A grandmother rearing her three grandchildren in a mobile home outside of Toomsuba, Miss., found her life disrupted when a falling tree tore a floor-to-roof gash in its back wall, rendering it uninhabitable for the children. Then a "Mormon Helping Hands" crew, working well past sunset, provided the necessary stopgap repair that allowed the children to return.

A Baptist family in Mississippi, surprised at the offer of help from a Latter-day Saint work crew, named the mountain of debris that they and their newfound friends from Georgia jointly hauled to their curbside their "Mormon pile."

A United Methodist congregation in Slidell, La., allowed volunteers descending on that community from Houston, Texas, to sleep in their church. When members of the local congregation arrived at their building on Sunday, they found the debris cleared from their churchyard and their hurricane-damaged flag mounted as a keepsake while a bright new banner flew from the flagpole. In a shared worship service, the pastor voiced a feeling of unity shared by those of both faiths: "The Mormons are now our friends."

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