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Disaster impacts millions preparedness is focus

Photo by HowardCollett/LDS PhilanthropiesMembers of the Copperfield Ward Katy Texas Stake removed downed trees after storm.
Photo by HowardCollett/LDSPhilanthropiesYoung women in the Houston Texas South Stake are some of the thousands of Latter-day Saint volunteers in the hurricanes wake.
Photo by Howard Collett/LDSPhilanthropiesYellow Mormon Helping Hands T-shirts identify Latter-day Saint volunteers clearing trees and debris left by the disaster Sept. 13.
Photo by Howard Collett/LDSPhilanthropiesWithin the boundaries of the Katy Texas Stake downed power lines are symbols of the wrath of Hurricane Ike. The storm hit the area Sept. 13 knocking out power to an estimated 2.6 million people.
The bright sunshine on Monday Sept. 15 belied the events of less than 48 hours before. Ike was only a category 2 hurricane. There were not vast numbers of casualties. But destruction on Galveston Island and in other coastal cities and low-lying areas was catastrophic. Hundreds of families lost everything.
Ike was big — more than 500 miles in diameter. It pushed massive amounts of water in front of it resulting in storm surges in excess of 20 feet above normal.
But there is also the story of power and preparedness — a story that is affecting millions of people.
People were warned for days to get three days worth of food water and ice. They were warned to evacuate. They were warned to fill their gas tanks and then to stay off the roads. But less than 24 hours after Ikes landfall tens of thousands of people were hungry thirsty angry and running their cars out of gas searching for food and water.
Ike destroyed many buildings and houses and caused widespread damage throughout the area. Because the storms diameter was so big tropical and hurricane force winds lasted several more hours than usual giving the storm more time to relentlessly bear down on trees roofs fences and power lines.
The trees took out power for nearly 4 million people. Without power wells cant pump water stores cant sell food and gas stations cant pump gas. Within 48 hours after the storm hotels and motels — full of evacuees — were forced to close. Cell phones — the mainstay of storm communication — began to fail as cell tower back-up systems could not be maintained.
Volunteers prepared for weeks
At the Houston Bishops Storehouse volunteers had been preparing for Ike for weeks. It was stocked with disaster preparedness items — food water tents tarps tools chain saws cots and sleeping bags. As Ike drew nearer stake presidents from both storm-threatened and surrounding stakes conferenced daily on cell phones and satellite telephones to review potential needs and available resources.
Emergency response at any level does not occur without challenges. Communication after the storm has been a real problem for us said John Larsen a command center volunteer and veteran of three hurricanes. In the case of Hurricane Rita there were so many people using cell phones the lines were completely clogged. But I think were getting better and better. Im just really impressed with the ability of the Church to anticipate in advance and coach the local people who have not been through one before.
Bennie Lilly area welfare manager for the Southwest Area said When were looking ahead to hurricane season we have the opportunity to preposition items. So we prepare hygiene kits cleaning kits and food boxes at various locations around the country and ship them to locations in proximity of the expected disaster. Then when the disaster strikes we can quickly get those items into the hands of members of the Church as well as community and state agencies.
Temporal help precedes spiritual blessings
Following a disaster the most pressing needs are the temporal needs or basic necessities of life — food water shelter. In the case of a hurricane said Brother Lilly were tarping roofs so water cant come in; were delivering food and water; were delivering the capability to clean up around their homes. Once those temporal needs are met then members can begin to do things that are of a more spiritual nature like looking after their neighbors and finding out how they can be helpful to them. Sometimes it leads them to seeking their Heavenly Father in ways they havent done before.
Randy Ellis cannery manager and disaster volunteer said disasters give members the opportunity to serve. We get involved because thats who we are. The Church has taught preparedness ever since it was started. We help those in need by trying to follow the example of the Savior. It feels good to go to your neighbor and say Can I help you? We have the supplies and can take care of your problems. It amazes a lot of people and it amazes some of the government agencies to discover that we are so prepared. We dont do what we do to get people into the Church. We do it just to help people.
Members first responders take priority
In the early dawn of Saturday Sept. 13 members in more than 100 Houston area wards awoke and began to realize the hurricanes toll. Some had lost portions of roofs. Some were flooded by rising waters. In addition to the storm surge more than five inches of rain in some areas pushed bayous over their banks. Many were without running water and most were without electrical power.
Wards that had a well-organized block captain or emergency response program fared better than those without. Needs of members and their neighbors were immediately assessed. Work teams were organized to provide relief. The priority of Church emergency response was to help members first to help families of first responders (police fire EMS) next and then neighbors in general.
Emergency response in stakes of the Church works much like fast offerings. Wards try to meet their own needs and then turn to their stake if they are overwhelmed. Other wards in the stake help if possible and if they are overtasked then the stake requests help from the emergency response coordinator at the bishops storehouse.
The day before the hurricane hit Johnny Fjord and Jared Rossi picked up chain saws generators 200 tarps hammers and cleaning kits to take back to their stake. We wont go to Church Sunday said Brother Rossi who serves as elders quorum president but well go out and help people in need.
On Sunday the day after the storm hit they and other stake members went into Houstons inner-city east side to cut trees and put tarps on damaged roofs.
We dont get too many opportunities to serve like this said Brother Fjord who is a counselor in the stake Young Men presidency. Its a great opportunity for our youth to learn what service is all about.
On Sunday Sept. 14 Bishop Ron Barrow coordinated the efforts of four response teams from the Copperfield Ward Katy Texas Stake. They werent able to get the famous yellow shirts but that didnt slow down their community spirit. Anytime I ask someone to help they always pitch in — theyre always there said Bishop Barrow. It makes me feel good. What we do is very worthwhile and very humbling. Their love for the Lord and desire to help their fellow men is tremendous.
On Monday Sept. 15 Craig Cheney led a group of 16 missionaries and three sisters around the Sugar Land 1st 2nd and 3rd wards Houston Texas South Stake to cut fallen trees. Brother Cheney emergency preparedness coordinator for the Houston South Stake said Our preparedness that resulted from hurricanes Katrina and Rita helped us to quickly get out and help others.
Brother Cheney and his group wore the yellow helping hands T-shirts making them highly visible when they went to work. The shirts became so popular that people would say Theres the yellow shirt people. As the missionaries worked people would drive by ask who they were and why they were doing what they were doing. They were surprised to discover the missionaries were on a voluntary two-year mission at their own expense and that they would volunteer their time to help complete strangers.
People were so grateful said Brother Cheney particularly those who were single mothers and others who said they were at the end of their emotional rope.
Following the early response from dozens of wards each stake is sending out several two-person assessment teams to canvass areas. Their assessments are forwarded to stake presidents who discuss them each night with coordinators at the Bishops Storehouse. Resources from able stakes are matched with resources from needy stakes and assignments are made for the following weekend. Then ward response teams will travel to more severely affected areas and help with the ongoing recovery effort. More than a thousand volunteer Church members will help with the cleanup effort. — Howard Collett is a senior writer/producer for the communications team of LDS Philanthropies in Provo Utah.

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