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As Mormons prepare for Hurricane Sandy, they live their faith

NEW YORK CITY – Members of the Harlem Young Single Adult Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints opened their worship service Sunday with a hymn that captured what was on everyone's mind:

"Master, the tempest is raging! The billows are tossing high! The sky is o'ershadowed with blackness. No shelter or help is nigh.

"Carest thou not that we perish? How canst thou lie asleep, When each moment so madly is threat'ning A grave in the angry deep?"

"We all got a chuckle out of that," ward member Matthew Kennedy said. "Somebody had a sense of humor."

That doesn't mean Latter-day Saints in New York City and elsewhere along East Coast are taking lightly the disastrous possibilities that may be imposed upon them with Hurricane Sandy scheduled to hit land late Monday. Preparation for and service during emergencies are a central part of the Mormon ethos.

"Preparedness is part of what we do as Latter-day Saints," said President Ahmad Corbitt, president of the LDS Church's Cherry Hill New Jersey Stake (a stake is an ecclesiastical unit that is similar to a diocese in other Christian faiths). "As a culture we are prepared because we've been prepared by our leaders. One of the great benefits of having membership in the restored church is we have prophets on the watchtower who see things afar off and sound the warnings. One of those warnings over the decades has been to be prepared."

Mormons are layering additional precautions on top of that typical groundwork with Sandy on its way. Local LDS leaders in the Eastern United States have been working with church members and missionaries and urging preparedness, caution and outreach to others who may need help during a natural calamity.

"We all went out and bought cases of bottled water," said Elizabeth Stuart, a student at Columbia University, who lives in the Washington Heights area with several LDS roommates. "We filled up buckets of water in case we need them, and we bought batteries and flashlights and candles and matches. We feel like we're ready."

The Red Cross is prepared to call on the underlying LDS infrastructure where needed.

"The (LDS) Church has created a strong culture of preparedness among its members that I believe can be a model for others throughout the country," wrote Gail McGovern, president and CEO of the American Red Cross, in an summer op-ed for the Deseret News.

"The church counsels members to be prepared for a personal emergency or natural disaster by preparing emergency plans and having basic emergency supplies on hand," she continued. "And, because individual church members are prepared and resilient from disasters, the church can focus on helping other community members following an emergency."

That community outreach is already happening between Red Cross officials and LDS volunteers. Roger K. Lowe, acting chief public affairs officer of the Red Cross in Washington, D.C., said there are 42 LDS volunteers who are supporting Red Cross shelter operations in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

"The church is pre-identifying possible locations for staff shelters in New Jersey and New York once needs are identified after Sandy makes landfall," Lowe said. "We also need places for our volunteers who are deployed to stay, and this has the potential to be a long-lasting disaster response because of flooding."

Lowe added that "the Red Cross values is partnership with the LDS Church, and Hurricane Sandy is the latest example of our two organizations working together to help people in need in times of disaster."

As is usually the case in situations like this, most of the LDS preparation for Hurricane Sandy has been happening at the local level, as parents and congregational leaders focus on the needs of individuals, families and local congregations.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with those impacted by Hurricane Sandy," said church spokesman Michael Purdy. "Local church leaders along the eastern coast of the United States have made preparations for the storm. Church representatives are in contact with FEMA, The American Red Cross, VOAD and other relief agencies to coordinate response efforts.

"The church stands ready to assist affected communities," Purdy continued. "Emergency response resources have been prepositioned in Bishops Storehouses in the area. These resources include items such as food, water, blankets, hygiene supplies, tarps, cleaning supplies, chain saws and shovels."

Local Church leaders will make assessments in the coming days and coordinate with response partners to determine further relief efforts, Purdy said.

Among local Mormons, however, the preparations have been more personal.

