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Mormons, others planning weekend cleanup in Hurricane Isaac's wake

LAPLACE, La. — Nearly 1,000 Latter-days Saints from the Southeastern United States will descend on this small town 25 miles west of New Orleans this weekend in a carefully organized attempt to undo — at least in part — what Hurricane Isaac did last week.

"There's a lot of work that needs to be done," said Mike Abbate of Ascension of Our Lord Catholic Church, who is coordinating much of the relief work in LaPlace. "We are grateful for all of the help we can get."

Neils Ludlow, a church service missionary with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said about 800 LDS "Helping Hands" workers are coming this weekend, primarily from stakes in Florida and Louisiana. About 130 full-time LDS missionaries from the church's Louisiana Baton Rouge Mission will also be involved, along with volunteers from other faith groups in the LaPlace area. They will be working both Saturday and Sunday removing drywall, insulation, flooring, carpeting, furniture and appliances from houses, spraying for mold and clearing up branches, trees and other debris.

"We have a command center set up in the Metairie Louisiana Stake Center, and we've built showers out of 2x4s, PVC pipe and blue tarps," Ludlow said. "It's going to be a major effort this weekend."

Most of the workers will be deployed to LaPlace, a town of about 32,000 residents in St. John the Baptist Parish on the east bank of the Mississippi River. It was one of the areas hardest hit by Isaac during last week's storm, with entire neighborhoods submerged under inches of water, mud and debris.

"I've been here since 1977, and this is the worst I've seen," Abbate said, adding that he was lucky: he only had an inch of water flood his home.

As soon as Isaac's fierce winds subsided, LDS Church officials began assessing the situation and looking for ways to help. The full-time missionaries assigned to LaPlace, Elder Zachary Dustin from Monroe, Utah, and Elder Burt Curtis from Pleasant Grove, Utah, had been evacuated to the mission home in Baton Rouge during the hurricane, but they returned to the area on Friday and immediately began wading through floodwaters trying to help people.

"That first day, from about 1 p.m. to 8 p.m., we were in water knee-deep to waist-deep all day," Elder Dustin said. "There were some people who we hadn't heard from, and the bishop wanted us to check to make sure they were OK. So we rode our bicycles in water up to our waist to check on them and help them first. After that, it was just anyone who we saw who needed help, whether they were members of the church or not, we tried to help them as best we could."

Ludlow arrived on Saturday, and on Sunday he and two area Seventies of the LDS Church — Elder R. Randall Bluth and Elder Fred A. Parker — drove through the affected areas to assess the needs.

The needs were significant and immediate. Because of damage by wind, water, mud and debris, officials in LaPlace said they needed 300 to 400 people to help on Monday.

"We called two stakes, and we had more than 300 workers there Monday morning," Ludlow said. "They invested about 2,000 man-hours that day cleaning out homes that had been flooded."

In nearby Madisonville, members of the Covington LDS Ward were out helping whoever needed help Sunday and Monday, and they noticed a small group of people working in the Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church.

"(The LDS group) asked if they could help," said Kay Loftin, an LDS Public Affairs representative in Louisiana and Mississippi. "They pulled up floor boards and wet carpet and helped in whatever way they could. The people were so grateful and said, 'We know you were sent by Jesus because we were about to give up.' They were so exhausted."

Jim M. Wall, president of the Louisiana Baton Rouge Mission, sent about 80 missionaries to help as well, and the missionaries have been working in the LaPlace area every day this week.

Elder Dustin says that every morning about 7 he coordinates with Abbate and finds out the names and addresses of people who need help. The missionaries have also been passing out work orders that members of the community fill out to request help with specific tasks. Between the work orders and the assignments from Abbate, Elder Dustin estimates that the missionaries have "gutted" — his term for pulling out everything that needs to be pulled out, from floor boards to drywall to carpet to furniture — about 80 houses this week.

"We're pretty well organized," Elder Dustin said. "We've divided the missionaries into small groups, and I send each group to a house to work on, and as soon as they are finished with that house they text me and I send them to another one. The missionaries are working hard all day long and they are getting a lot done."

But there is still a lot to do. Elder Dustin says he has "hundreds" of work orders left to be completed. So the heavy influx of Mormons to help this weekend will make a huge difference, he said.

"We're hoping to get through as many of these work orders as we can," he said. "Anything that is left to do after this weekend … well, I guess Elder Curtis and I will be helping people out for a long time to come."

And he wouldn't have it any other way.

"I have always really loved service, but I've never been part of anything like this," said Elder Dustin, who has spend nine of the 17 months he has been on his mission in LaPlace. "It's been humbling to see these people with stuff piled in their yards as high as their house. These are people I've visited, and many of them are people I've taught. And it's amazing to see how they handle going through something like this. They are so strong, and they have so much courage. You can't help but be touched by that.

"And people are so grateful," he continued. "They come up to us just crying. They can't thank us enough. It just really feels like we are making a difference in people's lives. Being a part of something like that is just amazing. I couldn't ask for more of an opportunity to touch other people and to be touched by them through service. I'll look back on this experience my whole life."

And so will Abbate.

"You would think that living through the hurricane would be the thing that you will always remember," he said. "But I will always remember how all of the people have come together to help with the cleanup.

"The Mormons have been there, every time we need them," Abbate said. "The Catholics and Baptists have also been there. It doesn't matter what religion you are from. When it comes to helping in a time of need, we are of one faith."