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LDS shipment delivers relief to Isidore victims

Economic future remains a concern

Hurricane Isidore's winds uprooted thousands of trees in Merida.
Hurricane Isidore's winds uprooted thousands of trees in Merida. Photo: Photo by Jason Swensen

MERIDA, Mexico — Hurricane Isidore was an uninvited guest that wore out her welcome long before any introductions.

She didn't stay long, arriving at Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula on Sept. 22 before being downgraded to a tropical storm just a day later. Yet the impact of Isidore's tempestuous visit and the persistent rains that followed was hard and sudden. Some 800 member families were forced from their homes. Winds blowing in excess of 125 mph peeled roofs from thousands of homes. Millions of farm animals were lost, and sections of the Yucatan are expected to be without power or water for the rest of the year.

Local Church leaders from the Mexico South Area responded immediately, loosening funds to purchase essential food items and building supplies to patch up tattered roofs. But more was needed. Following a request for help by the Mexican government, the Church' Welfare Department in Salt Lake City stuffed 128,000 pounds of relief supplies into a chartered DC-10 cargo jet bound for the Yucatan. The following is a time line account from the first hours of the shipment's rapid distribution effort — and a glimpse at the many who offered time, muscle, leadership and love to assist those in need.

Plastic-wrapped bales of blankets are loaded onto conveyer belts on the tarmac at the Salt Lake International Airport. Some 8,000 blankets were included in the recent humanitarian shipment.
Plastic-wrapped bales of blankets are loaded onto conveyer belts on the tarmac at the Salt Lake International Airport. Some 8,000 blankets were included in the recent humanitarian shipment. Photo: Photo by Jason Swensen

Wednesday, Oct. 2, 7:30 a.m., MDT,

Salt Lake International Airport

Garry Flake arrives minutes before the plane's flight crew at the airport's air-cargo section. As director of the Church's Humanitarian Emergency Response office, Brother Flake will help oversee the humanitarian shipment until it can be placed in the hands of local Church leaders in the Yucatan for distribution among affected members.

For Brother Flake, this humanitarian shipment is destined for sacred land. While a young man he served a full-time mission to Mexico, spending part of his time teaching folks in Merida, Yucatan's capital. Years later, he would preside over a mission in Monterrey, Mexico.

Brother Flake gives interviews to several Utah television stations positioned on the tarmac while forklift operators load pallets of relief supplies onto conveyor belts stretching into the DC-10's massive cargo bay. Some 8,000 blankets, 22,000 hygiene kits, 1,000 cases of essential food items, boxes of soap and first aid/pharmaceutical modules make up much of the shipment — the equivalent of six semi-trailers filled to capacity.

By 11 a.m. the cargo plane is airborne.

A crew at the Merida Airport prepares to unload relief supplies from the belly of chartered DC-10 cargo plane.
A crew at the Merida Airport prepares to unload relief supplies from the belly of chartered DC-10 cargo plane. Photo: Photo by Jason Swensen

4 p.m., CDT, Merida Mexico Airport

The direct, four-hour flight from Salt Lake City to Merida is smooth and clear. As the plane approaches the Yucatan Peninsula, the ominous edge of Hurricane Isidore's cousin, Lili, can be seen in the distance above the Gulf of Mexico. Fortunately, Lili did not hit the Yucatan as she traveled along its path to the southeast section of the United States.

Just minutes after the plane settles on Mexican soil, a crew begins unloading the shipment. Brother Flake is greeted by Terry Spallino, the Church's temporal affairs director in Mexico, along with several local stake presidents. Also waiting at the airport is Dr. Guadalupe Noemi Arconen Gonzalez, a coordinator for the Yucatanean government's health and sanitation department.

She discusses with Brother Flake and Brother Spallino the medical supplies included in the shipment, then thanks Church members worldwide for their generosity.

"We don't have words to express our gratitude," Dr. Gonzalez says. "What the [Church] is doing for us is a great help."

Dr. Guadalupe Noemi Arconen Gonzalez discusses relief supplies with Church officials.
Dr. Guadalupe Noemi Arconen Gonzalez discusses relief supplies with Church officials. Photo: Photo by Jason Swensen

Minutes later, Brother Flake and Brother Spallino sit down in a nearby office with the Merida-area stake presidents who form the regional welfare committee. Each of the stake presidents has identified the relief needs of his respective wards and branches. The distribution plans are finalized as government and airport workers finish unloading the shipment from the plane. Wooden pallets loaded down with the shipment boxes are then stacked into trucks that will transport the goods to a cavernous government warehouse in downtown Merida. They will be distributed to local Church leaders in the morning.

The goods will provide immediate relief to thousands of Church members and others. Yet the long-term needs of Church members remains a major concern, Brother Spallino says. Hurricane Isidore wiped out much of the region's agricultural industry, killing millions of chickens and turkeys and some 400,000 pigs. Seventy percent of the Yucatan's citrus crop was also lost.

"Many of our members depend on those industries," he says. "It's going to take months, maybe longer [to recover]. Some may never be re-employed in those areas."

Armanda Pech Ortiz talks about the hurricane with Garry Flake.
Armanda Pech Ortiz talks about the hurricane with Garry Flake. Photo: Photo by Jason Swensen

Thursday, Oct. 3, 8:30 a.m., Merida

It will be an hour or so before local Church leaders arrive at the central warehouse to pick up their respective supplies. Brother Flake and Brother Spallino catch a minivan ride across town to visit Merida members impacted by the storm. Many in this colonial city suffered water and roof damage to their homes. The hurricane was even crueler to those living near the peninsula coastline.

