The Katrina story: From despair to resurrection
They are calling it “Kat 10” – Hurricane Katrina plus 10 years – which carries with it the double meaning of an ominous meteorological warning.
How could a Category 5 storm that engulfed virtually the entire Gulf of Mexico but dropped in intensity to a Category 3 just before landfall on Aug. 29, 2005 – burying one of the world’s most iconic cities in a flood of biblical proportions – become the watershed moment in New Orleans’ nearly 300-year history?
The simple answer: Poorly engineered and constructed federal levees gave way under pressure, dooming a topographically challenged city that sits mostly below sea level.
The more complex answer: In a city founded near the mouth of the Mississippi River by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville on May 7, 1718 – and buffeted over the centuries by storm, flood, fire, yellow fever and Civil War – no single event has had the sudden, powerful and indiscriminate impact of Katrina.
It was the death of a great city, the deaths of more than 1,800 people in their homes and attics, the deaths of family, neighborhood and church relationships, the death of hope.
A resurrection city
And yet, 10 years later, New Orleans – in so many ways new and improved and utterly resilient – is a resurrection city.
“It is extraordinary when you look back now and see what has emerged and how life has been restored,” said former Archbishop Alfred Hughes, 82, who admits he was stunned when he took a helicopter flight over the massive flooding two days after the storm and then walked the city’s empty streets two weeks later.
“It was like a war zone. No sign of life. I mean, everything was gray – the vegetation. There were no insects, no birds and no human beings. No lights, no electricity. Seeing the city dead just took the inner breath out of me. It just seemed as though it was going to be impossible to recover from this.”
Katrina forced a diaspora of New Orleans’ half-million Catholics. Scattered across the country, with their homes, businesses, schools and churches inundated, they clung to CNN 24/7 and saw Lake Pontchartrain cascading through holes in the city’s interior flood-control canals. They tried to make sense of the searing images of human poverty and misery: the exiles who sought shelter at the Louisiana Superdome only to have it go dark and its mushroom roof peeled back by the winds; the refugees with few provisions at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, pleading for a way out of town; water, water, everywhere.
Searing images of death
Displaced New Orleanians didn’t see, at first, what the first responders did: scores of bodies of those who tried to ride out the storm, floating in the water.
In Baton Rouge, Archbishop Hughes, who was bishop of Baton Rouge from 1993 to 2002, found shelter at Our Lady of Mercy Church, where he set up an emergency command center.
“I can remember going the first morning to the adoration chapel and just pouring out to the Lord my anguish and confusion and uncertainty about what to say and what to do – and, of course, the Lord didn’t seem to answer,” Archbishop Hughes recalled. “But at the end of the hour, what came into focus for me was, ‘Here is the Lord present, and maybe he’s asking me not to be concerned with what I’m going to say or what I’m going to do but to assure the people of the Lord’s presence in all of the devastation and loss and confusion.’ I never lost a sense of God being present.”
Everyone in New Orleans has a Katrina story. Archbishop Hughes will never forget two of them.
“I spoke with one man who lived down in the Lower 9th Ward,” Archbishop Hughes said. “He said, ‘When the levees broke, I had two minutes to get to the roof. My wife was paralyzed with fear, and I had to drag her up to the attic. I had an ax up there. I broke a hole in the roof. I had to drag her through the roof and I lost my grip on her. I plunged in and grabbed a hold of her shirt as she was slipping under the water, and she slipped out of her shirt, and I never saw her again.’
“He was so angry at God. He was inconsolable. I had to just hold his hand and help him express that anger to God and that cry for help.”
Life’s possessions in bag
When Archbishop Hughes approached a woman in a Baton Rouge shelter, she held up a plastic grocery bag.
“She said, ‘This is all I was able to rescue,’” Archbishop Hughes recalled. “And then she said, quoting Job, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked I will go back. God has given and he has taken away. I guess I have to try to praise the name of the Lord.’ That was such an honest and wonderful prayer at that point that expressed faith, even in the midst of the devastation that she had experienced.”
Where was God?
Archbishop Hughes says one of the questions he was most asked by beleaguered storm victims was: Where was God in the storm?
“Was there hope?” Archbishop Hughes said. “The issues of faith and hope were the most fundamental in those early days. A simple holy card or a rosary or a Bible – some simple blessing – opened up the possibility of hope.”
