By Sr. Donna Gunn
When I was asked to write this article on the 10th anniversary of Katrina, my mind flooded with memories- memories of loss and devastation and inspiring memories of “heroes.” So many faces and voices. It was a time of my heart being torn by sadness and in the next moment inspired with hope. I saw the kind of deep faith that surges when all else is taken away.
The Diocese of Jackson took in a quarter of a million survivors coming from the Coast and New Orleans. I felt then and I feel now immense pride in how the diocese, parishes and faith filled individuals responded.
When I teach Catholic social teachings, I often begin with the reflection: “For whom do you weep?” Our response to Katrina was an evident sign that we weep with the most vulnerable, the lost, the lonely and the afraid. I’m sure many of you can remember weeping, listening to the stories and being present to the fragile and broken.
For me it all began the day after Katrina when Linda Raff, executive director of Catholic Charities reminded me that one of my jobs was to be the diocesan disaster relief director – admittedly one who knew nothing about disaster relief.
Thus began a journey like no other. Linda Raff began attending daily meetings with other service providers to discuss what needed to be done, possibilities of collaboration and discussions of how to avoid duplicating efforts. Martha Mitternight was doing the same in the Catholic Charities satellite office in Natchez. (Natchez doubled in size and some of our people had as many as 30 guests in their home.)
Catholic Charities staff were told to make the huge number of calls asking for help their first priority. We heard from people in towns near Hattiesburg who were trapped without food or water. Our staff went to Wal-Mart and brought a truck load of needed supplies to that parish. Thus began a delightful partnership with Father Tommie Conway and the Diocese of Biloxi.
We would continue to send supplies down which were then distributed from tents pitched on the parish grounds. When roads opened, they would direct some of those supplies directly to the coast. Remember, most communications were shut down, most cell phone towers destroyed. There was such devastation on the coast that much of the land was flat and barren. Only the Gulf would give anyone their bearing. When I visited the main street of one of the coastal towns all I found standing was the cement bank vault.
Gradually as Linda attended daily meetings, two priorities for Catholic Charities became evident, emergency assistance and long term recovery. Emergency assistance was particularly needed, especially as other agencies had limited or no funds to provide certain kinds of assistance. We were able to set these priorities because we were the recipient of funds from a national Catholic Charities USA disaster collection, the largest in the national organization’s history. We were blessed to be able to respond where others could not.
Supplies were coming in from all across the country. Distributing those supplies had to be a priority. With the help of Roger Vincent, then the chair of the Catholic Charities board, we opened a warehouse. For a long time, goods were just being stored in that warehouse because survivors had no place to put these goods. After several complications, the largesse of good local businessmen and a wonderfully provident God, we were able to move the supplies into a recently closed grocery store which had left behind all the shelving and grocery carts.
Moving the supplies and setting things up like a department store would have been impossible without all the wonderful volunteers, many of whom where immigrant women the diocesan Office of Hispanic Ministry helped to transport. The folks coming and finding household supplies, clothing and toiletries is only a part of my memory. I can still hear the delighted yelps in the aisles as neighbors met neighbors long thought missing or dead. The warehouse became a refuge and a place of reconnection.
When I think of the warehouse, I have memories of the diocesan school office who, under the direction of Sister Deborah Hughes, made sure all the donated desks, texts, library books and school supplies were distributed to the schools in the most affected areas and to our schools in the diocese who were taking in tuition free those children Katrina had displaced.
About five years later, I was giving a mission talk at a parish in New Orleans. A couple introduced themselves as having moved up to Jackson in Katrina’s aftermath. The woman had tears in her eyes and said they could never thank the Jackson Diocese enough for how it “saved” their children’s lives by taking them into a school and sustaining some sense of normalcy after the family had lost everything.
As Linda attended those daily meetings, the need for long term recovery case management services kept surfacing. All the agencies were responding to immediate needs, but who was there to journey with these survivors over the long haul and to help them re-create new lives? Catholic Charities was the only agency to open a long term recovery office. Social workers began case management helping clients set direction and long term goals; apply for FEMA; find housing and jobs; helping them re-locate with family, etc. The Natchez satellite was doing the same and gradually, satellite offices were opened in Lincoln and Pike Counties. The long term recovery office referred clients for counseling and mental health services.
So, this is a summary of my memories of some what we did – not complete by far. For me, the 10th Anniversary of Katrina is an opportunity to look back and reflect on ourselves. For whom did we weep? What’s happened to them? Have they been able to rebuild their lives and find hope again? Widows and widowers know that grieving is a long process, not done in a year or two. Let us pray for all Katrina survivors and hope that after 10 years they have found themselves again.
As a diocese, I believe the 10th anniversary of Katrina is a time to celebrate church. It was obvious during Katrina that we all belonged to something bigger than ourselves. There were the phone calls coming from around the country saying, “We are your brothers and sisters. How can we help?” Supplies pouring in with notes, “We want to share our blessings with you.” College students arriving en masse enthusiastic about using their gifts and youthful energy to “save” God’s people.
Parishioners responding to the Catholic Charities volunteer coordinator and coming from all across the diocese to work on the coast. In that process faithful from big parishes worked side by side with faithful in small parishes and missions. No color lines; no economic status; only companions on the journey. Individuals whose even in their “emptiness” were powerful inspirations.
(Sister Donna Gunn is now retired, but was Disaster Relief Coordinator for Catholic Charities during Katrina.)
By Sr. Donna Gunn