Having grown up in Florida, I’ve always understood hurricanes to be an inconvenience but not particularly threatening to people living 10 miles or more inland. My perception drastically changed, however, on the morning of 24 August 1992, when Hurricane Andrew cut a pathway of destruction through the South Miami Florida Stake (now the Homestead Florida Stake). The most costly natural disaster in United States history taught me—and thousands of other Saints throughout the Church’s North America Southeast Area—many lessons about inspired preparedness and charitable service.
When we heard that a tropical storm named Andrew was expected to hit, my family and I made preparations. I spoke on the telephone with our Regional Representative about dispatching the Church’s spearhead unit, a tractor trailer full of emergency supplies for use during disasters. That night we went to bed without knowing what to expect.
At about 3:30 A.M. Monday, the power went off—and it would stay off for the next two weeks. Within a half hour, intense winds started shaking the house. I gathered my wife, Laurie, and our five children into the living room, but hearing the doors and windows violently rattling, I realized that glass would probably start to shatter soon, so we moved into the more sheltered master bedroom. There we offered the first of many individual and family prayers that we might be delivered.
Soon the storm entered a stage I can describe only as intensified fury. The house felt like a frail fort under siege. We could feel a blow each time a piece of a neighbor’s roof smashed into our home, and we could tell each time the hurricane ripped off a piece of our own roof. As doors and windows broke open, wind and water blew through our home in gusts exceeding 160 miles per hour. With the help of my oldest daughter and my wife, I tried to keep the bedroom doors shut, but sometimes we were thrown across the room. When our seven-year-old daughter sobbed, “Daddy, I’m scared!” I felt powerless to comfort her because, while frantically trying to bar the doors, I knew that if this fury kept up much longer, without divine intervention our house would be totally destroyed and we would perish.
Reflecting on our Hurricane Andrew experience, I remember that my fear for the welfare of my family was even greater than my personal terror. As I watched the ceiling shake and saw pieces of plaster fall onto my wife and children, I rehearsed in my mind where our first-aid kit was stored, what the status of our food storage was, and where we could go if the ceiling collapsed—but I did not feel very comforted. If a heavy beam fell onto one of my children, for example, how could I help? We were alone against one of nature’s most powerful forces.
Somehow we held on. After another half hour crawled by, the hurricane settled down enough that I could run down the hall and shut the front doors. Taking stock of the extensive damage, I realized that our master bedroom was the only dry room left in the house. Nearly all our personal possessions were destroyed.
By 6:00 A.M. the storm decreased to gale intensity, still thunderingly loud but lacking hurricane ferocity. We actually slept a little. When we ventured outside into the wind and rain later that morning, the entire neighborhood looked as though it had been bombed. Every roof was either totally destroyed or badly damaged, and debris was strewn everywhere. My wife and I began walking from house to house to see if anyone needed first aid, but to our amazement we encountered no deaths or even injuries in our neighborhood. We later learned, however, that the hurricane had killed 15 people, destroyed about 85,000 houses, left more than a quarter of a million people homeless, and wiped out 60,000 jobs. After nearly flattening 160 square miles of suburban Miami—an area larger in size than the state of Rhode Island—the hurricane moved on to Louisiana, where damage was not as serious. The storm had also done some damage in the Bahamas before reaching Florida.
With power and telephone lines not functioning and the roads blocked by debris and fallen trees, we felt very alone that day in a wasteland of destruction.
We noticed that many of our neighbors were in tears as they looked upon the destruction of their homes. When we told them help would soon be on its way, they despairingly asked us who would come. “Our fellow Latter-day Saints will be here soon,” we said.
Amazingly, our phone lines were restored that afternoon. We called our parents to report our safety, and then as stake president I joined in making arrangements over the telephone to begin the Church’s relief effort the next day. As I left the house early Tuesday morning, our youngest daughter held me tightly and sobbed, “Please don’t go, Daddy—I’m scared the storm will come back.” I couldn’t blame her for feeling that way.
At the Kendall Ward meetinghouse, stake leaders met with Church regional welfare directors who had accompanied the spearhead unit. In accordance with our disaster plan, when bishops called we directed them to organize ward leaders to find all Church members, determine their needs, and report any deaths or injuries. Over the next two days, we learned that some 1,000 members were temporarily homeless and that 224 member homes were damaged, 46 beyond repair. To our relief, no Latter-day Saints were seriously hurt.
The Red Cross and the military ultimately accomplished most of the relief effort, but the Latter-day Saints were the only group effectively organized during the crucial first week after the disaster. Almost immediately, several meetinghouses in the stake—some of which had sustained damage—were made into temporary bishops’ storehouses, with classrooms used as places to organize food, fuel, tents, medical supplies, and other emergency equipment and goods. As people entered meetinghouses to seek assistance, they were directed to a bishop who spoke English, Portuguese, or Spanish, as needed. Families who didn’t have food at home were issued enough for four days, and other supplies were handed out as required. This system eventually distributed more than 10 trailer loads of supplies to hurricane victims of all faiths, with goods donated by the Red Cross, two retail stores, the Church, and many individual Saints and members of other faiths.
