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Church members from Tallahassee area join Helping Hands effort
DAPHNE, AL — James Johnston, a police officer in Gulf Shores, Alabama, is usually on the giving end of assistance to the public.
Saturday and Sunday, relief workers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Helping Hands program were at his home, clearing trees and doing general cleanup – and he found himself on the receiving end of community service. Members of congregations in Tallahassee, Thomasville, Cairo, Quincy, Crawfordville, Madison, and Perry spent the weekend in Daphne.
“It’ll be next week before I even have an off day and can try to do anything here for myself,” said Johnston. “It was a blessing to have them come and help. I am kind of stubborn. I have never asked for help, but I was overwhelmed. It felt good to have the help,” he added.
Johnston was one of hundreds of Gulf Coast families aided by Helping Hands volunteer workers after Hurricane Sally made landfall in the early morning hours of Sept. 16, packing 100 mph-plus winds, and bringing torrential rains and widespread flooding. The Church set up Helping Hands Command Centers in Daphne and Pensacola to coordinate hurricane relief efforts.
More than 100 volunteers from the Tallahassee area joined Latter-day Saints from Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and Georgia for work assignments managed out of the Daphne Command Center. An estimated 3,000 volunteers spent the weekend in the Daphne area.
Prior to the storm’s arrival, the Church’s humanitarian arm – Latter-day Saint Charities – delivered truckloads of supplies to the command centers. Wheelbarrows, chainsaws, tarps, tools, water, generators, and more were delivered in preparation for the cleanup effort.
Since 1998, Helping Hands volunteers have helped people worldwide whose lives have been affected by natural disasters and other emergencies. Thousands of Helping Hands volunteers from the Church assisted communities with cleanup after Hurricanes Katrina, Ike, Gustav, Isaac, Matthew, Michael, Florence, Laura, and now Sally.
Many volunteers serving in the Daphne Command Center labored previous weekends in Louisiana, assisting residents to clean up following Hurricane Laura.
“We were well prepared for this catastrophic event,” said Helping Hands Command Center Director Nathan Jurgens. “The Southeastern United States has seen more than its fair share of storms this year. And with each disaster, our faith drives us to reach out into our communities and help where we can. We strive to live that great commandment and ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself.’”
Volunteers arrived in shifts to aid in social distancing. Each brought tents and food to sustain themselves. On Saturday and Sunday mornings, command center staff issued work orders for volunteers to tarp roofs, remove downed trees and debris, and perform flood remediation.
Johnston said the hurricane experience was harrowing. Before the storm, he spent hours getting people to high ground and other safe locations. He sheltered in place during the storm and then went back out on rescue assignments.
“It was like a tornado that was four hours long,” he said. “I couldn’t get to my house. We had so much flooding and tree damage and the power lines were down. Our whole police force was on the job. Half would work and half would rest,” said Johnston.
Johnston said people living in the coastal area have lived through previous storms and law enforcement and emergency management personnel know the routine.
“We have been through this before. We know what to do and have become pretty good at it,” he added.
Johnston said he did not know the extent of the damage to his own home until two days after the storm.
“There was no access to my place. Trees and power lines were down. Cars were bobbing in the flooded streets,” he said.