“Saints Respond to Natural Disasters,” Ensign, Nov. 1992, 105–7
In an outpouring of love and service, members of the Church helped people in two areas hit by devastating hurricanes.
More than six thousand Latter-day Saints from six southern states, armed with building materials, chain saws, and other supplies, streamed into southern Florida to help rebuild the lives and homes of the victims of the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.
Many of the volunteers wore bright yellow T-shirts on which the words “Mormon Helping Hands” were emblazoned. Those helping hands were responsible for putting temporary roofs on some 3,000 homes and other buildings; distributing ten semitrailer loads of emergency food, water, and medical supplies; repairing 710 homes in four migrant farm labor camps; and loading 2,100 dump truck loads of debris.
For their efforts, the group of volunteers was honored by the 2nd Battalion, 7th Field Artillery Regiment, the U.S. Army unit that supervised relief efforts in the Florida area.
“Of all the groups we’ve worked with, the Mormon Church was the best organized and the most efficient,” said Lt. Col. Charles R. Rash, who expressed his amazement that the Church so quickly mobilized a “spearhead unit,” consisting of a tractor trailer with emergency supplies that was on location the afternoon the hurricane struck.
Hurricane Andrew ripped through southern Florida in the early hours of August 24. The storm, with sustained winds of 140 miles per hour and gusts exceeding 160 miles per hour, killed fifteen people and destroyed an estimated 85,000 homes, leaving more than a quarter of a million people homeless. On August 26, Hurricane Andrew struck communities along Louisiana’s southern shoreline with high winds, tornadoes, and up to ten inches of rain.
Immediately after the hurricane, Latter-day Saint volunteers distributed emergency food, water, tents, and medical supplies after assessing family sizes and needs at four different relief centers, including three LDS meetinghouses. Church and member-donated food and water supplies were distributed in an orderly manner through the procedures of the Church welfare system. Those of other faiths who sought help also received sufficient supplies for their immediate needs.
The first relief and repair crews, including many of the area’s full-time missionaries, were sent out Tuesday, August 25, the day after Hurricane Andrew struck, to temporarily repair the 178 salvageable homes of Church members. Thousands of other members from all over the United States then combined efforts with those of two U.S. Army units—the 2nd Battalion, 7th Field Artillery Regiment, and the 10th Mountain Division from Fort Drum, New York—to help victims in the area.
Thousands of volunteers arrived at the areas in trucks donated by the army and Ryder Truck Rental, Inc., carrying tons of donated plywood, clear plastic, and tar paper. “The military couldn’t believe the logistics involved in our getting all that stuff down there so quickly,” said Elder Duane Sylvester, a public affairs missionary for the North America Southeast Area.
The crews went door-to-door in the devastated neighborhoods, repairing roofs and replacing shattered windows.
Community leaders and local media have praised Latter-day Saints throughout the area for their preparedness. Elder Alexander B. Morrison of the Seventy, area president, said that the Saints have been helped by good emergency planning. “The stake presidents in the area had emergency plans in place. Since this is the hurricane season, they had brought out and re-examined their plans within the last few weeks.”
Although members didn’t know exactly where the hurricane would come ashore, they did their best to prepare for it. On August 23, members put up three hundred sheets of plywood to protect windows in all the meetinghouses. For their own protection, missionaries were housed in the meetinghouse of the Kendall Ward of the Miami Florida South Stake.
In the hours after the hurricane hit, missionaries were authorized to deliver food and other relief supplies to members in need, many of whom were left without food and transportation, and to assist in other cleanup efforts.
The measures taken to protect the buildings paid off. After the storm, the Kendall Ward meetinghouse became headquarters for coordinating relief efforts. That the building is still standing is a small miracle; building inspectors claim that because of its location, it should have been flattened.
Another meetinghouse in the Miami Florida Stake was used as a Red Cross shelter. “We are cooperating with the Civil Defense people in every way we can. We have good reason to believe many agencies look to us for leadership in helping the people, not just our own,” Elder Morrison reported.
The thousands of volunteers were organized in groups of tens, fifties, and hundreds, with captains over each group. To keep track of the people, volunteers registered at relief centers set up in various meetinghouses. The volunteers also came into the area bringing their own food, water, and tents.
No members or missionaries were injured in the storm. Church meetinghouses in Homestead and Cutler Ridge, Florida, sustained substantial roof and water damage.
Being friendly and helping others has always been a trademark of those living on islands in the Pacific Ocean, but in the aftermath of a September 11 hurricane in the Hawaiian Islands, Church members are going above and beyond their usual standards. Several relief agencies turned to the Church for help in distributing emergency supplies of water and food.
The Hanalei Branch meetinghouse was one of the few structures to have gas cooking facilities in operation after the storm, and members immediately began helping coordinate and distribute hot food to hundreds of people. “All the full-time missionaries have been out visiting nonmembers and less-active families, helping them clean up their homes and giving them encouragement,” said Steven Lee, second counselor in the Kauai Hawaii Stake. The northern island of Kauai was the hardest hit in the storm.
Americares, a nonprofit, private relief agency, used the stake center and other meetinghouses as distribution centers for medical supplies and food. In addition, the Salvation Army used the Hanalei Branch meetinghouse as a center for distributing canned goods and baby diapers.
Medical teams from the mainland also used the same building to conduct examinations. And the Red Cross has been interviewing hurricane victims in the Kalaheo Ward meetinghouse.
“These agencies find the Church to be an excellent source of cooperation because of the widespread nature of our units,” explained Brother Donald L. Hallstrom, regional representative. “And I believe they appreciate the integrity with which Church members operate.”
Elder Jack H Goaslind of the Seventy, a counselor in the North America West Area presidency, toured much of the island on September 15. He inspected four of the five damaged meetinghouses and visited the homes of several members, offering comfort and support. Then he and other leaders discussed relief efforts, which included gathering an inventory of available resources and matching those resources with needs.
“The attitude of the members is miraculous,” observed Elder Goaslind, who also reported “deep feelings of appreciation for priesthood and auxiliary leaders who have done so much to rebuild and raise the spirits of the people.”
Hurricane Iniki slammed into Kauai with winds reaching 160 miles an hour. The storm destroyed the homes of some 10 percent of members, while the homes of another 30 percent were seriously damaged. Many other homes sustained minor damage. All five of the meetinghouses on the island were damaged, three seriously. Four people died as a result of the storm; no members or missionaries were killed or injured.
The islands of Oahu and Hawaii were also affected, though less severely.
A volunteer looks over furniture in yard of Hawaiian home ruined by Hurricane Iniki.
A home in Kalaheo on the island of Kauai was destroyed by winds of 130 mph, with 160 mph gusts, during Hurricane Iniki.