Caught between Katrina and my chaplain’s duties

After more than nine years as pastor of Our Lady of the Angels in Waggaman, I received a new appointment to Prince of Peace Parish in Chalmette in early 2001. Soon after 9/11, the U.S. embarked on a war against terrorism in Afghanistan, and then, in 2003, we had another one in Iraq!
 In July 2005, I received a fateful phone call from the headquarters of the Naval Reserve Forces: I was being mobilized for a tour of duty as a chaplain in Iraq. I called Archbishop Alfred Hughes, who wished me well and reassured me that my parish would be taken care of until I returned.

At morning Mass on the day I left, I prayed for protection and safety in my tour of duty. For some reason, I added, “Thy will be done!” And as I left the church, my feeling was something like, “Let’s stare back at the death!”

In late August, I flew to Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina. The local TV stations were pre- occupied with the weather news: Hurricane Katrina had already entered the Gulf of Mexico, and it was predicted to be a Category 5 storm when it landed in Louisiana. I could not have been any bluer. Mother Nature was threatening my hometown, my church and my parishioners, and I couldn’t do anything about it.

Around noon on Monday, Aug. 29, my eyes were glued to the TV in my luxurious suite in the Bachelor Officers’ Quarters at Camp Lejeune, and I helplessly watched Katrina make the landfall in Chalmette.

I became numb as the TV showed the eastern side of the floodwall of the 17th Street Canal giving in and the water violently flowing through as if it was unstoppable. The floodwall on the Industrial Canal on the 9th Ward side shared the same fate. Later on I learned that my church was inundated with more than 12 feet of water!

What I did not know was that my good friends, Deacon Frank Rhodes and his wife Bernice, had taken refuge in Prince of Peace Church the previous evening. They were happy that the perpetual winds and gusts had finally died down sometime on Monday afternoon. Then all of a sudden, water began pouring in from all sides of the church.

As they watched the water rise through the glass doors, they put on their floating devices while trying to wade out of the church for fear they might be trapped inside. The water kept rising, and they were floating up in it. Finally, they could reach the lower part of the church roof climbed up on it.

As the water continued to rise, they said good-bye to each other and agreed that neither would blame the other if one of them would not make it! Thank the good Lord, the water finally stopped rising, but the wind was still strong enough to force them to buffet themselves on the opposite side of the roof.

About four hours later, a rescue canoe passed by and picked them up. Deacon Frank and Bernice spent a night on the second floor of Chalmette High. The next morning, together with other “refugees,” they had to walk on the levee to the Chalmette ferry landing where buses on the other side of Mississippi River were waiting to take them to New Orleans International Airport.

The biblical destruction of Hurricane Katrina went way beyond anyone’s expectations; it was a shock for the nation and even the world. Now Katrina brought me a brand new struggle: “My church has been destroyed, my parishioners have been scattered and I am here preparing to move further away from it all.” I felt like a shepherd running away from his distressed flock!

“Should I return? Or must I go forward to Iraq?” A day before I was all ready for the duty in that foreign land, things seemed to change unexpectedly and placed me right in the middle of a dilemma! In my lengthy prayers I asked the Lord for guidance, but there was not obviously a clear-cut solution.

Eventually, I was told by officials in the Pentagon to “march forward” to Iraq. They explained that Chalmette had been destroyed and no one was being allowed to enter the damaged area, meaning there wasn’t much I could do given the circumstances.

Most of the Marines I ministered to were so young – 18 to 20 years old. They looked innocent, acceptant and calm. In every war since the beginning of humanity, young soldiers are always affected and suffer the most.

The morning after we arrived, I walked in the mess hall for breakfast, I came upon a sign commemorating a fallen Marine who was killed in a mortar attack, right on that spot! “The war is here,” I thought.

At exactly 0830 – 8:30 a.m. – on a Sunday in early September 2005, I celebrated my first Mass at Camp Fallujah in the middle of the Iraqi War.

It was just the beginning: New Orleans, Chalmette, Katrina already seemed too far away.

Father Paul Nguyen is pastor of St. Rita Church in New Orleans. He is a retired U.S. Navy captain. 

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