The year 2005 brought a catastrophic hurricane to the Gulf. More than 1,500 lost their lives and 100,000s became homeless forcing relocation to Texas and other parts beyond. It became chaos quickly and a black culture feeling abandoned because they “did not matter.”
Disaster was complete with flooding and destruction of all property and many lives. It seemed that only churches were responding to the disaster. Oh yes there was Red Cross and government eventually, but mostly religious organizations came to rescue.
The Presbyterian Disaster arm sprung forward to help their little church in Slidell, damaged but still standing. A team from our large Presbyterian church in Wisconsin began to convoy south. I joined this group of a dozen men and women with hearts to help. We did not know what to expect, but we were bringing tools or every kind.
As we moved into the south through Tennessee and Alabama we began to see storm impact. Trees were uprooted and roofs were lying with pieces of everything imaginable everywhere. As we drove into Slidell, every tree was down like toothpicks making it almost impossible to get to the church where we would set up our base camp. The church and its large Quonset gym building were mostly unharmed except the grounds filled with branches, garbage and water. The men were to sleep on the gym floor and the women in a large room built for visitors. This building would later be rebuilt by our church members to house 40 disaster workers at a time in bunk-bed bedrooms.
We met with church members who were staffing a kitchen for us and helping direct us to parishioners’ properties for reclamation. Trauma filled gratefulness greeted us. We would be heading out the net morning.
That first night it was hot and humid making sleep for me impossible on the wooden floor, even with gym doors left open to the outside. I headed out to try a hammock. Finally I fell asleep not realizing that swarms of gnats and chiggers were devouring me. I was full of red bumps looking like someone fired a shotgun full of salt at me.
After breakfast I led prayer around a cross that I had quickly fashioned out of storm blown wood. We divided into two teams and headed out. Our way was met by downed trees, power lines and brush needing cutting and clearing. We were obviously the first ones to be trying to reach our churches’ members houses around Lake Pontchartrain. This huge and shallow body of water had flooded the shoreline in ways that would horrify us.
We reached the home of “Bill” a block from the lake. He was sitting on the outside stairway leading up to his house on stilts as most had been built in the area. This frail looking short man in his 80s greeted us with praise for God. He was ready with Chicory coffee, the local herb based and bitter blend from “Café du Monde.” We were already soaked through from the heat and humidity and clearing a five-mile rural road to his house. But we thought the coffee like a gift of God.
This gentleman was a retired Navy Captain and WWII veteran. He was a ship model builder and wanted us to rescue his 10-foot long battleships from the flood. But first he wanted to preach to us from the raggedy-eared Bible he was carrying. He wanted us to pray for all the devastated and lost from the storm. He asked for prayer for his two sons who had lost their homes totally when a 50-foot tidal wave hit them. He told us that his wife of 65 years had died the week before from a stroke as tears poured from his eyes.
We cleared out and reinforced his shaky garage so his models would survive and he could continue to build and tell the world stories of the Pacific Campaign where he saw so much action. This man of great faith was bringing us powerful messages of hope and salvation as we worked. He wandered with his crutch needed because of war injuries from worker to worker spreading Gospel truths. He was truly an inspiration. We left his homestead habitable a couple of days later.
Then we moved closer to the city of New Orleans and the 9th Ward that had been destroyed completely, like in a war-zone. Here we “mudded” homes, tearing off soaked dry wall down to the studs for rebuilding. The stench of putrid polluted water filled each house. We needed breaks and plenty of water as each of us dripped, our clothes soaked through with sweat.
Eventually we headed into the City of New Orleans. Here we found survivors wondering around and looking for food and money. The lost were everywhere. Our team frankly was a little apprehensive as street people approached us for help continually. Although we worried about safety, we did not have any troublesome incidents other than trying to absorb the immensity of the disaster. We went to the levies that had broken and saw the flooded homes and furnishings lying everywhere. Police and Federal Government workers were not visible anywhere, only church workers.
On our last night we traveled to Canal Street to find a famous Cajun restaurant, Pascal Manales, that was just opening again after the floods had caused the owner to go to his roof. We were regaled in the place with free Cajun food. We left an immense tip to help him rebuild.
Families were everywhere, trying to walk out of the city to safety. The Super Dome was a disaster of human suffering surrounded by a humanity of desolation and confusion. There was courage and desperation portrayed in many ways. My own life was altered in the suffering. I found it not easy to summarize it. Here I am 15 years later trying to express a narrative of desolation. It is in many ways the plight of our whole culture in a morally bankrupt society. It seems that God is no longer within her in so many ways. But Psalm 46 tells us that “God is our refuge and ever present help in trouble, therefore we will not fear…There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at the break of day…The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress…Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” (Psalm 46:1,4,10).