By Father David O’Connor
On Sunday afternoon, Aug. 28, 2005, I got some sense of the anticipated impact of Hurricane Katrina as large numbers of people from New Orleans and throughout the south rolled into the city of Natchez. Most arrived with very little supplies, hoping that Natchez and Adams County, approximately three and a half hours driving distance from New Orleans, would have housing and food. By mid afternoon all hotel rooms were filled, grocery store shelves were empty, and panic set in for the newly-arrived evacuees. One large shelter was opened before night set in. Crowds continued to pour into Natchez.
It was not until Monday morning that I and so many others learned that New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast was destroyed by the hurricane and its aftermath. By noon on Monday, an estimated 13,000 evacuees had arrived in our city of 17,000 people.
Six overnight shelters were opened and quickly filled. Schools were closed and volunteers from every part of our community were coming forward to provide needed supplies, water, sleeping pads and food. Many evacuees were living in their cars, and many Natchez families filled their homes and garages with these people.
Very quickly, I and large numbers of people in this city realized that our newly arrived visitors would need hospitality for an extended period. As best I can recall, our city, its people, law enforcement and the Civil Defense provided for these for about 48 hours before outside help arrived.
By then outside help came, thanks to the services of the Red Cross. Food, blankets, water, volunteers and nurses arrived to give support. The kitchens of our public schools provided three full meals each day. Large numbers of volunteers of all ages came forward ready to help. St. Mary Basilica had a volunteer coordinator; and when I saw a need at any of the shelters, I could call for the number of volunteers needed. St. Mary also became a sorting and distribution center for clothes.
The churches of this city opened their assembly halls for clothing depots, and the pastors offered counsel and consolation to large numbers. As an officer of the Ministerial Alliance, I kept my fellow ministers informed because of a briefing I got each morning at the local office of the Red Cross. One of my churches, Assumption, was chosen as an overnight shelter. Congregation members created a home away from home for these people.
Doctors and dentists in my parishes volunteered their services. Another aspect of my experience of Katrina was that Cathedral School took in approximately 150 children from 49 different schools across the south. Parents volunteered as teacher-aides, local merchants and banks donated all the school supplies that these children needed; and although classrooms were crowded, I heard no complaints, and certainly I heard many words of praise and gratitude for the love and acceptance extended to them at Cathedral School.
My homily the weekend after Katrina was in response to misinformed rumors that “Katrina was God’s punishment of New Orleans.” My message was that God is not the author of death or evil and that the winds and tides that normally clean the air and the beaches combined in an unusual way to bring about destruction.
Some of the evacuees who were present at our overcrowded Masses the following weekend have come back to tell their stories. They fondly tell of their experience of God’s love in our church that weekend.
In the midst of all this, I remember some personal encounters as well. Dr. Charles Nolan, archivist for the archdiocese of New Orleans, and his wife Gale lived in downtown New Orleans. Before Katrina hit land, Gale decided to go to their new home in Long Beach; and he decided to remain near the archives in New Orleans.
After Katrina, cellular and land lines were destroyed, so was much of downtown New Orleans and the beach area of Long Beach. For four or five days they did not know if the other had survived. It was not until six days later that they met at St. Mary rectory in Natchez where they remained for a few weeks. The Nolans are still close friends.
I also acknowledge the generous support – prayers, financial and other – from seminary classmates and friends in all parts of this country and in my home country.
I was proud of the response given by our city and its people to those who came seeking shelter. Church leaders and congregations worked closely to take care of the evacuees. I had two experiences before Katrina that in some way prepared me. I spent a week as a volunteer in Kingston, Jamaica, after a devastating tsunami there; and I lived in a shelter for about a week in Newfoundland after my transatlantic flight was diverted there on 9/11. Working with the evacuees was certainly a personal blessing for me.
(Father David O’Connor is still the pastor at Natchez St. Mary Basilica and Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parishes.)
By Father David O’Connor