Sandbags, shovels and service: Mormons respond in a crisis

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Members of the Loveland, Colorado Stake remove items from a basement destroyed by Colorado's devastating floods. Photo courtesy of Norm Rehme.
Members of the Loveland, Colorado Stake remove items from a basement destroyed by Colorado’s devastating floods. (Photo courtesy Norm Rehme)

Ted and Julie Smack watched the water around their Colorado home slowly rise.

They rushed to sandbag their home and move their belongings upstairs, but it wasn’t enough. Flood waters rushed into their basement, breaking windows, destroying carpet and walls and leaving behind a mucky, muddy mess.

While overwhelmed, the Smacks weren’t left alone to recover from the flooding on Sept. 12. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints mobilized to help within hours of the catastrophe.

Casey Marler, bishop of the Lakeside, Colo., Ward, worked to evaluate needs; as soon as it was safe to travel around the city, the ward assembled 15–20 people to begin cleaning up.

“It was some dirty work, but everybody was willing to help,” Marler said. “We were wading around in who knows what — really gross stuff — up to our knees and ripping out soaked, dirty, wet carpet and drywall, and everyone was covered head to toe in mud.”

The ward reached out to the leadership of the Loveland, Colo., Stake for additional help and, by the next morning, the number of volunteers ballooned to 80, with service being rendered in the Smacks’ basement and the basements of several of their neighbors.

“By the end of that day we had completely gutted six basements and we had about 120 people total that had come and volunteered,” Marler said. “That was amazing — just an incredible response.”

The effect was contagious. According to Marler, many came from the community and joined in to help.

“Neighbors would see us working, and they’d end up helping,” he said. “There were some old ladies who brought down some cookies and stuff and said, ‘We can’t do much, but we just wanted to bring some food and some Gatorade.’ Everyone caught the spirit and helped.”

While the Lakeside Ward was evaluating needs, the Loveland Colorado Stake was also working to determine what resources it needed to provide for its members.

Stake public affairs specialist Suzanne Withers was contacted by stake leadership two days after the flooding began. They asked her to make contact with the leaders of affected communities, reach out to interfaith leaders and help determine how the LDS Church could help.

Each ward in the stake met Sunday for sacrament meeting and then cancelled the remaining meetings so members could evaluate needs and get out to help. Members contacted those they home and visit taught along with their neighbors and reported needs to their bishops. Bishops then passed the information along to stake leadership.

Members also went home and gathered food, water, baby supplies, hygiene items and anything else they could spare for the donation center. According to Withers, the supplies filled the building.

Cathy Kissner, coordinator for collection and distribution centers for the state of Colorado and member of the Seventh Day Adventist church, was grateful for the Church’s partnership in responding to the crisis.

“This is the partnering we need to do to heal the Father’s children,” she said.

Other projects were organized through a new website created by the Church, justserve.org. The website was launched earlier this year and is being piloted in Colorado and California. Until this disaster, it was primarily being used to share information with Church members about volunteering with non-profits.

In the flooding crisis, however, the site immediately filled the need for coordination of service efforts. Dozens of projects were posted to the website, which helped organize well over 700 volunteers from the Loveland Stake. As of Sept. 24 more than 21,000 hours of service had been completed by Church members across Colorado.

Volunteers in Colorado were supported by area Church leadership and Church headquarters in Salt Lake City.

In coordination with the Church Welfare Department, which was in contact with Church leadership daily, several truckloads of cleaning kits and other supplies have been delivered to the regional response center, some of them from local bishop’s storehouses and some from Salt Lake City.

“I finished the donation list (Thursday) afternoon, and by 10:45 (Friday) morning the first truckload arrived,” Withers said. “It was utterly amazing.”

LDS Church Humanitarian Services has shipped 90,000 pounds of emergency food, water, hygiene and clean-up materials to locations throughout the state.

Missionaries are also supporting the recovery, with a zone of 26 elders working to support the stake’s clean-up efforts. President Kelly Brown of the Colorado Fort Collins Mission has promised the support of any missionaries the stake may need.

“Every day they are out doing something,” Withers said. “The two (elders) living with us came home dog-tired. They had been helping to dig out the basement of the neighbor of a member in Berthold and said the mud was so high.”

Thousands more hours of service will be performed in the Loveland Stake and throughout Colorado in the coming weeks and months. Depending on need, the stakes may reach out to assigned “sister stakes” for additional help.

The hours of service and promise of future help from members in their stake couldn’t mean more to the Smacks and their neighbors.

“Our neighbors have been blown away by the people that have come and helped them,” Julie Smack said. “Even our neighbor said, ‘Wow you guys really put action behind your words.’ It’s been really neat to see.”

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