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Relief begins: Church responds to disaster

Members prepared for Hurricane Katrina

SLIDELL, La. — As mute evidence of the fury of Hurricane Katrina, streets here are littered with the debris that once framed a community — broken power poles now enmeshed in cables, twisted metal roofs, signs, and trees across lots, spearing into houses and foresting sidewalks.

Down such a street is a building remarkably untouched, now a nerve center of activity. The Slidell Bishops' Welfare Storehouse is a pale, off-white two-story structure where a dozen or more people collect goods in the half-gloom where electricity and telephone service have been out since Katrina, with her 145-mile-per-hour winds, blasted through on Monday, Aug. 29.

Though Slidell is off limits to non-residents, troopers at the blockade recognized the name of the Church and allowed relief workers through in the beginning of what will be one of the larger efforts of the decade or, perhaps, history.

The work of Church members here began when the hurricane gained strength and whirled from the Gulf of Mexico and struck a 200-mile wide stretch of the Louisiana and Mississippi border.

President Ole Christensen of the Denham Springs Louisiana Stake and chairman of the Baton Rouge Louisiana Welfare Region, said, "Everyone had anticipated that this would be a Florida event." But by early Saturday (Aug. 27), "it looked like Louisiana was within possible landfall. That became clearer as time went on. We have learned a lot lessons from the four hurricanes that hit Florida last year.

"We immediately went into mobilization, so we would know where the members would be if that hurricane came. We put our evacuation plan into play."

He said stake presidents in Alexandria, La., and Jacksonville, Fla., were contacted and arrangements were made to house those evacuated from New Orleans. "It was the first time ever a mandatory evacuation order for New Orleans was issued."

He said President Scott N. Conlin of the New Orleans stake set up an automatic calling program and polled all 1,700 families or individuals, asking them to evacuate, or notify him if they did not.

He said other stake centers were opened for those in mobile homes or low-lying areas in surrounding stakes.

Among those who quickly left New Orleans were Marbely Barahona with her 11-month-old son, Jared. The young child rolled on the floor of the Alexandria stake meetinghouse with his shirt off, entertaining refugees of all ages who had just eaten breakfast. Like other misplaced people at Church meetinghouses, the mother and son are well cared for.

But the disparity between Church facilities and others is huge. Sister Marbely's neighbors who didn't leave were forced to the rooftops after a levee was sliced by wind-driven flood waters and lake waters filled 80 percent of the low-lying New Orleans with 2 to 20 feet of water. Some 3,500 of these were plucked by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service boats or helicopters and taken to the Superdome to wait out the storm.

Unfortunately, flood waters continued to rise and refugees faced extreme privation and trauma as the military was deployed to move them. Others throughout the city of formerly more than a million inhabitants filled hotels and motels for hundreds of miles away or stayed with friends or relatives as their homes filled with water and were likely ruined.

Among those who elected to stay were Gerald Lynn and Patricia Tolpi of the Chalmette Ward in the hard-hit St. Bernard Parish that took the brunt of the storm and was later submerged by flood waters. 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. He watched the wind pound so fiercely that it changed the direction of the river current.

"Every tree was blown down, every window was broken," Brother Tolpi 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 at the stake center adjacent to the Baton Rouge temple .

John Steele, manager of Church facilities, said most meetinghouses sustained slight damage; however three in New Orleans are presumed lost in the deluge. A few members in that area who haven't been accounted for are presumed safe as their suburb neighborhoods are more intact. However, many members in New Orleans remained unaccounted for at press time since communication was non-existent.

One member, Frances Drake, a widow who recently returned from a mission and who just enlarged her home, is doing what most are doing — waiting. Her home is submerged and she lost everything. Some friends from Salt Lake City are sending her clothing.

Missionaries were evacuated two days before the storm hit and, although they lost much of their clothing, they are in good spirits and have been temporarily reassigned to Baton Rouge where they have been attending zone meetings.

Relief efforts are badly needed but are still on hold as the authorities position to receive them. Most of the damage was done on the Mississippi side and volunteers are expected to arrive Labor Day weekend for the formidable tasks that lie ahead.

The Church's first shipments — cots, sleeping bags, generators, tarps and chain saws — made its way east, stopping at shelters along the way, said Bennie Lilly, area welfare agent from Salt Lake City. With electricity out in the hurricane zone, generators are in especially short supply. Only nine of 40 made it to the end of the line since sharp needs by communities along the way siphoned off some of the shipment.

However, many more are on the way and, while conditions worsened in New Orleans, the critical point in some areas has passed. Many members, such as Yorke Ingram of the Hammond Ward, whose house took a tree through the roof when seven trees in his yard were blown down, has already done preliminary clean-up work and covered the hole in his roof with a Church-supplied tarp that was delivered to his home.

To understand the challenges lying ahead for residents of New Orleans, consider that all the hotels and motels for 150 miles around are filled. Apartments are in short supply. Brother and Sister Tolpi are arranging to move into a trailer that needs renovation, then look for work. Building a new life will be daunting, but one made exponentially more possible with the emotional and temporal assistance by members in the Church.

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