Plaquemines Parish slowly rebuilds after Isaac

They have made it a little closer to home. On Sept. 4, 69 residents from Plaquemines Parish who were evacuated to shelters in northern Louisiana after Hurricane Isaac arrived at the former St. Louise de Marillac Catholic School in Arabi, which was converted after Hurricane Katrina into living quarters for recovery volunteers.

“God bless you,” Archbishop Aymond told the weary pilgrims as they disembarked a bus after a five-hour journey from the Jewella Street shelter in Shreveport.

“Thank you very much,” many of the Plaquemines residents said, including the first off the bus – Kathleen Gerdes Griffin, whom the archbishop had met the week before at the Belle Chasse Lions Club shelter. She lost her house, her car and all her possessions but said everything will be all right.

“We thank God you’re here,” Archbishop Aymond told her.

Caravan returns home

A second bus arrived in Arabi about an hour later. Another 60 or so evacuees who returned the same day by bus were being sheltered at Kings Grant Playground in Harvey, a Homeland Security spokesman said. A total of 209 Plaquemines residents had initially been evacuated to northern Louisiana.

Leslie Barthelemy from Pointe a la Hache had first gone to a parish-operated shelter in Belle Chasse before being moved to Shreveport. She was glad to be in Arabi nearer to her home.

“I was just too far from home,” she said. “I had never been to Shreveport before. I had evacuated to Baton Rouge for Katrina.”

Archbishop Aymond said he was happy to oblige when he got the call Sept. 4 that evacuees needed a local shelter. Arrangements were quickly made to use St. Louise de Marillac.

“It would bring them closer to home, to a priest and other people in the area,” he said, adding that the archdiocese didn’t want those displaced from their homes to end up in another facility that might not have the conveniences such as air conditioning, showers, beds and meals provided in Arabi.

When Plaquemines Parish residents arrived, Catholic Charities case workers were waiting at the former school to assess their needs. Volunteers from The Gathering – a nonprofit that has been leasing the site from the archdiocese since 2006 and housed Camp Hope for hurricane relief volunteers – eagerly handed out towels, sheets, pillows for their stay.  Second Harvest prepared dinner that night and is partnering with The Gathering to provide lunch and dinner as long as the evacuees stay at the site dubbed “Camp Hope.”

Catholic Charities also provided crisis counseling and case management, initial toiletry supplies and clothing, debit cards and transportation for evacuees in Arabi to visit their homes, said Gordon Wadge, president and CEO of Catholic Charities Archdiocese New Orleans. Medical assessments and medication refills coordinated by Daughters of Charity Services and Tulane University School of Medicine also were made available.

Because Catholic Charities was providing various services in six civil parishes, Wadge said he is coordinating other not-for-profit partners to assist in this massive endeavor.

Indefinite stay

While many in the New Orleans metropolitan area were without power for days after Hurricane Isaac, some residents of lower Plaquemines Parish are now without homes and their possessions. They remain uncertain about their length of stay in shelters, since the roads on the east and west banks of Plaquemines Parish were mostly impassible as of Sept. 8, making it impossible to confirm their losses.

Archbishop Aymond estimated a stay between a few weeks to a few months, but as east bank Plaquemines residents learned they had electricity, they were returning home.

“We will keep it open as long as we have to,” Archbishop Aymond said about the shelter.

Norward Tinson, 71, of Phoenix, a retired Plaquemines parish employee and merchant seaman, had evacuated to the YMCA in Belle Chasse before he went to the Shreveport shelter. His family has lived in lower Plaquemines for several generations. While he hadn’t been back to his home, he was told it was dry.

“I’m hopeful I can get down there and see for myself,” he said. “I don’t think there is another place I’d rather be than down there.”

Priests out in force

Along with Archbishop Aymond comforting residents were Father Joseph Man Tran, pastor of St. Thomas in Point a la Hache and Assumption of Our Lady Mission in Braithwaite; Father Luke Nguyen, pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes (Violet) and St. Bernard churches; and Father Danny Digal, pastor, and Father Salvador Galvez, parochial vicar, of Our Lady of Prompt Succor in Chalmette.

Lillian Edwards of Pointe a la Hache smiled and threw her arms out as she got off the bus to hug her pastor, Father Tran, who was waiting in the parking lot at the Arabi shelter.

“It helps people to see their religious leaders there to comfort them and share their loss and pain,” Father Tran said.

Father Tran said he has been in touch with many parishioners since the storm. The majority of parishioners at St. Thomas in Pointe a la Hache heeded the evacuation order, but not everyone from Assumption Mission in Braithwaite followed suit.

When he toured Plaquemines Parish by driving on the levees almost a week after the storm, Father Tran found Assumption’s rectory knocked off its foundation and filled with seaweed, mud and snakes. The church had been inundated by about eight feet of water, and he saw mobile homes floating way.

More than 700 homes were flooded in Braithwaite alone, according to one estimate. Residents were carrying salvaged belongings from their homes on air mattresses as they walked in waist-deep water to their cars parked on levees.

Father Tran said the water was receding in Plaquemines Parish, but it had done significant damage to homes and businesses, so much so that residents told him they were unsure they would rebuild again. Some had just finished rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina and now were faced with another blow.

Father Tran is not new to the power of wind and water. When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, he was pastor of Our Lady of Good Harbor Church in Buras and also served the missions of St. Ann in Empire and St. Anthony in Boothville-Venice. All three churches were heavily damaged.

“This was not my first time,” he said. “I had experience with Katrina. Going back I knew to expect the worst. It brought back memories. I feel for the people.”

He said when Catholic residents have deep faith and when they saw the condition of Assumption Church after the storm, they cried.

“A lot of people are still in shock,” Father Tran said. Many said the flooding this time exceeded anything they had experienced in hurricanes Betsy, Camille and Gustav.

“We try to be there for the people,” Father Tran said. “We are present and try to help them in whatever way we can. It’s a tremendous loss for them. Some of them were saying, ‘Father, we are too old to rebuild.’”

The Catholic Church responds to people of all faiths in crisis by providing an holistic approach to healing. No one aspect of care in emphasized.

“When you put together the spiritual support and the support for their physical needs and their emotional needs, it all comes together as one,” Archbishop Aymond said. “I don’t think you can separate them.”

Christine Bordelon can be reached at

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