By Bishop Joseph N. Latino
It is hard to believe 10 years have passed since Hurricane Katrina cascaded onto the shores of the Gulf Coast leaving a path of destruction unlike any many of us had ever seen before. Those of us who experienced the storm even as far north as Jackson often define our lives as before and after Katrina – it was a life-changing storm for millions of people.
What many may not remember about Katrina is she first made landfall on the Atlantic coast of Florida close to Miami. I remember this because I was in Miami for a meeting of SEPI – the Southeast Pastoral Institute, which develops leadership among the Spanish-speaking Catholic community in our region.
As the rain poured down and wind blew ferociously, I remember wondering if the waters of Biscayne Bay just 100 feet away would soon be in the house where I was staying. The next day after things had calmed down, I flew back to Jackson and was picked up at the airport by Mary Woodward, our diocesan chancellor, who remarked: “I think she’s following you.”
Sure enough, one week later Katrina smashed into the tip of southeastern Louisiana and the full brunt of the storm plowed through the Mississippi Gulf Coast crushing almost everything in her path with a 30 foot surge and spawning tornadoes all the way up to Jackson.
A few days later the levees gave way in New Orleans and the city of my birth and childhood was inundated with water filled with refuse, debris and at times dead bodies of those who did not or could not get out of the storm’s path. My Gentilly neighborhood took a huge hit from the flood.
The day before the storm made landfall, I celebrated Sunday Mass in St. Peter Cathedral. The church was packed with evacuees from the coast and New Orleans. Many looked as if they only had the clothes on their backs; many were in tears, but they had come to seek comfort and strength in the Eucharist in the face of what felt like impending doom.
I will never forget that Mass as there was not a dry eye in the Communion line. We all felt a sense of helplessness in the face of nature, but we took solace in knowing that no matter what happened the Eucharist was the one constant to which we could cling.
In Jackson, the next day and the morning of the storm – a Monday – our chancery staff gathered for morning prayer as usual and I informed them they should be wherever they needed to be to ride out the storm by 11 a.m. The chancery then shut down and the storm moved in as hurricanes do with strong headwinds, rain, tornadoes and ultimately downed power lines.
Most of our chancery staff was without power for several days, some for weeks. I could tell who did not have power by the time they arrived for work because I was right there with them at 6:30 and 7 a.m.
In retrospect I do not think any of us imagined the storm would wreak so much havoc this far north, but the city of Jackson, especially the old neighborhoods, suffered a great deal of damage. Ninety-seven percent of the city was without power for days, which meant very few gas stations were functioning, no banks, not much of anything. Our diocesan cathedral was damaged as well.
However, there was no complaining by our staff because we had seen the helicopter flyover of the Gulf Coast and we knew that whatever we saw here paled in comparison to what was left behind along the coast. Soon the phone calls from all over the country began to pour in to the chancery and Catholic Charities. Since communication lines were down all across the coast, people and organizations with offers of help turned to us to coordinate relief efforts.
Our response to the storm reflected to the world that indeed we, as the community of faith, are the hands and face of God and God’s love, which is given to us through Christ. And this love was shared by people of faith in all those communities devastated by the storm as individuals helped one another unselfishly. Neighbors took in neighbors and churches served as places of refuge.
One storm survival story I like to tell to epitomize the generosity of people and the faith of people is about the rescue of an elderly woman from her home. It seems the woman was trapped for several days by flood waters in New Orleans. A rescue boat came to get her and she shouted out for them to leave her because, “God is going to take care of me.” The rescuers shouted back, “God sent us to get you.” She got in the boat and was rescued. This reminded me of an old joke, but this was no joke and a woman was saved by people serving as the hands and face of God.
I still am extremely proud of the way our parishioners and parish staffs and diocesan staff at Catholic Charities and the Chancery brought hope to so many in the way we handled the situations that arose immediately following Katrina. There was so much to do and we put our hearts, minds and bodies into the work that needed to be done to meet the tremendous needs of those to the south of us as well as those who had evacuated to our cities and towns in the Diocese of Jackson.
Now 10 years later we have learned so many lessons from this catastrophic event in our lives. First, we all must be prepared for future disasters – natural and man-made – as individuals, as families, as parishes, and as a diocese.
Second, Katrina did a great deal of damage but the storm also reminded us of what is important in life – our family, friends and neighbors. Throughout this whole ordeal of Katrina, which in fact continues today, we have learned anew what it means to be a neighbor in the tradition of Jesus’ Good Samaritan.
(Bishop Joseph Latino was the bishop for the Diocese of Jackson. He is now retired, but continues to minister in the diocese.)
By Bishop Joseph N. Latino