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LDS Church leaders take in the devastation

Elder M. Russell Ballard and President Boyd K. Packer visit River Center, which is housing 5,000 evacuees in downtown Baton Rouge.
Elder M. Russell Ballard and President Boyd K. Packer visit River Center, which is housing 5,000 evacuees in downtown Baton Rouge.
John Hart, Deseret Morning News

BATON ROUGE, La. — Refugees among the 5,000 in the downtown River Center who are finding shelter after Hurricane Katrina looked up from their cots in surprise as a group of men in white shirts, suits and ties, hosted by the American Red Cross, walked in Sunday to say hello.

Evacuees were resting on cots, passing the time aimlessly, as members of the group spoke to them as they passed.

"Who are they? I want to get a picture of them, too," said one young man as President Boyd K. Packer, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve walked by.

They were accompanied in their inspection of the effects of Hurricane Katrina by several other LDS dignitaries, including Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Presidency of the Seventy and Presiding Bishop H. David Burton. Their host was Armond Masselli of the American Red Cross disaster relief.

"Hang in there," Elder Ballard told a man as he passed.

Philanthropist Jon M. Huntsman Sr., a member of the Board of Governors of the American Red Cross, brought the group to Louisiana to see the needs of hurricane victims, reinforcing the importance of the LDS Church's support of the Red Cross.

After their stop in this city, the group re-entered the private Huntsman jet to circle low over flooded and troubled New Orleans. Then they were off to Hattiesburg, Miss., for further viewing of damage.

Before the group left, they visited the Baton Rouge Louisiana Stake Center, which is housing about 75 refugees. About half of them attended a brief meeting at which President Packer, Elder Ballard and Bishop Burton spoke.

President Packer described the hurricane as a "monstrous tragedy." He told of recently visiting Indonesia and explaining to officials there that the humanitarian aid of the church was given without expectation of anything in return.

"We want nothing except the opportunity to help," he explained to them. To those in Baton Rouge, he said, "This is going to be a long, long, difficult road ahead of us. And at the end of that long road, we will still be there. We stick with it and we stay with it until we do everything we can to help.

"Our one concern is for the families. The biggest tragedy would be the dissolution of the families. Children from parents and parents from children, and their separation from our Father in Heaven."

President Packer told the survivors, most of whom are from New Orleans, that he would offer the closing prayer in the form of a blessing upon them, and that the "power of blessings are the very best thing in the church. The blessings we invoke are not incidental . . . but contain all of the power we have as apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ."

President Packer petitioned a blessing in behalf of all those involved in the natural disaster, for "fathers and mothers and the children," and for "those families where there is not a father present," and for "the mothers and their little children who have little or nothing now," and those "reaching out to help."

He asked that family members can "find one another in all this difficulty of people moving back and forth."

He noted that from day to day, some will push the tragedy into the background. "Bless us that we will not forget, and that others will not forget," he said.

Elder Ballard said the visit was short because of the situation, but he praised the American Red Cross for its work. The group came, he said, "to try to understand the magnitude of this tremendous challenge you have here in the southern part of the United States. We have seen things that are unbelievable, the devastation that has occurred. We are grateful for our connection with the Red Cross and the great work they are doing. We came for just a few moments to say we love you and extend our love and blessings to you."

Bishop Burton said, "You are not alone in your travails. We are a church that likes to participate in helping others. Each day, at church headquarters, the phones ring off the hook every day with people asking, 'What can we do?' "