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Peru earthquake — LDS Church vows to assist in the rebuilding process

When news of last month's massive earthquake in Peru reached David Utrilla, the Ogden resident flashed back to an awful day more than three decades past.

It was 1974, and Utrilla was a boy living in Peru's capital of Lima when a magnitude 7.2 earthquake shook and twisted the city. The terrifying memories of that seismic violence sparked a fresh fear in Utrilla. He began pounding out the phone numbers of his mother and other relatives living in Peru. At first he couldn't make a connection.

"I was in panic mode."

Finally, one of his relatives answered his call. News was good for Utrilla — no one in his family had been harmed by the magnitude 8 tremor. But he ached for hundreds of his fellow Peruvians who were killed or missing.

"We needed to move fast," said Utrilla, remembering the "call to aid" issued to LDS Peruvians and others living in Utah. A press conference calling for help was staged. An ad hoc grassroots humanitarian organization — "Ayuda Peru" — was formed. And soon local folks were stopping by makeshift distribution centers along the Wasatch Front, dropping off clothing, sleeping bags and other provisions destined for quake victims a continent away.

Such urgency and effort is emblematic of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' collective humanitarian response in the hours, days and weeks following the Aug. 15 quake in southwest Peru. The hardships in victimized Peruvian regions such as Pisco and Ica will be felt for some time. Weeks after the temblor shook the region for some two minutes, entire sections of several communities still resembled bombed-out war zones. Cities of dusty ruins.

Still the church offered relief wherever it could. It's unknown how many lives were eased because of a blanket or a sack of beans donated by the LDS Church — but the numbers are surely in the thousands.

Reymundo Saiiago reluctantly counts himself among Peru's quake victims. He was in his Pisco home when the shaking began. What he felt and witnessed terrified him in ways Utrilla could understand. Death, said Saiiago, was everywhere to be found when the first round of trembling subsided. Meanwhile, the psychological shock of the quake was compounded by several powerful aftershocks and fears that a tsunami would bury his coastal community.

A leader in the church's Pisco Peru Stake, Saiiago joined others in searching for survivors among his congregations. "It was hard to find the members," he said.

Church assistance soon found all of them. Using LDS fast offerings and other immediate resources, the South America West Area Presidency and other local Peruvian church leaders provided food, water, tarps, portable toilets, tents and other essential items to impacted areas.

The quick relief response served two purposes. First, LDS quake victims received life-sustaining sustenance and shelter.

"We are all eating," said church member Eleazar Sihuas several days after the earthquake severely damaged his home.

A leader in his LDS branch in the Grocio Prado community, Sihuas joined other local leaders in the days following the earthquake at regional headquarters to pick up food and other provisions for their respective congregations.

Second, distributing and preparing the food became a communal task for many LDS congregations in Peru, offering social interaction and a welcome distraction from their desperate circumstances. Many of Sihuas' neighbors in Grocio Prado lost their homes to the catastrophe. Still, they gathered outside the rubble that was once their houses and cooked giant pots of soup made from donated chicken, carrots and other vegetables.

Church-provided tents served as homes for many members and their friends. The compact grounds of the LDS meetinghouse north of Pisco became a tent city for 184 people. There "residents" cooked, dined, worshipped and even labored together in an exercise of self-reliance.

Church relief efforts in Peru have known no borders. Even as the local efforts to feed and shelter quake victims continued, a massive humanitarian shipment from LDS headquarters in Salt Lake City was flown to Peru.

Some 80 tons of food, medicine, surgical supplies, hygiene kits and other needed supplies were included in the air shipment.

And in Utah, LDS Peruvians such as Utrilla — in communities stretching from Logan to St. George — gathered and shipped their own supplies to ease the ongoing suffering in Peru. Utah's Latino community also helped organize a benefit soccer game following Real Salt Lake's Sept. 19 match against the L.A. Galaxy to help raise money for the ongoing relief effort. The exhibition game matched a team of Peruvians and other Latino soccer players against a side made up largely of Utah athletes.

"We have been extremely blessed by the response of the people in Utah," said community activist and native Peruvian Tony Yapias.

The multi-faceted relief effort gleaned the attention of the Peruvian government. Peruvian Consulate General (Denver office) Guido Loayza said he was amazed by the solidarity demonstrated by the LDS Church following the recent catastrophe.

"I'm very grateful for the support that we've received from the church," said Loayza, adding he hopes to soon visit Utah and deliver his thanks in person.

Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve visited Peru shortly after the quake. He spoke of the church's plans to assist Peru long after the last provisions from the air shipment were exhausted.

Aid will continue, he said, "because the hearts of the members want to help. They will contribute money and go without food in order to make things available for the people of Peru."

Plans have been developed to assist LDS quake victims in the long-term, said South America West Area President Walter F. Gonzalez. First, there will be efforts to reconstruct homes after members enlist their own resources in the rebuilding process. Second, health education will be instituted to help people avoid illness. And third, employment assistance will be provided to help folks who have lost their jobs return to self-reliance.