The day after the disaster, Latter-day Saint volunteers began to pour into the area, first by the hundreds and later by the thousands. On the first day, the Latter-day Saint command center sent out 140 workers, and during the first weekend we received a flood of 1,800 volunteers. On the subsequent Labor Day weekend, some 5,100 volunteers canceled their holiday plans to respond to a call for assistance issued by the Area Presidency. They came not only from neighboring stakes but from as far away as North and South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas.
At first we struggled to efficiently match members’ needs with available work crews. After finishing a cleanup or repair job, volunteers had to waste precious time locating a working telephone so they could call for their next assignment, and they also faced difficulty finding their way around the area because nearly all street signs were destroyed. To eliminate downtime, we instructed volunteers to simply go to work on neighboring homes after local members’ needs were met. In this way the relief effort was able to help people of all faiths almost from the start, yet volunteers still met immediate Latter-day Saint needs within three or four days. Besides assisting Church members, Latter-day Saint volunteers installed temporary roofs on more than 3,000 homes and also on a Jewish synagogue and three Christian chapels.
Through this experience, we learned not only the wisdom of emergency preparedness but also the truth of what Sister Virginia H. Pearce, first counselor in the Young Women general presidency, said after rehearsing another story of Latter-day Saint disaster assistance: “Multiply this story by every natural and civil crisis. Bishops and quorum leaders accounting for families after hurricanes, members carrying food and blankets—it makes no difference where you live or what kind of chaos might occur, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will remain organized, and order will prevail. The wards and stakes of Zion will be a ‘refuge from the storm’ (D&C 115:6)” (Ensign, Nov. 1993, 80; emphasis in original).
Terrence Barry, president of a neighboring stake, made up yellow T-shirts with the words “Mormon Helping Hands” on front and “LDS Relief Workers” on back for volunteers to wear. The sight of yellow T-shirts swarming over rooftops, roads, and yards became welcome throughout the area. Dignitaries touring the disaster zone in helicopters noticed them. The yellow T-shirts were more than just a novel idea: they helped identify and protect Latter-day Saint volunteers in a chaotic situation in which people were on guard against looters and profiteers.
As I recall the outpouring of help southern Floridians received from so many anxious, smiling Saints as well as from our Heavenly Father, tears stream down my face. Warm, amazing anecdotes of Christlike assistance and inspired efforts are numberless, but here are a few highlights:
• After 46 missionaries from the Florida Fort Lauderdale Mission weathered the hurricane in the cultural hall of the Kendall Ward meetinghouse—which, incidentally, had been originally dedicated as “a refuge from the storms”—they went to work. Some were assigned as greeters, one was put in charge of meals, one was responsible for sanitation, another was an executive assistant, two were dispatchers, one was a quartermaster, and the rest went out with work crews. On Thursday evening a frantic Red Cross representative called me because the agency had two truckloads of food, water, and supplies but no way to distribute them. To the amazement of Red Cross representatives, the missionaries had the goods unloaded, sorted, and stored within an hour, at one point spontaneously singing “Called to Serve” (Hymns, no. 249) as they labored.
• When one sister noticed workers fixing her neighbor’s roof, she inquired and learned that the neighbor was paying $400 an hour for the temporary repairs. The sister quickly arranged for Latter-day Saint volunteers to do the work at no cost for labor or materials, and the price-gouging workers were dismissed. Another sister directed Latter-day Saint workers to 20 homes without roofs in her neighborhood, and the next day she saw a battered sign in front of one of the homes that read simply “Bless you.”
• One of the first Latter-day Saint volunteers to arrive was stopped by armed National Guard soldiers, who were not letting anyone into the disaster zone without identification showing an address within the affected area. When the brother told the guardsman he was headed to the Latter-day Saint command center, the guardsman asked him to prove he was a Latter-day Saint. The brother pulled out a temple recommend and was waved on. He had noticed many cars and trucks along the roadside full of volunteers from other relief agencies, so he asked why they were not allowed to proceed. He was told: “They are not organized yet. They can’t tell us where they are going or what they are supposed to do. As soon as their agencies establish a plan and a command center, we’ll let them through.”
• Despite the foregoing experience, on Thursday a rumor reached us that a work crew from Jacksonville, Florida, had been turned away from the disaster area. With thousands of volunteers expected the coming weekend, we tried frantically to find out who was in charge so we could arrange for clearance, but because communication facilities were so poor we were unable to penetrate the chain of command. Then we remembered Bishop Tony Burns of the hard-hit Cutler Ridge Ward. Bishop Burns is president and CEO of a company that operates the largest fleet of privately owned vehicles in the world. Fifteen minutes after we contacted him, Bishop Burns reported that he had telephoned United States president George Bush’s secretary of transportation, who sent out word from the White House that all Latter-day Saint volunteers were to be allowed into the disaster area.
