By Bishop Roger Morin
It has been reported many times through the years that FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, defined Hurricane Katrina as “the single most catastrophic natural disaster in U.S. history.” Since August 2005, the single word KATRINA, ordinarily thought of as a lovely version of the feminine name Catherine, has taken on a significance all its own. In our time, the word “Katrina” has come to mean disaster, destruction, and damage to human life, all sorts of buildings, and the landscape of the Gulf South, in particular, Mississippi and Louisiana.
Those of us who lived through the terrible tempest of Katrina can’t help but sense a feeling of displacement and loss when we hear the word Katrina.
Reportedly, more than a million people were displaced by this country’s most catastrophic natural disaster. More than 1,800 people lost their lives due to the ravages of cyclonic winds and raging waters. One single word, ‘Katrina’, summons up memories of the deadly disaster. Survivors’ first thoughts are recollections of the fright and the fear of an oncoming force capable of tearing down and uprooting our world of home and family. Experiencing the destructive wind power and the surging waters stirred up a feeling of helplessness and doubts about the possibility of surviving the storm.
The quiet after the storm did bring a ray of hope. I remember quite vividly that the sun did shine later on in the afternoon of Aug. 29, 2005. The wind died down and debris, tree branches and roof tiles littered the ground everywhere. After the roaring wind and driving rain, there was a consolation to a quiet that was almost eerie until there were new sounds: the readily identifiable whirring and air-chopping noises of helicopters that signaled activity and brought a glimmer of hope.
The new sounds overhead meant that someone was doing something to bring help.
We were yet to understand the enormity of the damage or the degree of the human needs of homeless survivors.
The noise of air traffic brought a glimmer of hope but it was the tiniest of lights bringing new thoughts daring us to begin thinking about the “when” and “how” we would return to what had been normal daily living before the storm. Little did we realize that at that moment we stood weeks, months, or years away from life as we had known it before Hurricane Katrina. Our estimation of storm damage was limited by our own range of vision and whatever we could behold for as far as our eyes could see.
In the aftermath of the storm, once media communications had been reactivated, we began to grasp the scope of the devastation. Americans throughout the country had more information about the havoc wrought by the catastrophic natural disaster.
People across the oceans were being shown vivid images of human suffering as it was in the Gulf South as it was taking place. People from around the world who were watching or listening to the news were touched by the havoc, the homelessness, the thirst and hunger being endured by survivors.
Thousands of evacuees discovered that they were truly homeless as they were being housed in emergency shelters in the Gulf South region. Thousands of survivors went from being evacuees to being refugees as they were put on planes and airlifted to other parts of the country. Thousands of the displaced homeless persons had lost their homes and all their personal possessions, so, they never returned to the place that had been home.
I was serving as an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of New Orleans in 2005, so, I accompanied Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes in visits to evacuees who were being cared for in emergency shelters in the Baton Rouge area of Louisiana. I could identify with the evacuees’ homelessness and loss of personal property. I must admit, that I was inspired by the prayerful attitude of thanksgiving voiced by those who were dealing with post-traumatic stress resulting from living through a disaster.
In visiting evacuees who were being housed in shelters, I oftentimes heard spontaneous prayers of praise to God for the blessings of survival. Evacuees who were already aware of catastrophic losses, spending long days on uncomfortable cots in public buildings, still were strong enough to say “Thank God” for the gift of rescue and survival. There were voiced intentions of facing the future and starting over. People who were suddenly homeless, penniless and almost naked found a way to express gratitude for the blessings of life and gratitude for the presence of loved ones. It seemed that each person temporarily housed in a shelter was able to offer a short course on prayers of thanksgiving: thank God for the gift of life, thank God for the well-being of loved ones, and thank God for the good people who are providing food and shelter.
While the sounds of helicopters overhead brought the first glimmer of hope, those noises were, in due time, insignificant when compared to the outpouring of charity that came in from all fronts. Tractor trailers and railroad boxcars brought the donations of food, clothing and essentials for daily living. Most importantly, there were hundreds of volunteers who came from across the U.S. to give their time and energy to help us take the first steps towards cleaning up and rebuilding our homes, churches and schools.
On a daily basis, we became aware of the fact that caring, helpful volunteers made the biggest difference in disaster relief. First, neighbors who had fared better than those who had suffered staggering losses were the first to share with those in need.
Donations from compassionate citizens from around the country, east coast to west coast, made it clear that we were not strangers to them. We were all neighbors.
We needed help and as we were blessed by the good works and the charity of others. We had many, many more occasions to say “Thank God” for shelter, food, and clothing. We were blessed day after day, week after week, month after month, by those who had not forgotten that Katrina had literally turned our world upside down and we needed friends to lean on as we stood up to take steps forward with the rebuilding our communities.
People of faith recognize moments of grace. Trials and tribulations are challenges to the human spirit and moments to summon triumph from tragedy. Each step forward provides hope and aspirations for the possibility of victory over adversity.
While the terrain of the Mississippi Gulf Coast was seriously scarred from the events of August 2005, there are new structures, dwellings and community buildings that are monuments to resilience and persistence. Rebuilt, renewed and restored communities give witness to a people who stand tall, heads lifted high, voices shouting into the wind: with God, all things are possible. Praise the Lord!
(Bishop Roger Morin is the Bishop of Biloxi. Ten years ago he was the auxillary bishop of New Orleans.)
By Bishop Roger Morin