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500 LDS missionaries helping neighbors in Sandy's wake

NEW YORK CITY — Some 500 full-time missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints took to the flooded streets and wind-blown neighborhoods still reeling from the effects of superstorm Sandy Wednesday to assess the status of LDS Church members in the area and to offer a helping hand to anyone in need.

“It’s been a long day of hard, dirty work,” said President Kevin E. Calderwood of the church’s New York New York South Mission late Wednesday afternoon. “We’ve been in basements, on roofs, in yards cutting down trees, hauling things out of people’s houses, pulling out carpet and doing whatever people need us to do to help.”

A total of about 500 LDS missionaries from Calderwood’s mission, as well as from the New York New York North and New Jersey Morristown missions, have been working non-stop in the most heavily impacted areas of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut since the storm’s high winds subsided.

“Under the direction of our local church leaders we’ve been spreading out to the hardest-hit areas,” Calderwood said, indicating that in his mission that included the Far Rockaway and Long Beach areas. “The devastation is overwhelming. Some of these people have lost everything. We’re doing everything we can to help.”

A number of members in those areas are living temporarily in the LDS Church’s Lynbrook and Freeport meetinghouses because their homes have been completely demolished.

“They don’t have any place else to live, so for now they’ll be living at those meetinghouses until other arrangements can be made,” Calderwood said. “We’ve arranged for some generators to provide power for them while they are there.”

In addition to helping members of the LDS Church, the missionaries are reaching out to the families of first responders (“They are all out working and helping others, and their families are in need,” Calderwood said), those with special needs (including the elderly) and community members in general.

“This isn’t about just helping our members,” Calderwood said. “We’re here to help anyone and everyone. We’re here to serve. And right now, this is the service that is needed.”

What generally happens, he said, is the missionaries start working at one location in groups of six or more. “Then while we are working,” Calderwood said, “people come over to us and say, ‘Can you help us here?’ And of course we can. So before long we get pretty spread out, helping wherever we can.”

Occasionally Calderwood will get a call from an LDS stake or ward leader who says, “We are sending out five crews with chain saws to cut up trees that have fallen. We need four or five missionaries with each crew to haul the wood away.”

“And so we’ll send missionaries to haul wood,” Calderwood said.

And not just the missionaries. Calderwood said a number of LDS Church members have been serving right alongside the missionaries. And as others in the community see the groups working together, they join in too.

"They just see us out helping, clearing trees, and they start helping their neighbors, too," he said.

One of the major challenges the missionaries face in this work is the lack of electrical power for pumps, saws, vacuums and heavy equipment. “It’s hard to even get our cell phones charged,” Calderwood said. “Most of the hardest hit areas are without electrical power. So we’re doing a lot of work manually because we can’t get power to some of the equipment.”

The lack of electricity also impacts transportation, with traffic signals dark at every intersection. “New York drivers have a reputation for being really aggressive,” Calderwood said. “But people are being very patient and waiting their turn at the signals.”

For the most part, Calderwood said Latter-day Saints were well-prepared for the crisis, although he noted that “there isn’t a lot you can do to prevent your house from being blown away by hurricane-force winds.”

“We teach our people to be prepared,” he said. “But sometimes, we just have to be prepared to respond to whatever happens.”

As the missionaries reach out into the community at large, residents have been appreciative of the help.

“I’m glad our missionaries are young and strong,” Calderwood said. “If you haven’t tried to haul a soaking wet carpet out of a basement with two feet of water in it, you have no idea how filthy and back-breaking it can be. But the missionaries seem to be loving it. They are here to serve. They enjoy it. And the people have been really appreciative of what we are doing.”

And what they will continue to do for the foreseeable future.

“There is so much work to be done here – this isn’t something that’s going to be finished in a week or two,” Calderwood said. “And we’ll stay at it as long as we are needed. We are servants of the Lord Jesus Christ, and he tells us to love our neighbors.

“And right now, our neighbors need help.”