Doug Robinson: Utahn in N.Y. knows to be prepared

Published: Monday, Sept. 5 2011 10:00 p.m. MDT

Not Belnap. He went back upstairs to his office on the 15th floor. Since arriving there in the morning, he had been calling local church leaders, trying to account for the well-being of 3,500 members of his stake. He also began arrangements to convert the stake center on the Upper West Side into a shelter. There were some 35,000 to 40,000 LDS Church members in the area, and like many who work in Manhattan they commuted 20 to 70 miles each day. With subways and tunnels closed, they were stuck on the island. Belnap, along with other local leaders, arranged to have the stake center stocked with provisions.

It was now 1 p.m., and Belnap had been on the phone for hours, long after everyone had been told to leave and the lights and power were out. A few days later the New York Times would print a map showing where the phone outages had occurred; Belnap happened to work on the one block in lower Manhattan that had phone service.

"That was providential," he says.

Belnap decided it was time to leave. He walked down 15 flights of stairs and encountered a security guard in the lobby, who was surprised to see Belnap. He gave Belnap wet paper towels to hold over his mouth and nose as he made his way north through the gritty air toward the stake center.

"The streets were empty and everything was covered with a couple of inches of gray powder," recalls Belnap. "I looked up the street and it was pitch black in the middle of the day. It was like looking into the jaws of hell."

After walking several blocks he emerged from the ash cloud into bright sunlight again. "It was like walking through a curtain," he says. As he left the darkness, he encountered dozens of cameras filming the spot where people emerged. Belnap stared at the scene before him.

"There were all these people leaving Manhattan, walking across the (Brooklyn) bridge in slow motion, heads bowed, covered with ashes, their arms limp at their sides," he recalls. "It was like the Last Days. Surreal. Nobody was talking or laughing."

As he continued north, shopkeepers offered food, water and use of a bathroom to passers-by. "Suddenly, New York was changed — it was a warm and nice place," he says.

Belnap finally reached the stake center, where he stayed late into the night, communicating with leaders in Salt Lake City and assisting efforts to track down church members. Within 48 hours, they had called more than 3,000 people. One man rode around on a scooter knocking on doors, but most of the contacting was done through a phone tree that had been established three years earlier.

In the coming weeks Belnap was bombarded with requests from people wanting to help, as people turned their attention to healing and returning to normalcy. But he has never forgotten the lesson of that day.

"It was a testament to being prepared," says Belnap.

Belnap said this while preparing for the arrival of Hurricane Irene.

Duct tape, batteries and flashlights were popular items again. There were long lines to get water and batteries. Belnap's office was empty.

"It's kind of happening again," he said.

Email: drob@desnews.com

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