“Disasters Test Saints in Mexico, United States,” Ensign, Nov. 1985, 104–5
Seven Latter-day Saints are dead and three more are missing following two massive earthquakes that struck Mexico City late in September.
In eastern and southern coastal areas of the United States, Church members weathered two September hurricanes without injury, although several families were forced to evacuate their homes until emergency repairs could be made.
Seismologists rated the earthquake that struck Mexico City September 19 at 8.1 on the Richter Scale. It was followed by a major aftershock the next day as rescue workers were trying to dig out victims of the earlier quake. A five- to ten-square-mile area in the center of the city bore the brunt of the devastation.
The death toll in those quakes approached 6,000. Seven of the known dead were Church members, and at Ensign news deadline three more Latter-day Saints were still listed as missing. None of the Church’s missionaries was injured, and no Church buildings were seriously damaged.
The death toll among Church members might have been far higher. Mexico has some 385,000 Latter-day Saints, and about 50,000 of them live in the areas most seriously affected by the quakes. Many Church members expressed gratitude for life and testified of the protection they received.
The day after the first earthquake, the First Presidency issued a statement expressing sympathy for the loss of Mexican life and pledging assistance. “We are saddened by the accounts of suffering and loss of life in cities and villages across [Mexico],” the statement said, “but we are heartened by the evidence of stricken people working together to lift each other’s burdens and to begin life anew under changed and challenged circumstances.”
Mexican Saints needed comparatively little help from outside in the aftermath of the quakes.
“The needs of our Church members in the areas affected by the earthquakes are few and are being handled nicely by their fellow Latter-day Saints under the overall direction of the Area Presidency and local leaders,” reported Elder Gene R. Cook of the First Quorum of the Seventy, president of the Church’s Mexico/Central America Area. Mexican Saints eagerly shared their stored food, bedding, and medical supplies with their neighbors.
Because of the danger of disease, however, the Church did send 15,000 units of typhoid serum, 15,000 syringes, 3.5 million water purification tablets, and 30 chlorinators to Mexico. A radio operator and radio equipment were requested and sent.
Three homes belonging to members were destroyed, and sixty-seven more dwellings were damaged. But the families in need were immediately taken in by other members.
In his report to Church headquarters, four days after the first quake, Elder Cook commented: “Members from all over the country are responding magnificently with food, clothing, water, medicine, and work brigades, in a great spirit of devotion. Please be assured of our well-being and of the blessings the Lord is providing us during these days.”
Members on the Gulf Coast and East Coast of the United States also felt the Lord was watching over them when Hurricane Elena and Hurricane Gloria struck those areas. The homes of many members were damaged, but there were no major injuries. Welfare Services personnel who were standing by to provide aid as needed praised the preparedness plans of local stakes, which went into action immediately to meet the needs of members and, in many cases, nonmembers as well. Little assistance was needed above the local level.
Hurricane Elena kept Gulf Coast residents guessing about where she would head inland. The storm ended up buffeting areas from Louisiana to north central Florida.
A number of members’ homes were damaged in the Gulfport and Pascagoula, Mississippi, areas (in the Gulfport Mississippi and Mobile Alabama stakes, respectively) September 2 as Elena’s winds raked them. Several families had to move out of their homes while repairs were made.
Five families of the Chiefland Ward, Gainesville Florida Stake, were forced to evacuate their homes on Cedar Key, just off Florida’s west coast, as Hurricane Elena turned her winds in their direction. Four of the homes were damaged by floodwaters from the gulf.
Hurricane Gloria had promised to be one of the most severe storms to hit the Atlantic Coast of the United States in the past half century. The storm spun its way up the coast September 27, and though the damages it caused ran into tens of millions of dollars, it was not nearly as severe as had been expected. Nine people died as a result of the hurricane; no Church members were seriously injured.
“I really think the Lord heard the prayers in our behalf,” said Gary Winters, area Welfare Services director for the Church’s Northeast Area. “I think we were really blessed in the fact that it did as little damage as it did.”
Damages suffered by members were largely to their property and trees. Like their neighbors, many Latter-day Saints were without power for several days; some found they could not cook food they had stored.
Ed Jespersen, president of the Plainview New York Stake, opened the stake center on Long Island to members and nonmembers who needed a place to go. Some members from the south shore of Long Island used it as a refuge when their homes were flooded. Members of the Yorktown New York Stake living in the New Canaan, Connecticut, area were evacuated from their homes. Stake President Rodney Hawes opened stake meetinghouses to the community, but they were not needed.