“Church Continues to Aid Hurricane Victims,” Ensign, Dec. 2005, 66–67
Within just four weeks of each other in August and September 2005, deadly “sister storms” struck the Gulf Coast region of the United States. Hurricane Katrina, a category 4 hurricane that struck Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi on August 29, and Hurricane Rita, a category 3 hurricane that made landfall at the Texas/Louisiana border on September 24, together made for what some called the largest natural disaster in the history of the nation. More than 1,300 deaths, including two members of the Church, and over U.S. $200 billion in damages are blamed on Katrina alone.
Church Prepared to Assist
Before either hurricane struck, the Church was prepared with supplies in place and meetinghouses ready to act as shelters.
“We prepositioned supplies that we knew would be needed, we had a communications system that we knew would work, and priesthood leaders had put together lists of Church members and knew where most of them were evacuating to,” said Garry Flake, director of Humanitarian Emergency Response.
Brother Flake said the Church’s commitment to preparedness makes it a reliable resource in times of disaster. “Many organizations are working on identifying needs and looking for resources at the same time,” Brother Flake said. “We have the resources. We just need to identify the need and make sure those resources are used most effectively.”
The Church is widely recognized for its ability to help with disaster relief, Brother Flake said. “I can go to the government or other agencies and tell them whom I represent, and they know immediately who we are and that we’re there to respond,” he said.
The Gulfport Mississippi, Slidell Louisiana, and New Orleans Louisiana Stakes were hardest hit by the hurricanes. Two members were confirmed dead in the Waveland Ward of the Gulfport stake. All missionaries were evacuated early from areas affected by the hurricanes.
While some meetinghouses in Hurricane Katrina’s path sustained only minor wind and water damage, six Church buildings were significantly damaged: two in the Gulfport Mississippi Stake, three in the New Orleans Louisiana Stake, and one in the Slidell Louisiana Stake.
Brother Flake, who witnessed the damage from both storms, said that although Hurricane Rita’s destruction was less severe than Katrina’s, it was not insignificant. “They were sister storms in that there was a lot of damage—a lot of people displaced. There were businesses damaged. It’s going to take a long time to get people back.”
In the wake of both storms, the Church’s relief effort flowed steadily in the form of some 200 truckloads of food, hygiene kits, cleaning kits, school kits, medical supplies, and other relief supplies distributed to storm victims across the southeastern United States. Thousands of Church volunteers donated labor to assemble kits or assist with the cleanup. As Rita loomed, Church resources already in place during Katrina’s aftermath were simply expanded to cover Texas.
During and after the disasters, many Church meetinghouses served as shelters for evacuees in areas across the South. The Church also assisted other organizations, providing nearly 300,000 hygiene kits to the Red Cross and food to the Salvation Army’s kitchens.
In the aftermath of Katrina, a cleanup kit was introduced by Church Welfare Services for the first time. The kit consists of a five-gallon bucket containing bleach, dish soap, scrub brushes, gloves, dust masks, trash bags, a spray bottle, sponges, and rags. Members assembled the cleanup kits at bishops’ storehouses in Atlanta, Georgia, and Orlando, Florida. About 60,000 buckets had been given to Church members and numerous others by early October.
Church volunteer labor onsite was coordinated through stake presidents under the direction of Area Seventies and in conjunction with county emergency operations centers and other organizations. The crews of eight to ten people cleaned up debris and helped homeowners make their homes livable.
Some volunteers traveled from locations as far as Anchorage, Alaska, to assist with the cleanup effort. By mid-October, members had donated 35,000 man-days of volunteer hurricane relief work. “It has been one of the larger relief efforts that [the Church] has ever done,” said Elder John S. Anderson, an Area Seventy in the North America Southeast Area, who presided over Church relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina.
The volunteers’ efforts were greatly appreciated. “The community really responded positively once they learned who we were and what we had to offer,” said Elder Anderson.
He said seeing the Church’s multi-faceted response to the Gulf Coast hurricane disaster has touched him. “It is just marvelous to see the resources of the Church prepared and ready to assist anyone in need and the willingness of all the volunteers who gave and sacrificed so much to come and assist,” he said. “It was a great joy to be able to witness it. It has just been one of the highlights of my life.”