By Archbishop Thomas Rodi
At morning Mass in the Biloxi cathedral on Sunday, Aug. 28, 2005, we prayed together that God would protect us and our neighbors from the approaching storm named Katrina. After Mass I made preparations to spend the night in my office at the Pastoral Center on Popps Ferry Road in Biloxi along with Msgr. Fullam and his puppy, called the priests I could contact who lived near the water making sure they would evacuate, and prayed.
The night and the following morning were long as Katrina made a direct hit on our beloved Gulf Coast. The Pastoral Center lost electricity. It was hot and humid, the beeping of battery operated computers incessantly filled the air, and the rain poured in through the roof which was shorn by the winds of all but its plywood deck. I watched as tree after tree on the property fell.
Finally, in the afternoon the winds subsided and I was able to return to my damaged but still usable house and checked on neighbors. I also began trying to contact my family in New Orleans to make certain they were safe and tell them I was safe, however, since internet and cell phones were not working, it took a couple of days to contact them.
The magnitude of the devastation would become painfully apparent during the next few days as I visited all the parishes south of I-10. I remember on Tuesday morning standing in the muck inside Sacred Heart Church in D’Iberville which had been flooded with ten feet of water and encountering for the first time the “Katrina smell” which I can never describe and never forget.
The losses were staggering: more than 200 people dead in Mississippi; more than 1800 dead throughout the Katrina-hit area. Tens of thousands of homes damaged or destroyed. People lost jobs, possessions, and loved ones. The Diocese of Biloxi suffered along with the entire community. Seventeen churches were destroyed or so badly damaged as to be unusable. Seven grade schools destroyed or badly flooded by several feet of water, likewise four high schools.
About one third of the active priests lost almost everything they owned except what possessions they took with them when they evacuated, and it was similar for the religious and deacons.
Despite the damage, our laity, religious and clergy immediately began to rebuild the diocese and the communities. The Biloxi diocese “broke the piggybank” and in the few weeks after Katrina distributed all the money at its disposal ($1.25 million) in $200 checks in an attempt to help people and to get the local economy going again. Schools gradually reopened (the first school on the Gulf Coast to open was a Catholic school, St. James). Neighbor helped neighbor. The long recovery process began aided by volunteers from across the country, many from Catholic parishes, who came to help.
The pain among the people over the following weeks and months cannot be described. Allow me, however, to offer three conversations I had with teenagers, among countless conversations, which exemplify the losses suffered because of Katrina.
One teenager explained to me how Katrina had badly affected her. But she explained it was worse for her parents. She told me that Katrina had destroyed the houses where her parents grew up, the place where they had their first date, church where they were married, the home where they first lived. She explained that in six hours her parents had lost every building which held memories of their youth and what an emotional loss that was for them.
As Christmas 2005 approached, I was speaking with another teenager and I said to him that he was probably looking forward to the Christmas holidays. He told no, he wasn’t. He and his family, like thousands of others, had lost their home and were living in a small FEMA trailer. He had no privacy, no personal space.
He looked forward every day to coming to school and getting out of the small trailer. As much as he liked Christmas, he wished that there were no Christmas holidays so that he could come to school every day.
Finally, a third teenager told me how he was in his home when the storm hit and Katrina’s 28 foot storm surge destroyed the house. He, his little sister, and his grandmother made it out of the house and swam for high ground through the howling winds with water swirling with dangerous debris. He told me he and his little sister finally made it to safety. I asked him “What about your grandmother?” The young man, with an expressionless face, but with eyes that betrayed the deep pain within his heart, said “I couldn’t save them both.”
Despite the pain, despite the loss, the people of Mississippi have a resiliency that comes from deep within. The communities and the diocese rebuilt, or perhaps it is more accurate to say, continue to rebuild from Katrina.
People from elsewhere in the country have often asked me if Katrina brought people closer to God. I answer that it depends on the individual. Suffering comes into every human life. We do not choose when we will suffer or how we will suffer. We do choose, however, what we will do with it.
Suffering does not leave us unchanged. We will choose either to become better or to become bitter. There were those who after the storm became more loving, generous, and faith-filled people. However, there were also people who allowed the pain of the storm to estrange them from God and from others.
This is true whenever “storms” come into our lives. Suffering can weaken us with bitterness or strengthen us in trusting in God. The Bible teaches that “We know that all things work for good for those who love the Lord.” (Romans 8:28) The darkest times in life powerfully teach us that God is with us in all things and that with God we have nothing to fear and with God we can handle anything.
There is a poem that brought me great comfort after Katrina. I often saw the great live oak trees of our area after Katrina and how, though damaged, they were still standing tall. Those trees and this poem can teach the strength of being rooted in the faith when storms come into our lives. In 2005 I had the poem published in The Gulf Pine Catholic and many people commented on how it lifted their spirits. Allow me to offer the poem again on this 10th anniversary of Katrina.
The Oak Tree
by Johnny Ray Ryder Jr
A mighty wind blew night and day
It stole the oak tree’s leaves away
Then snapped its boughs and pulled its bark
Until the oak was tired and stark
But still the oak tree held its ground
While other trees fell all around
The weary wind gave up and spoke.
How can you still be standing Oak?
The oak tree said, I know that you
Can break each branch of mine in two
Carry every leaf away
Shake my limbs, and make me sway
But I have roots stretched in the earth
Growing stronger since my birth
You’ll never touch them, for you see
They are the deepest part of me
Until today, I wasn’t sure
Of just how much I could endure
But now I’ve found, with thanks to you,
I’m stronger than I ever knew
(Archbishop Rodi served as Bishop of Biloxi from 2001-2008 and was bishop when Katrina devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast. He was named second archbishop of Mobile, Alabama on April 2, 2008.)