Katrina's Devastation and the Latter-day Saints

Katrina’s devastation may be the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States.  Over a million people have been displaced from their homes in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama by savage winds and murky, rising floodwaters contaminated with sewage and bodies.  Eighty-five percent of New Orleans is under water and rescue workers are marking X’s on houses that contain the dead. 

Martial law has been declared in the city and all residents are being asked to leave.  All the lanes on all the roads around New Orleans are one way—leading out.  Coastal cities and towns in Mississippi and Alabama have been devastated by the tidal surge.

Yet for Latter-day Saints, Ole Christensen, President of the Denham Springs Stake and chairman of the regional welfare committee, gave the most graphic description, “It reminds me of the chaos in 3 Nephi.”  That completes the picture.  Utter catastrophe.  The face of the world changed.

“I’m sure the people then were probably numb too,” said President Christensen. You really don’t have time to think about it because the phone never stops ringing.”

“This is something you think will never happen,” said his wife, Joyce.

Most of us are experiencing Katrina’s wake through television images of desperate people who have become refugees with no place to go, huddled in the Superdome or climbing, drenched out of water, saying they have no food, no water and no one to tell them what to do.

Remarkable Welfare System

Thanks to the remarkable welfare system of the Church, for Latter-day Saints the situation is very different. 

Latter-day Saints knew immediately knew what to do.  When the storm hit, Priesthood leaders began what is an ongoing assessment of the whereabouts and well-being of the members.  The Church has announced that all missionaries were evacuated before the storm hit.  There are no reported deaths or injuries of members although many have not been accounted for. 

President Christensen said the Baton Rouge temple was undamaged, though it lost its power for a period of time.  Of the 43 buildings in the five stakes of his region, most of buildings sustained little or slight damage, except for those buildings in the areas hardest hit—the New Orleans Stake and the Slidell Stake.  Because communications has been nearly impossible with those regions, the fate of many of those buildings is still uncertain.

“My best guess” said President Christensen, “is that two of the buildings in the Slidell area have some water in them.  We do not have reports out of some areas—even by satellite phone. 

“The New Orleans Stake is a whole different  story.  We believe that the New Orleans stake center has water in it  We have no idea what has happened to the chapel in Port Sulphur.  The worst scenario is that it is now part of the Gulf of Mexico, but, of course, we just don’t know.

“We received a report that some members were stranded on the west bank of New Orleans and that President Scott Conlin has organized a caravan of vans to see if he can go pick them up.

As of Wednesday, approximately 10 meetinghouses throughout the disaster area were being used as emergency shelters for members and their neighbors.  Many of these had two or three hundred people or more in them.

President Conlin had also developed a warning system and evacuation plan for the New Orleans stake which was put into place this past weekend.  This stake has an automated phone system so that the stake president  put in a prerecorded message on Saturday and again on Sunday morning that rang into 1700 homes.  The message was to evacuate the city.  If they weren’t leaving their homes, they were given an 800 number so they could report where they were going to me.

The evacuation plan called for people to go to three different stake centers—two in Mississippi and one in Lousiana that were near the three major arteries that lead out of the city.  A member knew which one to go based on the highway that was closest to him.

Of course, there is no way to estimate at this point how many people have lost their homes.  “These people are displaced,” said Joyce Christensen.  They can’t go home.  They have nothing to go home to.  We’re still just processing what has happened.”

Bishop’s Storehouse

Though Slidell was one of the hardest hit areas, the Bishop’s Storehouse, which is nearly new, only suffered a bit of water damage when water from the storm leaked through the waters and doors. The power grid was badly damaged and it may take as many as eight to twelve weeks to restore electricity. 

At the storehouse, a generator was immediately put to work and commodities continued to roll out the door. 

Kevin Nield, director of Bishops’ Storehouse Services, said that to this point the Church had responded with 14 semi-trailers full of necessities like water, tents, sleeping bags, tarps, chainsaws, generators, canned food and hygiene kits.  When the Church saw the storm danger, “simultaneously we sent supplies to be pre-positioned in those locations to be close to the needs.”

Needs are assessed by priesthood leaders with some guidance based on the experience of the welfare department.  Every evening priesthood leaders have been on a conference call with officers in Salt Lake so that the Church can be appropriately responsive.to needs.

Bennie Lilly, Area Welfare Manager for the North American Southeast Area, talked to Meridian from the Slidell bishop’s storehouse.  “It’s hot and humid here.  People are tired.  About 10,000 members live in this area who have been affected by Katrina. 

“Where I am standing, I see a tree that has fallen through the roof of a house and just beyond that a church that has lost its roof.  There is no water, but still Bishop David Navo of the Mississipi Picayune Ward is here getting  commodities for his hard-struck members.”

Housed in a Church

Bishop Navo had one central message when Brother Lilly handed the phone to him, “ I am so grateful for the Church.  I am grateful that Salt Lake had supplies on the way before the hurricane even hit. When you are involved in a catastrophe of this magnitude, you get a whole new picture of the services of the Church.”

Bishop Navo’s ward members have no communications whatsoever.  No cell phones.  No pay phones.  No electricity. Stores are closed, but Wal-Mart is letting a few people in at a time to buy items with cash.

Limbs, trees and branches are down everywhere and many of the roads are nearly impassable.  Katrina’s eye passed over Picayune and so they were hit hard.

“Oak trees so big that you couldn’t put your arms around their trunk went down,” he said.

Bishop Navo cannot contact every ward member, so the night before the storm hit, he and his family moved into the Church to be there in case any members had to find shelter there.  Come they did, by the scores.  They pooled what food they had.  The storm hit and the next day misery set in with soaring temperatures and no water and food.

Thus Bishop Navo came to the Slidell bishop’s storehouse for food, water and generators to supply the needs of those living in the church.

What especially pleased him, however, was that a woman who had adopted two special needs children received something she desperately needed.

  When the children got too hot, they had a tendency to go into seizures, and she needed a generator to keep them cool.  Bishop Navo made sure she received the first generator from the Church’s supplies.

Of course,  members will need more than commodities as the awful realization bears down day in and out of what they’ve lost.  LDS Social Services is sending help into the area to support member’s emotional needs—almost a kind of grief counseling.  People are reaching out to each other with open homes and open hearts.

And in the long run?  How will Latter-day Saints rebuild lost homes and opportunities, swallowed under floodwaters or howling winds?  That will take a longer assessment.

For New Orleans to be habitable again, they will have to start from the ground up with a completely new infrastructure—including roads and power.  For Latter-day Saints who lived there, they can turn to a deeper infrastructure—a Church that is ready to help them when disaster strikes.