"Everything in my house got wet and was damaged," says Armanda Pech Ortiz, an elderly widow who joined the Church in 1959. Several pictures adorn the wall of Sister Ortiz's concrete home, including a large portrait of President Ezra Taft Benson.

It's been more than a week since Isidore hit. Sister Ortiz has a little water, "but no electricity."

Her bishop, Fernando Sosa of the Dolores Otero Ward, Merida Mexico Stake, says he tried to keep in contact with his congregation when the hurricane hit land.

"The phone didn't stop ringing," he says. "I spent the whole night talking to members, making sure they were OK."

As soon as the storm settled, Bishop Sosa dispatched youth from his ward to clean downed trees and debris from the homes of widows and older members. The hurricane has left many in the Dolores Otero Ward without work, including Bishop Sosa.

Forklift operator moves a stack of relief supply boxes from the Church into a central warehouse in downtown Merida.
Forklift operator moves a stack of relief supply boxes from the Church into a central warehouse in downtown Merida. Photo: Photo by Jason Swensen

10 a.m., central warehouse, Merida

President Javier Sanchez Correa is among the first of the stake presidents to arrive at the central warehouse. He presides over the Campeche Mexico Stake, an area west of Merida hit hard by Isidore.

The homes of some Campeche members were "completely flooded," says President Sanchez Correa as he loads relief boxes into the back of a large van. Others lost their roofs and a few walls collapsed, forcing families to find refuge at nearby meetinghouses.

Members, full-time missionaries and government workers form a line inside the sweltering warehouse, passing along one box after another until it is stacked onto the back of trucks that will travel to area chapels.

"I'm happy to help after this disaster," says Elder Osvaldo Herrera, a Veracruz, Mexico, native now serving in the Merida Mexico Mission.

President Domingo Perez Maldonado of the Merida Itzimna Stake takes a breather from the heavy lifting, wipes his brow and comments on the selfless actions of many in his stake. "Those families that have a little more have been anxious and excited to help," he says.

In the coming days, President Perez Maldonado says he'll work with his fellow Church leaders to meet the immediate needs of the members. In the long-term, he adds, the Yucatecan members must face the challenge of preparing for future hurricanes.

Joshua Acevedo Sosa, 13, left, steadies a dolly as it is loaded down with relief supplies outside Merida chapel.
Joshua Acevedo Sosa, 13, left, steadies a dolly as it is loaded down with relief supplies outside Merida chapel. Photo: Photo by Jason Swensen

Noon, Mexico Merida Itzimna Stake Center

Joshua Acevedo Sosa, 13, keeps spirits light as a truckload of relief goods reaches the chapel for temporary storage. The supplies will soon be delivered or picked up by families or bishops.

Joshua joined the Church just a few weeks ago. He's already become something of a leader, hollering good-natured encouragement and direction to others as they unload the truck and stack boxes inside.

"It's important for me to come and help the members of my Church."

Elizabeta Bornos Matu receives a food bag and a stack of blankets that were included in the humanitarian shipment.
Elizabeta Bornos Matu receives a food bag and a stack of blankets that were included in the humanitarian shipment. Photo: Photo by Jason Swensen

1 p.m., the Matu home

"We were scared when the hurricane hit, so we started praying and singing hymns," says Elizabeta Bornos Matu. "It calmed us down."

Sister Matu and her family will be sustained for a time by the flour, rice and other staples inside the emergency food box that has just been delivered to her home. The box is a welcome arrival, now that jobs are scarce.

"There's work — but it's only temporary and hard to find," says Sister Matu, searching for a corner to stack the blankets that were included in the delivery.

A family of six, the Matus live in a tiny cinder block home inside the boundaries of the Tanlum Ward, Merida Itzimna Stake. Their prayers for protection were answered, in part, months earlier when the ward elders quorum spent a Saturday collecting mortar and block and building the home.

The Matus had been living in a tiny shack made largely of boards, branches and cardboard. Their new home provided humble yet sure refuge from the wind and rain.

"We built this home to withstand Isidore," says Francisco Gallegos, second counselor in the Tanlum bishopric.

Yucatan Governor Patricio Patron, left, meets with President Domingo Perez Maldonado, center, and Garry Flake, right.
Yucatan Governor Patricio Patron, left, meets with President Domingo Perez Maldonado, center, and Garry Flake, right. Photo: Photo by Jason Swensen

1:30 p.m., Yucatan Government Palace

Brother Flake, President Perez Maldonado, Brother Spallino and other local members discuss the humanitarian shipment with Yucatan Governor Patricio Patron Laviada. President Perez Maldonado explains that the contributions from Church members in many nations made such a shipment possible.

"We share our gratitude for the trust and support that you have given in the name of all Yucatecans," Governor Laviada says. "Thanks to your Church for this great effort."

After meeting with the governor, Brother Flake and the others speak with a team of local reporters, answering questions about the Church's humanitarian mission.

5 p.m., Merida Mexico Airport

Brother Flake and Brother Spallino collect a round of "abrazos" (hearty hugs) from several Yucatan members then board a Mexico City-bound plane.

Besides the affected Church members, thousands of other Mexicans will be given relief supplies from the shipment to help them through a tragic time.

Invigorated by his Mexican excursion, Brother Flake returns to Salt Lake City the next morning. He dubs the shipment "a success" and a tribute to the Church's welfare system.

"The excitement for me was to see the organization of the regional welfare committee — the stake presidents working together to get the goods out where they needed to be."

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