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Return to normal will take more time

But things improving in Katrina's wake with help of Church volunteers, resources

Progress of rebuilding is slow within the broad area of destruction left across the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29 by Hurricane Katrina.

Some Church members remain unaccounted for in the most hard-hit areas, while thousands of members whose homes were destroyed or damaged remain elsewhere; normalcy is months away, say leaders.

The official death count is 973 and rising. Church member confirmed deaths stand at three. Bishop Jack Reed of the West Point (Miss.) Ward notified the Church News of an error in a report in the Sept. 10 issue that stated Terrence and Christina Shields of the Waveland Ward had died. He said that a member working at a Red Cross shelter in West Point notified him of the presence there of Brother and Sister Shields. He said he visited Brother Shields and learned that both are well.

A great deal has been accomplished, according to Church leaders. Emerging amid the hundreds of square miles of destruction are signs of hope. More than 7,100 work orders for members and neighbors and first responders have been completed by Church volunteers. (Please see page 8.)

Few evacuees remain in meetinghouses, and the amount of food needed from the Bishops' Storehouse is declining, said Elder John S. Anderson, Area Seventy, and coordinator of emergency response following Hurricane Katrina.

But "getting back to normal — that's a long way off," he said.

Congregations in five wards and branches in the New Orleans Louisiana Stake gathered for worship services on Sunday, Sept. 18, said President Scott N. Conlin. He said four investigators attended services Sunday, and a baptism was held and another planned next week for new converts.

"Certainly there was a lot of gratitude expressed by those who hadn't lost their homes," he said. "Gratitude that they'd been spared, at least for now."

He estimated that perhaps 80 percent of the damaged homes of members in New Orleans could be rebuilt while the other 20 percent were ruined. Work crews have begun cleanup on repairable homes.

"I would estimate that 75 percent of our members are still displaced. We still have members who are not accounted for, with missing members in units covering the downtown area, and (distant) Port Sulphur. We are hoping that all is well," he said.

Last week, when he was first allowed into New Orleans, he found 10 members, mostly widowed or elderly, who had stayed in their homes during the storm. One, a widow, told him, "I am so glad you called on me. I have only eaten an apple today." He said she was soon restocked with food by a "wonderful, sweet family."

President Conlin said he had gained a whole new appreciation for Nephi, as he "let the spirit guide me; I did not know beforehand" what to do. (See 1 Nephi 4:6.) "There have been a lot of days where the priesthood leaders had to rely on the Spirit to guide them to those with immediate needs."

A recent New Orleans stake conference presided over by President Boyd K. Packer, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve, who was accompanied by Elder Merrill J. Bateman of the Presidency of the Seventy, helped sensitize stake members to their perilous situation. The two discussed the Asian tsunami and cited scripture in the Doctrine and Covenants 88:90, of "the voice of tempests, and the voice of the waves of the sea heaving themselves beyond their bounds" portending the last days.

President Terrence Donahue of the Slidell Louisiana Stake said about two dozen members had lost homes and many others, including himself, had homes that sustained wind damage. His home had several trees fall on its roof, leaving four holes, which was typical in the area.

In flooded homes, however, "the damage is awful, and the effect on people is awful," he said. "I have met with every family who has a flooded home, and they seem to be bearing up well, but there is a lot of damage."

In the Gulfport Mississippi Stake, where President Barry L. Griggs of Biloxi is still without telephone service, his first counselor, President William D. Sowers, explained that finding the whereabouts of members is difficult "where the house is gone, the numbers are gone and the people evacuated."

He estimated that 70 percent of missing stake members have been accounted for, "and of the remaining 30 percent, some may never be accounted for."

The impact of damage on members is staggering. For example, a disabled widow, 86, whose home was destroyed "may never rebuild." He estimated that 20 percent of the damaged homes were not salvageable, and that three-fourths of the evacuated members remain displaced.

So many members have left, he said, that "we are trying to discourage members from moving away. Their homes are gone, their jobs are gone. We are short of priesthood and leadership. In Pascagoula, the bishop told me his entire Relief Society presidency and elders quorum presidency had moved out. In Waveland, the bishop told me that he might be a branch president instead of a bishop."

In Waveland, Bishop Robert P. Garrett said few businesses had re-opened because of the extent of damage. "There is no sign of progress that anything has been done," he said. "Everything has been destroyed."

Despite the challenges, he said, "I am starting to feel a little more optimistic." This past Sunday, two sacrament services were held at the ward, one early for the volunteer workers, and the other for ward members at the regular 9 a.m. schedule.

"We had 65 to 70 people there. We might be able to make it."

He said that during the week, a former bishop of the ward, James Clark, and his wife, Bobbie Jo, came into the meetinghouse. Their home had been flooded and they lost everything. But one of the work crews had brought to the meetinghouse some drawers removed from the Clark home. Brother Clark recognized the drawers, and in them he found birth certificates and other important papers. When he came to a paper with his line of priesthood authority, "he broke down and cried," said Bishop Garrett.

E-mail to: jhart@desnews.com