“Flooding, Other Disasters Call Forth Service, Love,” Ensign, Aug. 1983, 73–76
The months of May and June brought disaster to many parts of the state of Utah. From Ogden in the north to Mayfield in the south, Saints battled against flooding and mudslides, trying to contain the forces of nature. A state of emergency was declared in nearly half the counties in Utah.
Most of the people in those counties were relatively unaffected. But others felt the full force of the crisis. More than 3,000 people were evacuated from their homes; dozens of those homes were damaged, and some were totally destroyed. Several streets in various cities became rivers as officials tried to control the spring runoff from the mountains; at one point, water channeled down State Street in Salt Lake City rose to a level of four feet. An estimated 30,000 acres of farmland were damaged, and the entire town of Thistle, south of Provo, became a lake when a landslide dammed up the river that flowed through their canyon home.
When the flooding began, wards and stakes quickly swung into action. Some assigned members to help with sandbagging efforts, having them work in shifts around the clock. Many members volunteered on their own. By early June, the Red Cross had served in excess of 40,000 meals to volunteer workers. Wards, schools, and other community centers were opened to provide shelter to the homeless. Most flood victims, however, were able to stay with friends and relatives.
One of the hardest-hit areas was Bountiful, where homes suffered from mudslides, floods, and backed-up sewage. Thousands of man-hours were spent sandbagging before the flood and cleaning up homes and yards after the damage was done.
Amazingly, no one was killed. Two-and-one-half hours before a huge mudslide swept its way through a portion of Bountiful, the bishop of the Bountiful 16th Ward, Bishop Neil Fabrizio, called the brethren to a special priesthood prayer meeting. It had been raining, and many of the brethren had been sandbagging—they were invited to come in their work clothes. They knelt, over one hundred strong, as one of the brethren offered a prayer, asking not that they would escape calamity, but that they would be protected.
“I felt very good about it,” Bishop Fabrizio said. “I felt calm—and so did everyone else. I feel that prayer meeting is what saved our ward from any loss of lives.”
After the mudslide, the Saints in the ward began to clean up their homes. But they weren’t alone: help poured in from all over. Priesthood quorums, young adult groups, and Scout troops came, as did families and individuals. The stake and region organized the manpower. Two communications centers were set up by ward members—one on each side of the flooding creek—to keep track of the whereabouts of both members and nonmembers, keeping them informed about evacuations and safety measures, and to coordinate cleanup and surveillance efforts.
A group of sisters set up tables and chairs in a family’s carport, dubbed it “Shirley’s Sidewalk Cafe,” and, for over a week, freely fed three meals a day to scores of disaster victims. Food was donated by area businesses, wards, and families.
Sister Shirley Tuttle, one of the “proprietors” of the makeshift neighborhood cafe, said, “Having a place to eat like this is group therapy. It gives our people a chance to get together and mingle and share and laugh and cry. It means a lot to be able to get away from the smell and the mud and come to a clean area where you can sit down and find normalcy. And hot meals count for a lot, too.”
Ken and Gigi Madsen’s home was hit with all the force of tons of mud and water. It was completely ruined and has since been demolished by wrecking crews. The Madsens are staying in a motor home belonging to a nonmember. “We’ve received lots of offers from people outside the ward to stay with them,” Brother Madsen said. “But we feel it’s important to maintain our identity with the neighborhood. The bonds that have been established as a result of this disaster really can’t be found elsewhere.”
Gale and Diana Martin’s basement was filled to the ceiling with mud. “When we left one night after several long days of cleaning, mud was still packed high in some of the rooms,” Sister Martin said. When she and her husband returned the next morning, they found a houseful of people cleaning up. “The mud was gone, and people were washing the walls. It was a very bright day.”
Sister Elaine Holbrook commented, “They’re down scooping up that heavy, slimy mud. They’re doing things you couldn’t pay them to do, for any amount of money. And they’re doing it willingly!”
Farmington was another area that was greatly affected. Nearly two dozen homes were either damaged or destroyed by a giant mudslide that swept down a nearby canyon; another two dozen had mud and debris in their yards and will require relandscaping.
Sister Karen Sims, a member of the Relief Society presidency of the Farmington First Ward, tells of the “ominous sound” of boulders crashing down the hillside toward their home. She and her husband, Don, quickly gathered their seven children and left in their car. “When we left, we knew in our hearts that our home was gone. But as we looked at each of our children in the car, we were just thankful that we were all together and safe. We decided the house didn’t matter.”
After the initial damage was done, people in the area faced the arduous task of cleaning up. Yet they weren’t left alone. As Bishop Cammon Arrington of the Farmington First Ward says, “The response has been marvelous. … We’ve had up to six hundred brothers and sisters and youth help clean up for several days in a row.” The helpers made no distinction between members of the Church and nonmembers. “We’ve put crews in every home that needs help,” the bishop said.
“Inactive brothers are putting their arms around ward leaders and saying, ‘I don’t know what we would have done without you.’ Nonmembers are saying, ‘It’s incredible! We can hardly believe what we’re seeing,’ when fifty people walk in to help them clean up their basement—and stay three days until the job is done.”
Sister Sims agrees. “People have been just wonderful,” she says. “The emotional support we’ve received from our neighbors has just been great! … And we’ve been so close since this happened.”
Of course, Utah isn’t the only area where disasters have affected Saints in the past few months. Members have experienced severe storms in California, flooding in parts of the southern U.S., flooding in Ecuador and Argentina, food shortages in Ghana, a severe earthquake in Colombia, an earthquake in Japan.
In March and again in April, Tahiti was battered by hurricanes. More than two hundred member families had their homes damaged or destroyed. Members banded together to help each other, providing shelter for the homeless. And, with some money donated from Church headquarters, members are in the process of helping one another rebuild.
In May, Coalinga, California, suffered an earthquake. Again, the Church was a strength. Virtually all of the members’ homes had some damage, and some of those will probably have to be razed. Families set up housekeeping in tents on their own property or moved to the meetinghouse grounds. Meals were served in the meetinghouse. Members from neighboring wards and stakes came in droves to help clean up, assisting both members and nonmembers. As one sister in the area put it, “They made sure we knew we weren’t alone. And that meant an awful lot.”
Later that same month a tornado hit Topeka, Kansas. Seventy homes were damaged by the storm, including four belonging to Church members. As in other areas, Saints were quick to come to the assistance of those who needed help.
In response to the volunteer effort in Utah, the First Presidency issued a statement in early June saying, “It is gratifying to see the tremendous response to the call for assistance in battling the forces of nature. … From all indications, the wards and stakes of the Church in the afflicted areas, and even those in areas not directly affected by the flooding, have quickly and efficiently responded with thousands of volunteers who have logged an untold number of man hours in what has become a virtual around-the-clock effort.”
In concluding the statement, the First Presidency said, “Our hearts go out to those whose homes have been lost or damaged. They are in our prayers and we are confident that they will, with the continued outpouring of love and concern and assistance from their neighbors, be able to rebound from what we trust will be only a temporary setback.”
That “outpouring of love” is what many Utah Saints remember most from this disaster. The horror of a mudslide rumbling down the mountain is an image hard to eliminate from one’s mind. But the help that followed creates just as strong an image. As Bishop Arrington said, “I think we’re going to see much good come out of this. Certainly it’s a tragedy that none of us wanted, but I think the good will come.”
Sister Diana Martin said, “In the midst of this tragedy, so many beautiful things have happened. There has been so much love. When you see people come to be a moral and physical support—to me that’s what really makes the gospel live.”—Jay Parry, with Marvin Gardner and Jan Underwood.