“Disasters Test Preparedness of Members,” Ensign, Dec. 2003, 67–68
A power blackout that struck much of the northeastern United States and southern Canada on 14 August 2003 proved to be a test of personal and family preparedness.
The blackout started late in the afternoon, engulfing most of New York State and nearby parts of New England, spreading west to Ohio and Michigan, and reaching across the border into Ontario, Canada. Some areas had power restored within an hour, while other areas were without power for nearly three days.
Stake presidents throughout the affected area said their members generally fared well when power was lost, leaving them to rely on emergency plans and home storage.
“A few minutes after the blackout began, I contacted priesthood leaders to implement our 72-hour emergency plan, which includes verbal communication with each family, paying particular attention to widows, children, and the disabled,” said Bishop James Kaski of the Blue Water Ward, Grand Blanc Michigan Stake.
A common observation among stake presidents and bishops was the sense of calm that prevailed among members. “Being fairly well prepared certainly made a big difference in how we reacted,” Bishop Kaski said.
The blackout was the largest loss of power in the history of the United States, affecting an estimated 50 million people. Many Church members working in Manhattan were stranded by the stalled subway system and spent the night in a stake center in New York City. Some visitors to the city also used the stake center after their electronic hotel keys were rejected because of the power outage.
In the Grand River Branch, Detroit Michigan District, a single mother with two children offered to bring widows to her home, where she could feed them from her home storage. She also walked to her neighbors’ houses and offered food and assistance.
After learning of Lianne Racioppo, a member in Toronto who had a home storage program and was prepared for the disaster, the Toronto Sun interviewed her for a feature article in a recent issue. Lianne, whose husband, Silvano, is bishop of the Don Mills Ward, Toronto Ontario Stake, told the newspaper of the Church’s counsel to prepare for emergencies.
Fueled by dry vegetation, a swift-moving forest fire swept through Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, on 22 August 2003, causing the evacuation of an estimated 30,000 people—including most members of the Kelowna Second Ward, Vernon British Columbia Stake—and destroying 238 homes.
The fire, triggered by a lightning strike, destroyed one member’s home, that of Bishop William R. Spittle of the Kelowna Second Ward.
More than 150 members fled their homes with as little as 20 minutes’ warning. “Some literally grabbed 72-hour kits,” said President Kent G. Burnham of the Vernon stake.
“The other ward [Kelowna First Ward] put their shoulder to the wheel and took the project on,” said President Burnham. “They did a marvelous job of providing assistance and support to those who needed it. … Nobody was without a place to stay.”
Because an entire ward was evacuated, Bishop Andrew L. Draper of the Kelowna First Ward said that the typical emergency calling procedure, in which home teachers check on the members they visit, broke down. The local meetinghouse was open 24 hours a day during the evacuation, “so members could come to the Church if they had nowhere else to go.”
Keeping the meetinghouse open also provided local leaders with the opportunity to inventory where members were located during the evacuation.
Bishop Draper said that many members also volunteered in the community. He gave time at an evacuation center doing registration work, and Latter-day Saints made hundreds of sandwiches for firefighters who could not leave the front lines.
A rare category five at her peak, Hurricane Isabel churned out winds of 161 mph (259 kph) before weakening on its slow path to the East Coast of the United States. On 18 September 2003 Isabel made landfall at Drum Inlet, Outer Banks, North Carolina, as a category two. The storm then passed through Virginia, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, and up into Canada. New Jersey and New York also suffered damage from the storm.
Priesthood leaders in the area began preparations early. The Richmond Virginia Chesterfield Stake Center was set up as a command post. About 100 missionaries evacuated from North Carolina and the Virginia coast found safe haven there. Home teachers manned their phones, calling families and checking for needs.
John Ruckart, a member of the Belmont Ward, Richmond Virginia Chesterfield Stake, housed four missionaries during the storm. Brother Ruckart recounted the experience they had watching a large tree in his front yard succumb to the storm.
“We watched the tree swaying in the wind. I knew it was going; I just didn’t want it to fall on my house,” said Brother Ruckart. “The elders and I went to our knees and prayed fervently. For more than half an hour the tree did its dance back and forth. Then a huge wind gust took it down. It fell beside the house. I lost about 25 trees in all, but the house is fine.”
Joel Hancock, president of the Kinston North Carolina Stake, rode out the storm in his island home in Kinston, one of the first places to experience the storm.
“Three members’ houses [were] severely flooded and about 600 [other homes in the area were] flooded,” President Hancock said. “After the storm our missionaries were very involved in the cleanup. My wife and other members of the Relief Society worked at a Red Cross feeding station. We were prepared and had the opportunity to donate some of our food storage to a local shelter.”
The Washington D.C. Temple also experienced the force of Hurricane Isabel. “We are on a hill, and we had the full brunt of the wind, but there wasn’t any damage to the temple,” reported W. Brandt Brooksby, first counselor in the temple presidency. “We lost power for two days. Our lights came on and all the houses around us remained in the dark. Our power was restored for a reason.”
Becky Robinette Wright and Church News contributed to these reports.