Latter-day Saints Mobilize 4000 Volunteers in Chainsaw Brigade’s First Wave

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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints brings relief to stricken Katrina areas in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

“We have not had such help since we were liberated by the Americans after World War II.” So concluded a retired Hungarian couple finally able to enjoy a respite from the overwhelming task of digging out from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. They had been trying for some time to chop up the seven uprooted trees that littered their yard, using a Boy Scout hatchet, when volunteers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, moving through the area with ladders and chainsaws, stopped and offered help. Within a couple of hours, the yard was cleared of debris.

In a weekend that saw a massive mobilization of Latter-day Saint volunteers from throughout the Southeast, the Georgia crew of five was part of a force of 4000 who took the buzz of chainsaws to hurricane-stricken areas throughout Louisiana and Mississippi. Setting aside their weekday routines as bankers, accountants, contractors, attorneys, managers, dentists, retirees, students and salesmen, they came in carpools and buses and brought tents, sleeping bags, food, water, clothing, chainsaws, ladders and even backhoes in tow.

From their homes in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina and Texas, the chainsaw warriors drove late into the night on Friday. By Saturday morning tent cities surrounded Latter-day Saint chapels in Collins, Columbia, Covington, Gulfport, Hattiesburg, LaPlace, Laurel, Meridian, Pascagoula, Picayune, Slidell and Waveland.

In the days immediately preceding the mobilization, Church leaders from the volunteers’ home congregations divided them into crews and gave them instruction, while those at the points of destination identified community residents in greatest need and drafted work orders. That preparation allowed the workers to get an early start on Saturday morning. They worked through the daylight hours on Saturday and to midday on Sunday, cutting and clearing debris from fallen trees and covering damaged roofs with tarps to prevent water damage as residents await settlements and repairs.

By the time the volunteers headed home late Sunday, they had cleared thousands of yards. As of Monday evening, a tally of the Church’s combined volunteer efforts in hurricane-stricken areas since the storm’s departure included 9204 man days and 4832 work orders, which provided assistance to 1606 members of the Church and to 3226 of other faiths.

“I don’t think that we’ve ever had that kind of effort in a sustained way,” said Elder D. Todd Christofferson (a member of the Presidency of the Seventy, one of the bodies that provides leadership to the worldwide church from its headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah) of the ongoing relief effort that began as soon as the receding storm allowed trucks loaded with relief supplies to enter the stricken areas. “And it’s not the end,” he promised.

The 4000 Church members who hit the road last weekend are but the first installment. Over the next two weekends, Latter-day Saint congregations in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina and Texas have committed an additional 4000 weekend workers to the ongoing cleanup and relief effort, which will extend to some areas hardest hit by Katrina that are only gradually becoming accessible to volunteer work crews. Another 1800 will follow over three weekends in October.

Behind the numbers lie the individuals. Tales of struggle and survival emerged as the visitors and local residents worked side by side in the cleanup effort:

•    Chelsey (age 7 and an energetic helper with the debris removal) and James Barron (10) of Hattiesburg, Mississippi spoke animatedly of their experience in the hurricane, with its loud wind, “limbs flying around,” the crash of the wall that surrounded their property that “sounded like dynamite,” and the “scary” time when a tree – one of several that was to litter their property – fell onto their home.

•    A Hattiesburg mother, whose battle with multiple sclerosis makes her particularly susceptible to the loss of power in the oppressive late-summer heat, has chosen to stay with her family and help with the cleanup, which seemed an insurmountable task after the magnitude of the task led to the demise of both of the family’s chainsaws.

•    An observer of a crew’s labors in Petal, Mississippi, asked if they would be able to clear the debris from the yard of that town’s police chief, who had been too busy helping others in the storm’s aftermath to clean up his own property; that became their next stop.

•    A grandmother raising her three grandchildren in a beautifully kept mobile home outside of Toomsuba, Mississippi found her life disrupted when a falling tree tore a floor-to-roof gash in its back wall, rendering it uninhabitable for the children – until the “Mormon Helping Hands” crew, working well past sunset, provided the necessary stopgap repair that allowed the children to return.

At the same time as they were taking apart trees, the chain saws wielded by the

“When I hear these stories, I am humbled by the tremendous service that is being rendered between people of all faiths,” said Elder John S. Anderson, director of the Church’s Emergency Operations Center in Slidell which coordinates the relief effort throughout the Southeast.“We are all children of God, and that’s what matters.”

As volunteer workers and those they were assisting bade farewell, a common realization emerged that all parties involved were beneficiaries. A crew leaving the home of an elderly couple in Meridian, Mississippi, after removing the debris from several large trees that had fallen in their yard, reported hearing their last tearful “thank-yous” as they pulled away.

“Before last weekend, most of us had experienced the satisfaction of contributing money to relief agencies,” said B. Jeffrey Strebar, bishop of the Whitewater congregation near Atlanta, Georgia. “But the pure joy of looking into the tear-filled eyes of those whose lives have been so overwhelmingly altered was an experience that will never be forgotten.”

For telephone interview with Director of the Central Command Center, Elder John S. Anderson, call 352-258-4863.

Pictures of local areas:

National stories and photos go to:,15505,3881-1---2-916,00.html


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Karla Brandau
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