• For two weeks one woman and her family huddled in the rubble of their home trying to hold on to what little they had. Finally a group of eight yellow-shirted Latter-day Saint volunteers found them. The family had no electricity, their phones were dead, they were short on food, their home was suffering more rain damage daily, and they felt abandoned, alone, and frightened. “We don’t have any money,” the woman sadly told the volunteers when they knocked; like many other hurricane victims, she had probably already been contacted by people selling bags of ice for $10 or power generators worth $400 for $1,000. She seemed shocked when the Latter-day Saints helped her anyway.
• While the Church relief effort suffered no shortage of volunteers, one problem we faced was finding enough building materials to keep our workers busy making needed repairs. Local suppliers as well as outlets as far north as Tallahassee and Jacksonville had sold out of supplies within hours, so we asked Elder Alexander B. Morrison of the Seventy, President of the North America Southeast Area at the time, for assistance. Soon truckloads of plywood, nails, tar, rolls of plastic, roofing cement, and other supplies were on their way. Often new building materials arrived just as volunteers exhausted essential supplies.
• Besides priesthood brethren installing temporary roofs, cleaning up debris, and boarding up smashed windows and Relief Society sisters pulling up soaked carpets, mopping and cleaning home interiors, and preparing warm meals, many volunteers arranged to telephone relatives for hurricane victims who could not gain access to phones. Other members were able to loan cellular phones to victims. One tearful young mother was overheard saying: “We’re okay, Dad—really, we’re fine. The Mormons are here helping us.”
• My own family’s case illustrates the service that was typical throughout the Latter-day Saint relief effort. Missionaries and other volunteers pushed up and nailed into place a collapsed wall of our home and installed a temporary roof. With no electricity or water, we were all hot and sweaty and our laundry was piling up. Brother and Sister Welsh from Wellington, Florida, came and picked up our dirty clothes and children and returned them the next day washed and refreshed. Our children felt very blessed to escape the gloom of the destruction area and enjoy the luxuries of cold drinks, air conditioning, hot meals, warm showers, and video entertainment. One volunteer sister gave our youngest daughter a new rag doll, and she carried it around constantly for two weeks because it was her only toy.
• President Robert Keith Berger of the Cocoa Florida Stake, who owns and manages a large construction company, arrived two weekends in a row along with hundreds of skilled employees. By guiding and speeding up many of the repairs, these knowledgeable volunteers galvanized the Latter-day Saint rescue effort. One employee was so impressed with the organization and helpfulness of the Latter-day Saints that he began receiving the missionary discussions and was baptized a few weeks after the hurricane.
• Whenever Latter-day Saint volunteers telephoned to inform us they were on their way, we told them of the difficulties they would face. Absolutely no hotel or motel rooms were available because most had been damaged by the hurricane. No air conditioning or extra water would be available in the sweltering summer heat. No fast-food restaurants or food stores were open within the disaster area. We told volunteers that they needed to be totally self-sufficient by providing their own food and water, camping and cooking gear, and means of washing their bodies and clothes. Because the vast majority had participated in Scouting, they were able to take care of themselves in one of three volunteer tent cities and not divert supplies or facilities from hurricane victims.
• A few weeks after the hurricane, another flood hit us—a flood of blankets, bug repellent, soap, other supplies, and toys and gifts for our children. Thousands of unsolicited shipments arrived. One Primary sent handmade cards along with candy and treats for Primary children affected by the disaster. A stake sent 450 individually wrapped Christmas gifts with labels such as “To a 6–9-year-old girl,” “To a teenage boy—with love!” and “To a woman, size 9.” Much more arrived than the Saints could use, so we distributed extra gifts and supplies to others in need. Missionaries handed out blankets and toys, and members took hundreds of items to residents of heavily damaged migrant farm camps. For many, the Latter-day Saints gifts were the only gifts they received that Christmas.
• In November 1993, more than a year after the hurricane, a ward Relief Society sent us dozens of Christmas tree decorations, which were distributed to members of the Cutler Ridge Ward. Later gestures such as this were very welcome because, although some might expect that our lives returned to normal within a few months after the hurricane, it took most members more than two years to get their homes back in order.
How can we—or anyone who is the recipient of truly needed service—ever thank the thousands of Latter-day Saints who gave us anonymous service? I express gratitude to all who came and worked, to all who sent gifts and supplies, and to all who contributed fast-offering funds. You helped us when we needed you most, just as we knew you would. As the Savior said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt. 25:40).