News Story

Central Command — A Hub of Organization and Activity Providing Crucial Gulf Coast Relief

“I don’t need a rooster anymore,” said a Louisiana resident, speaking above the buzz of saws slicing into uprooted trees that littered her yard in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “I have the Mormon chainsaws to wake me up.”

The debris-removal crew manning the chainsaws was part of a force of thousands of volunteers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that converged on the Gulf Coast for the second weekend since the hurricane hit. Coordinating their efforts is the Central Command Hurricane Relief Center in Slidell, Louisiana. The Church established the command center on August 31 with Elder John S. Anderson from Gainesville, Florida, as director. The center is expected to operate through December or until residents’ needs are met. A second command center has already been established in Houston to provide relief to victims of Hurricane Rita.

While the manpower behind the chainsaws has come primarily from Latter-day Saint congregations in southeastern states, the behind-the-scenes effort at the command center has drawn volunteers from around the country. Volunteers from Florida, Idaho, Missouri, Nevada, New York, Texas and Wyoming showed up to organize the effort. Ted Wirick from Jacksonville and his son, Brett, an attorney in Las Vegas, were among the first volunteers to arrive. “We have the process down since we worked Ivan and Dennis in Florida,” said Ted Wirick of the task of assessing needs in advance of workers’ arrival. “It’s unfortunate we have so much experience.”

Joining the Wiricks were 11 men from Idaho (including two sets of brothers), who left their small businesses to join the volunteer efforts, each offering different skill sets. As electricians, builders, lawyers and doctors, they all grabbed a chainsaw when they were not at the computer finding addresses for homes in distress.

Before a crew heads out to cut trees or remove mildewing drywall and insulation, an advance team generates a work order. To launch the process, Church leaders send volunteer work crews to the 350 to 600 homes in their local congregations to assess their needs. They record those needs on individual work orders, noting the size and quantity of downed trees, other yard debris needing cleanup, flood and roof damage and any lack of food, water, clothing, cleaning supplies and other essentials. Telephone calls from members of affected communities who are not affiliated with the Church have led to many work orders in addition to those generated for members’ homes. Assessors have also contacted hospital, law enforcement and emergency response workers in each area and written work orders for their homes.

With a work order in hand, command-center volunteers feed the address into software that maps the location, prints a map, matches it with the work order and sends it to the staging location nearest to the work site. Staging centers are in Covington, Gulfport, Hattiesburg, Pascagoula, Slidell, Waveland and Biloxi. When crews arrive from Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina or Florida, they receive a stack of work orders with instructions to go to the members’ homes, complete the work orders and then do work for any neighbors in need who live on the same road. Often they return to the staging center with more work orders than they left with, as members of the community ask for help.

“We completed more this weekend than last weekend,” said Elder Anderson, an engineer by profession who owns and operates petroleum terminals. The September 17-18 weekend saw the completion of over 8,000 man-days (part of a growing effort that had swelled to 17,250 cumulative man-days by Sunday night). “We are here to give service to the community in addition to members of our Church. It is a privilege to serve the communities. We are blessing Heavenly Father’s children.”

On paper the process of generating work orders appears easy, but it is time consuming and requires technology. Kevin Foster, a satellite and IT specialist from Neosho, Missouri, came to the Central Command Center in Slidell, bringing three Starband Satellite systems that allowed the command center to have broadband Internet access. The systems were provided by Max Mattia, owner of Tecnicamattia of Raleigh, NC.

With Internet installed, members of the community were able to come to the command center for e-mail assistance. A woman who had lost all her possessions when her home washed away came in and needed help to register with FEMA. Once she had completed the FEMA registration with the help of center volunteers, the woman asked if she could send a message to her daughter who is in the U.S. Army in Seoul, Korea, and who did not know if her family was dead or alive. “Wanted to touch bases and tell you we’re okay,” she wrote. “The telephones are still out and the computer is down. When we get it back up, we’ll contact you again. Love, Maw Maw.”

Another source of relief to hurricane victims is the storehouses (food pantries) set up in Latter-day Saint churches throughout the hurricane-stricken communities to provide food assistance for people like Mildred Eden. Eden had a stocked freezer before Katrina hit. The storm destroyed her family’s vehicle, left trees intertwined with electrical power lines blocking their driveway and sent eight feet of water raging through their home. Even as she mourned the irreplaceable losses, such as cherished videos of her dancing, cheerleading granddaughter, she voiced gratitude that she and her family survived the ordeal. “What a godsend your help is,” the grateful Eden told volunteer worker Mary Anderson from Wyoming. “You are the best thing that has happened to me since the hurricane.”

Michael Dohm, a legal information-technology consultant who has left his occupation behind for a time to serve as coordinator of field operations for the command center, expressed enthusiasm over the venue for next weekend’s efforts — New Orleans. With the causeway bridge from Covington to Metairie now open, the Church will establish a staging center at the New Orleans stake center in Metairie.

“Everyone who was affected by the storm needs a safe haven,” Dohm said. “The Emergency Response Center, the Slidell Storehouse, provides that. As we listen to hurricane victims’ experiences, we can provide them commodities, food and service with no strings attached. We don’t charge them thousands of dollars to take drywall out. We’ll tarp their roof and get them out of the weather.”

Style Guide Note:When reporting about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, please use the complete name of the Church in the first reference. For more information on the use of the name of the Church, go to our online Style Guide.