SLIDELL, La. When the lights came on Sept. 6 at the Bishops' Storehouse here, where the Church has its command post for emergency response to Hurricane Katrina, a loud cheer sounded.
Down the road, a small army of service workers had replaced broken light poles that lay strewn over the street for more than a week. Damage had been repaired in other areas as well until all the links were holding and the power chain fully connected. Their success was the result of long and difficult effort, part of a larger heroic, really uniting of people from all over the country to put back together over the next days and months and years what the hurricane took apart in one morning. The lights were a harbinger that Katrina's devastation would be overcome.
There are two confirmed deaths of members, and at least six others are not accounted for. Those who died are Terrence and Christina Shields of the Waveland Ward, Gulfport Mississippi Stake.
Rita Pavolini of the Gulfport stake was sent home from the hospital, though ill, and Jackie McDaniel, stake Relief Society president, took her into her home where they rigged an air conditioner to a generator to keep her cool in the hottest days of the summer.
Missionaries have been in the forefront of emergency relief, distributing supplies and hygiene kits. Most of those evacuated have either been reassigned or returned to their areas to help with relief or clean up.
Meetinghouses lost include Port Sulphur, La., and in the New Orleans area, the Academy building, which is still under water and next to a cemetery, and the Chalmette Ward meetinghouse. The status of the St. Charles building is still unknown. Buildings that received some damage are the Pascagoula, Waveland, Ponchartrain and the rented Algiers meetinghouses. Other buildings in the area escaped damage, sometimes under remarkable conditions. The Columbia, Miss., building, for example, had a large pine fall between the steeple and front door, sparing the building. Many sustained minor damage.
The numbers of members' homes lost or damaged has not been compiled and won't be until the accounting of members has been completed.
Response by the Church has been significant. President Boyd K. Packer, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve, and Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve, accompanied by other General and Area Authorities, visited shelters in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Church relief trucks from Salt Lake City, Atlanta, Ga. and Orlando, Fla., were among the first at damage sites. These supplies were delivered first to Church shelters and then to emergency workers. Such were the conditions that first supplies were absorbed immediately and additional trucks were sent. At this writing, residents of Church shelters are leaving to live with family members or to newly rented quarters.
Some 50 truckloads of supplies have been shipped from Church storehouses into the disaster zone; 30 trucks are being sent to replenish storehouses. Fourteen trucks have come to the Slidell command post and moved on for distribution.
At the command post here, Physical Facilities, Welfare Services and the ecclesiastical leaders are coordinating the details of sorting and distributing supplies and repairs. In another room, others are preparing for the arrival and training of an estimated 4,000 volunteers this weekend. The number has been reduced by the approach of another hurricane, Ophelia, toward Florida. But leaders prefer to have a sustained turnout over several weeks that can be well-organized and effective.
Macon Georgia Region Welfare Specialist Ritchey Marbury was president of the Albany Georgia Stake in 1994 when Hurricane Hugo sent flood waters churning through south Georgia and stake members were recipients for service rendered by 6,000 LDS volunteers. Stake volunteers have brought hurricane relief somewhere in the South during several seasons; this year it was to Gulfport where they found plenty of trees that needed dismembering. "Instead of sitting in our chapels and talking about the gospel, they are out doing it. That is what puts it together," he said. With a two-day notice, current Albany Georgia Stake President Gregory Widmar rallied 215 men to travel nearly 400 miles to Gulfport.
More than headquarters have responded in Katrina's wake. Individuals from other areas have arrived at Church and other shelters with trucks filled with supplies and clothing. People not of Church membership have pitched in as well. Some who were helped after Florida hurricanes are taking part in the clean-up efforts. An artist from England, Martine Barnard, was in Washington on business and, hearing of the disaster, rented a van and filled it with toys and drove to Slidell. Here, she saw Church supplies and equipment and dropped off her toys for distribution to children.
The coming of Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29 was so devastating that it reduced willpower in many. Katrina tore down trees and homes and left an indelible imprint on those whose lives are woven around such trees and houses. But it also brought out courage and stamina.
In Waveland, Miss., a small coastal town east of New Orleans, the late John Ladner, a Latter-day Saint builder, constructed a home of reinforced concrete block to withstand hurricanes. The home was on family land; relatives lived nearby. His sons Brad and Vernon Jr. were in the home when Katrina hit. At first, it was like previous windstorms but this one took the copper sheathing from the roof. Forty-foot loblolly pines in the back yard whipped and snapped. Then Katrina became worse than all her predecessors.