The first two months were a blur, and obtaining accurate information on the whereabouts of loved ones was nearly impossible. Father Arthur “Red” Ginart, the pastor of St. Nicholas of Myra Parish in Lake St. Catherine, remained at his church and was swept away by the rising water. He was the only priest to die in Katrina.
Katrina forever changed the landscape of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Before the storm, the archdiocese was home to 151 parishes and missions. Three years later, after two stages of restructuring, that number was down to 121.
There was a shared sense of loss. Across the region, 200,000 homes were destroyed or heavily damaged. Dozens of public, private and Catholics schools closed forever. But in the midst of the devastation, the Catholic church jump-started the city’s initial recovery with a bold plan: open up as many Catholic schools as quickly as possible to provide families with a reason to return. The decision was made in the face of the public schools’ decision not to reopen immediately.
Schools: A family magnet
The architect of the “big tent” plan, Father William Maestri, then superintendent of Catholic schools, said he got the inspiration after reading about how Florida communities recovered following Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
“The after-action report from Hurricane Andrew said what was needed to recover was restoring access to food and medicine, restoring utilities, opening banks so that people could access money and reopening schools – because you can’t wait for families to come back and then open the schools,” Father Maestri said. “You have to open schools so that families will come. To borrow a line from ‘Field of Dreams,’ open it and they will come. The schools served as the magnet that drew families back.”
Transition schools staffed by teachers who could return sprouted up within weeks in Metairie, which was far less damaged than New Orleans. Catholic schools accepted all students, including those who had attended public schools, and did not charge tuition. Students wore their old school uniforms. The schools platooned with morning and evening classes.
Many languages, same hope
“It was almost like a Pentecost event where everybody understood the same language, but they were from different regions,” Father Maestri said. “Everybody spoke one language on Pentecost. We had a common work to do, and we did it.”
Among his many difficult decisions, Archbishop Hughes was faced with closing parishes and schools. One of the true resurrection stories occurred in Gentilly, where St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church and School were inundated by floodwaters. Cabrini parishioners agreed to sell the property to Holy Cross School, whose Lower 9th Ward campus also had been destroyed. Today, Holy Cross’ state-of-the-art campus sits on Cabrini’s land, thriving in enrollment and serving as a catalyst to the neighborhood’s comeback.
In addition, St. Frances Cabrini merged with St. Raphael the Archangel and St. Thomas the Apostle parishes and is now worshiping in St. Raphael’s pristinely renovated church. The new parish, Transfiguration of the Lord, is every bit the miracle of Holy Cross.
“In New Orleans, we are used to people promising extravagantly and delivering meagerly,” said Clancy Dubos, political editor/columnist of Gambit newsweekly who served as the chair of the Holy Cross board of directors after the storm. “This was an example of where our projections were right on. The community just embraced what we were doing.”
Jump-started the recovery
After Holy Cross accepted the archdiocese’s offer to purchase the Cabrini property – rather than take another option to relocate to suburban Kenner – Dubos said he called then-Mayor Ray Nagin to let him know the good news.
“The mayor told me, ‘This marks the beginning of New Orleans’ comeback,’” Dubos recalled.
Walking around the Holy Cross neighborhood today, observers can see dozens of new homes being built, a far cry from the lifeless moonscape
Archbishop Hughes recalled the week after Katrina.
“I’m happy for the young people who are able to receive a quality Catholic education, and I’m incredibly happy for the neighborhood that was able to build up, because it is a wonderful place to raise a family,” Father Maestri said.
Met humanitarian needs
Archbishop Hughes said God remained present through the 40 million pounds of food distributed by Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana in the four months after the storm, in the thousands upon thousands of volunteers who came to New Orleans to spur the rebuilding effort, and in the work of Catholic Charities to meet humanitarian needs and tailor its service model as more of a first-responder.
With the hindsight of 10 years, Archbishop Gregory Aymond, who came back to his hometown as archbishop in 2009, sees God’s blessings everywhere he looks.
“Where was God in the midst of Katrina?” Archbishop Aymond asked. “He was walking in the floodwaters, carrying people. He was in the attic, where people were dying. He was in the Superdome, where there was a lot of chaos. But he didn’t abandon us. He was weeping with us. Human suffering is a mystery. I don’t claim to understand it, but we will fully understand it when we see God face to face.”
There was death, and then there was resurrection.
“When you look back now and see what has emerged and how life has been restored – it is extraordinary,” Archbishop Hughes said.