For example, in the Harlem Young Single Adult Ward the bishopric contacted members last week with a list of tips that would help them to "be ready and be safe," including developing an emergency plan for everyone in the household, putting together a basic disaster supplies kit, storing water and non-perishable food, monitoring information from public officials, being aware of the location of evacuation centers and looking after neighbors and members of the ward they have been assigned to visit as home and visiting teachers.

"Yesterday in church they read over the pulpit a lot of the public notices that have gone out, especially with regards to mass transit, since a lot of the people in our ward are completely reliant on public transportation to get around," Kennedy said. "And they really stressed watching out for each other, being aware of the people we home teach, and looking out for our neighbors."

To that end, the ward has created an online Google document and asked ward members to periodically update their status.

In Corbitt's New Jersey stake there was a conference call last week that included all of the stake's congregational leaders; leaders of the women's auxiliary, the Relief Society; as well as others in the stake with responsibilities for emergency preparedness.

"We pulled out our plan and went through all of the items that we anticipated would be impacted – from evacuation to power outages to transportation to communications to food and water – and we called on people to report their status," Corbitt said. "We gave instructions and assignments, and people are carrying them out as we speak."

Of course, there is always the possibility of things happening for which the stake isn't specifically prepared, Corbitt acknowledged.

"But we'll deal with those things as they arise," he said. "We are organized and prepared to respond. As the Lord said, 'When you are prepared, you shall not fear.'"

In Manassas, Va., stake leaders just completed their annual emergency preparedness exercise on Oct. 26, during which local church leaders went through a variety of possible emergency scenarios, including the possibility of a hurricane like Sandy.

"I don't really believe in coincidences," said Bishop Tony Padilla of the Manassas 2nd Ward. "I think we're as prepared as we can be, with procedures and systems and backup systems in place and ready to go. We look at this as a time to put our preparation into action. We're not afraid of this."

The same kind of preparation applies to full-time missionaries, who are representing the LDS Church in the Eastern United States. President Kevin E. Calderwood of the New York New York Mission said his mission has "an emergency plan in place and we have been planning and preparing for this specific hurricane for many days."

The plan even has a name: "Safe and Serve – be safe first, and then go and serve."

"As of Sunday night we have moved all 27 sister missionaries into the mission home with our family," Calderwood said. "We have food and water and plenty of beds for everyone. We also have access to a generator if needed.

"Our two daughters are loving this," he added. "This is the sleepover of a lifetime!"

The male missionaries in the sea-level areas of the mission were all moved to apartments at a higher elevation in Brooklyn or Queens. The move took place prior to the closure of public transportation Sunday night.

"Each missionary was instructed to purchase water and prepared foods for the apartments in case we lose power," Calderwood said. "In addition, all apartments have first aid kits, emergency radios and cellphones, which have been charged continuously to prepare for a possible power outage."

A text-messaging cellphone tree has been established through missionary district and zone leaders, and all companionships have been instructed to report their status periodically via the tree.

The missionaries are instructed to stay safely inside their apartments until the storm passes. But as soon as it is safe to do so, "we will move out into the community to help with the clean up," Calderwood said.

"This will give us a chance to work side-by-side with the local New Yorkers," Calderwood said. "Our missionaries know how to work, and this service will be a great opportunity to represent the Savior and give back to our fellow man."

That same attitude is reflected among other Latter-day Saints in the area. Adam and Andrea Daveline, who recently moved to Brooklyn from San Diego, went for a morning walk Monday with their 2-year-old son, Alexander. "It was windy, but not unpleasant," Andrea said. "We understand that the worst part of the storm is going to hit us later tonight."

Still, as they were walking they saw a neighbor struggling with supplies she was trying to transport from a local market to her home, painstakingly moving several piles of supplies a few feet at a time, one pile at a time. Stopping to help their new, previously unknown neighbor "just seemed like the natural thing to do," Andrea said.

"When you go through things like this, everybody just sort of pulls together," she said, recalling similar experiences when she and her husband lived in Florida. "You don't have to be assigned or asked or anything. You just go and help. That's what we do."

Mercedes White contributed to this report.