During the Fall of 2005, I got to spend a lot of time in thearea. In the months following Hurricane Katrina, the church did a lot of work there through the bishop’s storehouse and the Mormon Helping Hands. I learned some things about how the church operates during a catastrophic disaster, and this post is an attempt to describe some of those experiences.
The storm came out of the Gulf of Mexico and struck the the coast ofand Missippi on August 29th, causing levee failure and subsequent flooding in the city of and the surrounding parishes, damage from the storm surge all the way to , and severe wind damage well inland. I arrived in the area on September 9th. was still under water, and the services in the surrounding suburbs were barely functional – electrical service was hit and miss, no grocery stores were open because the employees had evacuated, gas stations couldn’t pump gas, traffic lights were out, and so on. Two days after I arrived, McDonald’s opened the drive-through lane. You could get anything you wanted, as long as it was chicken nuggets and warm sprite. They didn’t have ice, and they didn’t have fries or hamburgers.
I found that the church had already organized work crews from wards and stakes located hundreds of miles away. Stakes in places as far away as, , and Dallas were requested to send able-bodied adults to help with the cleanup work. On Friday afternoons after work, several hundred people would assemble at their local stake centers, bringing with them their own food, sleeping bags, and tools. They would drive all night and arrive in the disaster area early Saturday morning, where they would report in to the ward house. The cultural hall of the building served as the functional equivalent of NASA’s Houston Control. There was always a long table set up with work orders organized by time period. The rolling chalkboard had a detailed local map hanging on it, with colored pins showing job locations. Around the perimeter of the gym, cases of bottled water and granola bars were stacked against the walls, as well as first aid kits and boxes of gloves.
The groups were broken down into manageable crews, 10-15 people each, with a designated leader and assistant. The leaders went into a short meeting where work assignments were distributed and instructions were given. By 7:30 a.m., the crew was on the road to a job. The work was difficult and dirty. We helped people move all their soggy belongings – beds, sofas, pianos, cabinets – out to the street for pickup. We helped remove wet, moldy drywall, sometimes from the entire house, so that the 2X4s, plumbing pipes, and electrical wire were the only things left. We removed trees from rooftops and made temporary repairs in order to keep the weather out of the house. We cut down trees that were leaning and hazardous, and cut the trees in pieces and took the pieces to the pile at the curb. The crews worked like this all day Saturday until it was too dark to see. They then went back to the church and set up tents on the lawn. Early Sunday morning, each group held its own short (15 minute) sacrament meeting, and then started on the work assignments for the day. I learned that a camp cooler on the grass can serve as a sacrament table, and that a young man wearing his high school wrestling t-shirt is appropriately dressed to officiate in that ordinance. I also learned that the sound of 10 chainsaws biting into logs at 8 o’clock on Sunday morning can sound as beautiful as any choir. In mid-afternooon, the crews would finish up and begin the long drive home, so they could get to their jobs on Monday morning.
That experience taught me how the gospel can bring hope into the world. Some of the people we served had become discouraged and given up. Most of us would, too, if we had lost our homes and had been unable to change clothes or shower for two weeks. They always thanked us and hugged us, often repeatedly. They were incredulous that strangers would seek them out and work that hard for them. One of the most beautiful faces I have seen in my life was dirty and tear-stained, and belonged to an older woman who lived alone, whose roof was damaged by a falling tree. She was living with buckets all over the house to catch the rain. Our people removed the tree, patched the roof, helped her file an insurance claim, and got her some groceries from the storehouse. She couldn’t stop crying.
Members often express the desire for more local autonomy, and the strong, centralized heirarchy is often seen as a burden. But I have realized that the church was able to respond to Katrina in the way it did precisely because of its organizational structure. I am not aware of any other organization that was able to do what the church did. It was able to insert 4,000 people per week directly into the blast zone of the storm, deploy them intelligently, offer only minimal logistical support, and do all this at very little cost to itself, and repeat this process week after week for several months. Wallace Stegner said that Mormons are better at this sort of project than anyone else. I don’t know if that is true, but I know we are pretty good at it. We have a remarkable capacity for self-organization. I have never been around people who understand the principle of “captains of hundreds, captains of fifties, and captains of tens” as well as my fellow latter-day saints.
On the night of October 1, 2005, Gordon B. Hinckley said this in general priesthood meeting:
“Now, as all of us are aware, the Gulf States area of the United States has recently suffered terribly from raging winds and waters. Many have lost all they had. The damage has been astronomical. Literally millions have suffered. Fear and worry have gripped the hearts of many. Lives have been lost.
With all of this, there has been a great outpouring of help. Hearts have been softened. Homes have been opened. Critics love to talk about the failures of Christianity. Any such should take a look at what the churches have done in these circumstances. Those of many denominations have accomplished wonders. And far from the least among these has been our own Church. Great numbers of our men have traveled considerable distances, bringing with them tools and tents and radiant hope.”
I listened to those words while sitting in a stake center in Louisiana, surrounded by a few hundred strangers still wearing their work clothes. Most of them were sound asleep, snoring like water buffaloes, because they had worked so hard all day, and this was the first chance they had to sit down. I love the church because it can take very ordinary people and help them to work miracles.
I’d like to thank the PTB at BCC for allowing me the opportunity to post here. I’ve enjoyed the interaction and insights from those who have commented. Thanks to all of you as well.