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Katrina Reflections: One Year Later

Picture1In February of 2004 I was a conference speaker at the New Orleans Baptist Seminary.  It was a great trip as I was able to bring my family.  At the seminary they told me that much of the city was below sea level and that if a flood ever came the city would “fill up like a fishbowl.”  I asked what they thought the likelihood of that was and they said, “It will probably never happen.” 

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When I wasn’t speaking we went in either direction of the city exploring bayous, the River, great music and great food. My wife, Debbie, prevailed upon us to go into Mississippi one day. We found ourselves pleasantly surprised as we discovered Waveland, a lovely beach town with grand southern architecture.  Walking the beach, we bumped into an attorney from Boston that had relocated to the Gulf Coast.  He told us he loved it there and that it didn’t “get any better than this.”

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Eighteen months later I found myself again in the town of Waveland, only this time standing at Hurricane Katrina’s Ground Zero. A thirty foot storm surge destroyed nearly the entire town.  I was there this time with our church’s relief and response ministry, trying to determine if we could help.  It wasn’t until a month later that I realized it was the same town. My wife helped drive a church owned Chevy Surburban to Waveland where she saw pictures of the town before the storm hit. She called me to tell me that was the town we had visited that day. I had been in that town after the storm and didn’t recognize it.  Katrina rearranged the entire landscape destroying hundreds of houses, including the churches we pointed out to each other and the restaurant we ate in. Gone.

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One year later the Mississippi story has barely been told. This was not just a New Orleans disaster. Arriving in the Gulf region shortly after the storm our team headed to New Orleans. Hundreds of blocks were under water, but when we got to the French Quarter and on to Bourbon Street the city seemed untouched, except for a bit of wind damage.  Canal Street, closed to the public as was the rest of the city, was filled with RVs, media vans, emergency vehicles, satellite dishes and lines of reporters and relief workers at the Salvation Army chow wagon.  The story was being reported from the center of the city, the part of town above sea level, which it turns out was one of the least effected areas on ninety miles of coast.

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New Orleans got struck by a flooding Lake Ponchartrain twice, but the center of the hurricane was 40 miles to the east centering in Waveland and Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi.  Cutting a corridor ninety miles long and twenty miles deep, Katrina destroyed or made inhabitable tens of thousands of homes.  Traveling out of the city looking for where to send our teams we saw mile after mile of complete devastation. Thousands of homes, many with only a foundation to let you know something was there with thousands more unsuitable for living. Up to a week after the storm no press had yet visited Waveland or Bay Saint Louis, the storm’s epicenter.   National Geographic later picked up on the Mississippi angle, dedicating a special issue to Katrina, but most people still think New Orleans when they think of the storm of the century.

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Another untold story is the response of the Faith Community.  Dozens of church parking lots along Route 90, Mississippi’s coastal throughway, were transformed into feeding, care and information centers, serving thousands. In the days following Katrina FEMA estimated that over 500,000 people had taken refuge with churches. Tom Delay noted that in Houston alone 500-600 churches opened their doors to people fleeing the storm. 

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In the three months following Katrina, the Southern Baptist Convention reported preparing nearly 14 million free meals. Volunteer labor from the Baptists during that period was 155,502 volunteer days. When George Bush showed up in Biloxi, he made his speech from Camp Hope, constructed by Denny Nissley (who we worked side by side with at Ground Zero in Manhattan after 911) of  “Christ in Action.” which was feeding 5,000 daily. Our  ministry out of Calvary Chapel in Montville, Connecticut has mobilized over 600 volunteers and worked on 87 separate projects, making some homes ready to be inhabited and building others from the ground up.

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Of the 40 permits pulled in the Bay Saint Louis – Waveland  area to rebuild houses, most of them have been pulled by faith based ministries providing free volunteer labor and in many cases free materials.

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One year later not much progress has been made.  Of the 14,000 families that were displaced in New Orleans Lower 9th Ward, only one old lady is said to have made her house habitable.  Last week, in the middle of the night, somebody stole two pieces of heavy equipment that were being used to construct a memorial in the neighborhood.

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Picture15_1 The other day my wife was talking with somebody and mentioned the work we are doing in Mississippi. They asked her, “Is it still a mess down there?”  It is still a mess. Mississippi and New Orleans.  Some people wonder if the area can ever come back. But church groups continue to pound away. Literally. They are hopeful. That’s one of the reasons they are referred to as ‘the faith community.'

Comments

janet

I've been proud to be a part of a church that's been so busy demonstrating the love of God down south. Al and everyone else who's gone down are heroes in my eyes.

Laurene Shewan

We were in Laurel, MS last Oct. and it was a mess, even though they are 1.5 hours north of the Coast. Most properties either had trees down or their roofs covered with blue tarps. My cousin's Church was home to a non-Church group from NC, who came to help rebuild the area. Some of those, who came to work, received Christ as their personal Savior while helping others.

We're going back again this year and will report when we return.

jp

That's such a great story about thatchurhc and the folks coming to help! Thanks for sharing it!

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