SALT LAKE CITY — They have never met but already recognize each other’s voices and distinct accents over the telephone — dozens of leaders from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who get together for a nightly conference call on a mission of mercy.
“Augusta, Georgia can send 200 people.” “We got 50 coming from Pensacola, Florida.” “Montgomery, Alabama has 100 responding.” “Baton Rouge, Louisiana has 100.” “South Carolina is sending 200.” “We have 600 coming in from Houston, Texas and hundreds more chomping at the bit!”
And so it goes, late into the evening as leaders give reports of volunteers responding to a massive cleanup effort this weekend for victims of Hurricane Katrina — an effort that will culminate in the largest response ever by the Church to a disaster in the United States.
The volunteer effort will be the third phase of relief response from the Church, coordinated with the Red Cross and other agencies. The first was the pre-positioning of truckloads of relief supplies when warning of the approaching storm was given. The second was to utilize 20 Church buildings to house several thousand evacuees.
Now, the third phase will marshal those wanting to help, mainly from areas where the storm caused the most damage, such as Slidell, Louisiana. There, members of the Church echoed the feelings of many hurricane victims saying “Help dig us out, so we can dig out our neighbors and friends.”
Ten thousand Church members from the South and the Gulf Coast have signed up to work. The first 3,000 will be put to work this weekend, with the rest following in waves.
The volunteers will provide a constant stream of relief from Hammond, Louisiana, in the west to Mobile, Alabama, in the east to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in the north.
The Church has assigned coordination of the massive response to Church Emergency Operations Center Director John Anderson, a Floridian, who helped organize Church volunteers during last year’s hurricanes.
“We are on a mission of mercy with ladders, chainsaws and backhoes,” Anderson said.
All volunteers will be completely self- sufficient. That means bringing their own supplies, including food, chemical toilets and even gasoline. The only thing they are guaranteed is a clear spot of ground to pitch their tents on.
They have already been assigned to over a dozen staging areas, where they will be given work orders and sent out into devastated communities in groups of 10. Volunteers will help members of the Church and their neighbors and pay special attention to the families of police officers, firemen, hospital staff and other emergency workers.
“We’ve found a community recovers more quickly if we can help these crucial people get back on their feet and back to work,” said Area Welfare Manager Bennie Lilly. “After that, we divide the rest of the community into grids and canvas door-to-door to make sure we haven’t missed anyone.”
The needs volunteers are facing will be different depending on the area they are assigned. In the north, they will be clearing downed trees and power lines, but because of the storm surge along the coast, volunteers there will be removing mud, drywall and carpet and disinfecting homes.
Anderson says the Church help is planned for the long-term. “This will take the whole nation’s best efforts,” he said. “This is not going to be a matter of offering a little help, and then leaving.”
Meanwhile, volunteers are keeping a close eye on the latest weather reports and Tropical Storm Ophelia, which is heading for Florida this weekend.
Church Response to Date
Delivered over 40 truckloads of commodities and relief supplies to the Church’s permanent distribution and supply center and other facilities in the affected area.
Delivered and dispensed fuel.
Provided supplies and volunteer assistance for evacuees in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Arizona, Utah and Idaho.
Sheltered 4,000 people in 20 buildings.