On the beachfront a 30-foot surge of water swept downtown away. The water slowed at the raised rail tracks, but began flowing in homes farther up, including the Ladners and the Waveland meetinghouse. The Ladners had just finished bringing furniture from upstairs down and putting out buckets to catch water dripping through the roof when the surge arrived. As it rose, the Ladner brothers feared for their great-aunt and uncle who lived next door. Both are in wheelchairs.
The brothers went out the back door into the chest-high water, among the tall pines snapping and swaying, stumbling over fallen trees under water, and climbed the chain-link fence. They entered the home of James and Erma Pecoul through a window.
They were so charged with adrenaline that "the wheelchairs seemed really light," they said. They lifted Aunt Erma to a table top and Uncle James to a counter, or maybe it was the other way around. They returned to their home the same way they came but checked on the pair again. At the same time, other relatives, Jean and Dudley Garriga, lived below. They watched the Pecoul home and stayed on the phone. When a tree would break over the Pecoul home, they warned them it was coming. Five trees landed on that roof, which was the first one that volunteers worked on when they arrived from Tallahassee, Fla., on Sept. 3. The great-aunt and uncle were taken to the homes of other relatives.
Hurricane Katrina turned a land whose leaders, before the hurricane, were bickering over prayer before council meetings into a people who, after it arrived, pleaded to God for His help.
One whose faith was tempered by the tempest was Eddie Mixon of the Chalmette (La.) Ward, who was being reactivated after years of struggle. He and his wife, Karen, their children Chris Roberts, 19, and Lindsey Mixon, 6, lived with his mother, Wanda Mixon, in a small, white house across the street from an old, unused school building in Arabi, and near the levee in the St. Bernard Parish of greater New Orleans. His mother-in-law, Linda Roberts, a slight woman attached to her home, refused to leave when the storm approached, so the family stayed to face its onslaught. They were with other members in the Chalmette meetinghouse as Katrina raged. As the storm abated they were getting ready to leave when water rushed into the building. They climbed to the second story. As water continued to rise, Brother Mixon used a two-by-four to beat a hole through the roof, and they climbed out. One of the party, Julie Attaway, chose to remain inside.
Later a police officer assisted Brother Mixon to a boat whose owner had evidently drowned, and with it Brother Mixon got his family and supplies to the old school in Arabi, which was dry. In the process, he cut his arm in a broken window. Sister Mixon flagged a military truck and saw her husband taken away. There wasn't room for the family, who remained in the school fearing looters.
Brother Mixon was operated on and taken to the Baton Rouge Stake Center shelter, where he was beside himself with worry over his family. Still struggling in his process of growing spiritually, he fasted long and prayed often.
"Everything was coming together for us for the first time, and then Katrina comes," he said. He has a calling in the Young Men. Because of the medical situation and other considerations, a decision was made to go after his family in a helicopter. Fortunately, the family had been taken out earlier and his mother-in-law was already in a hospital. After some searching, his cousin found Sister Mixon and the children in Denton, Ark., and they were reunited. As of press time, the condition of the member who remained in the Chalmette Ward meetinghouse was unknown; the Army had been asked to look for her.
Waveland and Pensagoula, Miss., are areas where Katrina hit hardest, where they have fished 40 bodies from the bayou and beaches, where National Guard, FEMA, state and local agencies are headquartered, where the local police and fire department vehicles ruined by salt water surges stand useless amid need, where people of various faiths from the Midwest have pulled trailers of supplies, and where people are living in tents from day to day.
Here is where buildings are not merely roofless, but obliterated, shambled masses of metal and boats lie unmoved on the main street of Bay St. Louis, a nearby town, but in Waveland itself, a waterfront town, there is nothing left.
Foundations are washed clean of even rubble, with mounds of debris littering the road. It wasn't just dumped; it was stirred and twisted. Few, if any, structures remain standing on beaches with piers stripped of boards where the 30-foot surge rampaged like an apocalypse; scorned Katrina took all, left none.
There are no phones, no electricity, no plumbing, no gasoline, barely passable roads where trees have been sawed into stumps. However, the Church supplied Bishop Robert P. Garrett with a satellite phone. Emergency food and water supplies have been brought in by Church trucks.
Bishop Garrett, a Naval meteorologist, placed all the emphasis he could to get his people out of town for what he knew would be utter destruction. "I told them to get out! Go," he said. At a short meeting Sunday, Aug. 28 the day before Katrina hit land he re-emphasized the gravity of the situation and urgency; more left. "Some didn't have means to leave."
His home fared relatively well: a few punched holes in the roof, but it is dry and muck-free inside, different than most.
About two-thirds of the 630-member ward are less-active, and some they have never found from obscure addresses. "There are so many areas that are inaccessible," he said, explaining that he first was trying to determine the status of members before assaying the damage, and planning repairs. He estimated half had lost homes.
