SALT LAKE CITY – The buzz of chainsaws will again fill the air this weekend as thousands of volunteers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints descend on the Gulf Coast to help victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Setting aside their weekday routines as bankers, accountants, contractors, attorneys, managers, dentists, retirees, students and salesmen, volunteers are on their way to Louisiana and Mississippi in carpools and buses. They bring with them tents, sleeping bags, food, water, clothing, chainsaws, ladders and even backhoes.
These volunteers, dubbed the chainsaw warriors, are expected to drive late into the night from their homes in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina and Texas.
By Saturday morning tent cities will again surround Latter-day Saint chapels in Collins, Columbia, Covington, Gulfport, Hattiesburg, LaPlace, Laurel, Meridian, Pascagoula, Picayune, Slidell and Waveland.
In the days immediately preceding the mobilization, Church leaders from the volunteers’ home congregations divided them into crews and gave them instruction, while those at the points of destination identified community residents in greatest need and drafted work orders in preparation for an early start the next day.
The volunteers will work through the daylight hours on Saturday and to midday on Sunday, cutting and clearing debris from fallen trees and covering damaged roofs with tarps to prevent water damage as residents await insurance settlements and repairs.
Last weekend volunteers cleared literally thousands of yards in a mission of mercy. As of Monday evening, a tally of the Church’s combined volunteer efforts in hurricane-stricken areas included 9,204 man-days and 4,832 work orders, providing assistance to over 4,800 people.
I don’t think that we’ve ever had that kind of effort in a sustained way, said Elder D. Todd Christofferson (a member of the Presidency of the Seventy, one of the bodies that provide leadership to the worldwide Church from its headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah). The ongoing relief effort to which he referred began as soon as the receding storm allowed trucks loaded with relief supplies to enter the stricken areas. And it’s not the end, he promised.
Over the next two weekends, Latter-day Saint congregations in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina and Texas have committed an additional 4,000 weekend workers to the ongoing cleanup and relief effort, which will extend to some areas hardest hit by Katrina that are only gradually becoming accessible to volunteer work crews. Another 1,800 will follow over three weekends in October.
Behind the numbers lie the individuals. Tales of struggle and survival emerged as the visitors and local residents worked side by side in the cleanup effort:
Chelsey (age 7 and an energetic helper with the debris removal) and James Barron (10) of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, spoke animatedly of their experience in the hurricane, with its loud wind, limbs flying around, the crash of the wall that surrounded their property that sounded like dynamite, and the scary time when a tree — one of several that was to litter their property — fell onto their home.
A Hattiesburg mother, whose battle with multiple sclerosis makes her particularly susceptible to the loss of power in the oppressive late-summer heat, has chosen to stay with her family and help with the cleanup, which seemed an insurmountable task after the magnitude of the work led to the demise of both of the family’s chainsaws.
An observer of a crews labors in Petal, Mississippi, asked if they would be able to clear the debris from the yard of that town’s police chief, who had been too busy helping others in the storms aftermath to clean up his own property; that became their next stop.
A grandmother raising her three grandchildren in a beautifully kept mobile home outside of Toomsuba, Mississippi, found her life disrupted when a falling tree tore a floor-to-roof
gash in its back wall, rendering it uninhabitable for the children — until the Mormon Helping Hands crew, working well past sunset, provided the necessary stopgap repair that allowed the children to return.
At the same time that their chain saws were taking apart fallen trees, the Latter-day Saint volunteers forged bonds with people of other faiths.
A Baptist family in Mississippi, surprised at the offer of help from a Latter-day Saint work crew, named the mountain of debris that they and their newfound friends from Georgia jointly hauled to their curbside their Mormon pile.
In Louisiana, after losing two trucks, a fully stocked freezer and more in the flooding that accompanied the hurricane and forced her family’s evacuation, Slidell Harts United Methodist Church member Mildred Eden found her attempt to return to her home thwarted by a jumble of fallen trees and wires spread across her yard and driveway. “You are the best thing that has happened to me since the hurricane,” she said. “I’m a volunteer, so when we get back in our home and you need help, Ill help you.”
That spirit of reciprocity played out repeatedly, with people of other denominations contributing spontaneously to the effort.
As one crew was cutting and clearing debris from a home in Picayune, Mississippi, a neighbor pulled up with his four-wheel drive and front-end loader. After moving the accumulating debris to the curbside with his loader, he said, “You go back and tell your group that Mr. Seal from the Pine Grove Baptist Church helped you.”
A United Methodist congregation in Slidell, Louisiana, allowed volunteers descending on that community from Houston, Texas, to sleep in their church. When the local congregants arrived at their church on Sunday, they found the debris cleared from their churchyard and their hurricane-damaged flag mounted as a keepsake while a bright new banner flew from the flagpole. In a shared worship service, the pastor voiced a feeling of unity shared by those of both denominations: “The Mormons are now our friends.”
”When I hear these stories, I am humbled by the tremendous service that is being rendered between people of all faiths,” said Elder John S. Anderson, director of the Church’s Emergency Operations Center in Slidell, which coordinates the relief effort throughout the Southeast. “We are all children of God, and that’s what matters.”
As volunteer workers and those they were assisting bade farewell, a common realization emerged that all parties involved were beneficiaries. A crew leaving the home of an elderly couple in Meridian, Mississippi, after removing the debris from several large trees that had fallen in their yard, reported hearing their last tearful thank-yous as they pulled away.
“Before last weekend, most of us had experienced the satisfaction of contributing money to relief agencies,” said B. Jeffrey Strebar, bishop of the Whitewater congregation near Atlanta. “But the pure joy of looking into the tear-filled eyes of those whose lives have been so overwhelmingly altered was an experience that will never be forgotten.”