Church News and Events

“Helping Hands” Inspire Hope, Gratitude in Storm Victims

  By Whitney Evans, Church News staff writer

  • 16 November 2012

Missionaries from the New York New York South Mission clean up debris in Rockaway, New York, on November 10, 2012.

Volunteers in yellow shirts and vests scurried around Rockaway, New York, toting shovels and hammers. Neighborhood residents lined up at the local school-turned-emergency-relief-center to get clothing, blankets, and food. A despondent elderly couple looked on. They had been staying in Brooklyn, and when they returned, their home had been destroyed.  

“Thank goodness we were there to help them,” said President David L. Duffy of the Queens New York Stake.

More than 120 people died as a result of the storm, which caused $50 billion in property damage and economic loss and has been classified as one of the most catastrophic storms to hit the northeastern United States, according to Reuters news outlet. Power has been restored to much of the affected area, with 6,000 homes and businesses without power as of Wednesday, November 14, according to the Wall Street Journal, down from 166,499 reported Sunday by the Department of Energy. This does not include the 90,000 customers in the New York region with homes or buildings too damaged to receive power, the Wall Street Journal reported, because the department of energy counts power meters, not the number of people without power. Gas rationing in New Jersey ended, with five gas terminals remaining closed and 52 open as of November 14; rationing remained in place in New York.

Rockaway—an inlet flanked by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and Jamaica Bay on the other—was one of the areas Superstorm Sandy hit hardest. Hundreds of houses in this area were flooded.

President Duffy joined members of the stake and community in tearing down sheetrock and cleaning up basements, garages, and entry-level floors.

“We are prepared to be helpers instead of helpees,” President Duffy said.

He compared the storm to a person with the flu whose body cleans itself out, leaving the person exhausted.

“It’s almost as if the earth did that,” he said.

President Duffy is choosing to see the disaster as a dawning of a new day, in which those who experienced loss choose what to add back into their lives. He has been impressed with those who forgot differences and instead chose to bond with and help others.

“New York, in a temporal way, is similar to the Church,” President Duffy said, explaining that people of all different backgrounds unite through the gospel similar to how people unite through building their niches and lives in New York.   

The people in these areas are “remarkably resilient,” said Elder Jeffrey E. Olsen, who is over most of New Jersey, the New York metro area south of Albany, and the Connecticut suburbs of New York. Many who were initially discouraged received emotional and spiritual encouragement from those who came to help clean up.

“The main gift we give them is hope,” Elder Olsen said.

Leesa Allison, public relations associate at Thatcher and Co. in New York, said her stake in Manhattan had a sacrament meeting at 8 a.m. and then bused to Rockaway. When they arrived, the missionaries handed out shovels and vests and sent the groups of 10 or so to those who had requested help.

“They’re good people, and I’m just so grateful that the Church has a program so we can go out and help effectively,” she said. Because Manhattan did not receive much damage from the storm, those in her group were excited to have a chance to help those who were not as fortunate.  

“It was definitely a day that I’ll remember forever,” Sister Allison said, adding that because she is from Utah, she had never before seen the damage that comes from natural disasters up close. “It was a powerful experience to actually see the devastation that happened.”

President Bruce Jones from the Morristown New Jersey Stake said they will be concentrating their efforts on the south Jersey Shore towns. This area only recently opened for cleanup and was previously inaccessible because the water had not yet receded. He anticipates those in the area will be spending the next two to three months “mucking out” basements and houses.

A short video details the relief provided by those working through Mormon Helping Hands. The Church is coordinating volunteer efforts but welcomes all who want to help, whether they’re Latter-day Saints or not.

“Well, I can’t tell you how grateful we are to everyone here today that came and helped us,” one woman said in the video, her voice choked with emotion. “We lost everything, but with people like you we know everything’s going to be all right. We have faith in God, and we’re just so grateful.”