"Where do we go from here? When you see the devastation and people who have lost everything. I pray every night that we will be strong enough to rebuild. Rhetoric is one thing and the actual will is another thing. This whole ordeal saps the will out of them. There is no way to see beyond. If you were able to get into your home, and if there was water there, and six inches of muck on the floor, and it smells so bad, and it was so hot and sweltering yesterday was the hottest day of the year you try to save what you can, but feelings of hopelessness quickly overwhelm you."
Those feelings continue as families who lost everything are packing up what they could salvage and moving elsewhere. One after another have stopped by to say good-bye.
Massive centers of supplies have been trucked in by FEMA at the Wal-Mart parking lot. A sign in front of a sea souvenir shop reads, "God help us, and State Farm."
Often, a lone bicycle rider pedals past it all, carrying a bag.
The Waveland Ward meetinghouse is framed by telephone wires drooping and fallen. On the lawn are tents with members and neighbors. In the parking lot are a motor home, a semi-tractor, and equipment for front-end loaders that are parked here at night for the good security the lot offers. Overhead fly helicopters and along the side and nearby main street are the incessant flashing lights. Some are blue emergency accompanied by sirens, some yellow utility accompanied by the rumble of heavy engines.
Several families now call this home home, for what they own is now here. Truck driver Roy Moore was in Arkansas when Katrina hit. He drove straight to Waveland, arriving after his wife, Charlotte, had survived the storm. She and two other women and several children brought her 72-hour kit, some food, clothing and a handful of DVDs to entertain the children, and a mattress.
"I thought I was silly bringing a mattress," she said. "Two, three days tops, and we'd be back with power, like (Hurricane) Camille."
As Katrina raged, water flowed across everything. At one point she saw a minnow swim past the door. "We're going to be all right," she said. A little later she saw a six-inch fish swim past. "Maybe we're not," she observed.
Some neighbors joined them part way through the storm. They had seen the water reach their windows, so they opened the windows and splashed out. By the time the neighbor, John Chagnard, rescued his mother-in-law across the street, water had reached chest high. They were welcomed and safe at the solid meetinghouse, one of the few buildings in town that escaped damage. It was not all providence that saved the meetinghouse. It is well-built and has none of the 40-foot loblolly pine of which Southerners are so fond but which cause extensive damage when they break in a storm.
When the water began seeping into the meetinghouse, Sister Moore saw a duck by the Primary room, and "its little feet were (paddling) like it was trying to get in." They could hear the banging of copper sheathing from the house next door.
She marked the windows to track the progress of the water, and soon it began to subside. When the storm was over, the weather was nice and they began the process of continuing. After the storm, she returned to her apartment and another member, Maurice Steber, who volunteers with the fire department kicked in the door to the now-ruined building and from under the mud they extracted her year's supply of food.
Since then, they've been supplied with ice, Meals Ready to Eat, and a generator.
Brother Steber said he helped with body recovery. He described the effects of the 30-foot surge "that reduced everything to toothpicks" and said the inland water was contaminated with raw sewage.
An evening at the meetinghouse was an experience of survival, where even the most simple of human needs is a project. We dined on military-supplied MREs, which defy opening but with a sharp instrument. This large-book-size packet contains a heating packet into which water is poured and it heats the main course, a solidly filling substance defined as such things as Chicken Tetrazzini or, my choice, an enchilada. It also has within its multiplicity of packets a cookie, crackers and cheese, refried beans, punch powder, candy, and a wonderful towelette. A four-wick candle in a can illuminated the banquet around which beneath the now-visible stars conversations became intimate as people wondered of their uncertain future. Some joked and avoided the subject. Others met it head-on. Brother Moore's trucking company put him back on the road Saturday. In the tractor is a television that is helping track the weather, which portends three more possible storms.
"Shussh," said Sister Moore. "We won't talk about it." But they track the storms with magnets on a map and check the television frequently.
The evening is soon called for darkness. Batteries are scarce and lights are turned on sparingly. With the electricity out, it is darker than usual and the stars are more luminous. Bathrooms are in semi-order and a generator lighted the ladies room. Two of the Steber children have been bathed from a picnic cooler and are wearing men's T-shirts. They hug their friends good night and retire to a pup tent. Other tents stand on the lawn. One is provided to me, along with a cot I brought from the bishops' storehouse in Slidell, La., which rivals a sheet of plywood for softness.
One exhausted radio announcer on Aug. 31 summed it all up with one word:
"Katrina," he said. "Katrina."
Editor's note: Associate Church News Editor John Hart has been in the disaster area since Aug. 30.
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Members of the Church can help victims of Hurricane Katrina by: