“I have always said I was only one paycheck away from trouble,” says Betty Harris, “but now I say I was only one hurricane away.”
Exiled by two hurricanes, Harris journeyed from New Orleans East to Seattle. There, she has begun to put her life back together thanks to the sponsorship of Episcopal Migration Ministries and St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle.
Harris’ trek began the night before Hurricane Katrina drew a bull’s-eye on her low-lying community. She had worked a shift at her hospital job where she was a nurse’s aide and, responding to her 18-year-old daughter’s pleas, Harris and her extended family began the treacherous evacuation.
In the overwhelming crowds and traffic jams, she and her youngest daughter were separated from her father, son and older daughter. The others ended up in Texas. Harris landed in a shelter in Mississippi, then drove back roads to reach Texas. There she was united with her other two children. “That was the joy, to see my children’s faces,” Harris sighed.
At the Ford Park Emergency Shelter in Beaumont, Texas, Harris went to work securing a safe future for her children. All three were enrolled at Xavier University in New Orleans and had begun classes when Katrina hit.
“I said, ‘You go to school and let me deal with this. I know nothing can take this all out of your brain, but school is where you should be,’” she said. Through Catholic-school connections, one daughter started school at Seattle University; then transferred to Holy Name in Oakland, Calif., with her sister for the fall semester. Then Harris took on her own relief work in her Red Cross shelter, which housed 1,500 evacuees.
“In the shelter, I could see tension in people’s faces, such tension in the air,” Harris said. She listened to people’s stories and offered support. She watched small children while families were enrolling their youngsters in school in Beaumont. But she needed help herself. A giver all her life, it was a challenge to become the one needing assistance.
“I prayed to God, ‘Let me learn to receive.’”
At the shelter, Harris connected with Mary Wilson, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Silsbee, Texas, which was helping Episcopal Migration Ministries line up transitional housing for storm victims. “I said to them, ‘Hey, I might need your help myself,’” Harris said. She already was working on a plan to get to Seattle, where she had lived before and where some nieces live. Then came Hurricane Rita.
“So here I was in Beaumont with another storm coming,” Harris said. “The place that had sheltered us now needed sheltering.” Harris decided to move. Wilson put her in touch with the Rev. John Denaro, EMM’s staff officer for church relations and outreach in New York.
“He had a calm voice, was very nice and concerned,” Harris said. “I told him, ‘I might have a ticket to Seattle,’ and he said, ‘You go to Seattle, and we will find you a place.’” Denaro’s office had been soliciting sponsor churches across the country and was working with St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle but did not yet have a firm commitment. On faith, he gave Harris the go-ahead.
“By the time I heard affirmatively from St. Mark’s, the prospect of Hurricane Rita was forcing residents of Beaumont to evacuate,” Denaro said. “I heard from St. Mark’s that Betty went to the airport on Tuesday or Wednesday night and slept there, finally getting on a plane and to Seattle the following day.”
The long road home
Harris’ journey is far from over. She still has not heard any word from a brother. Her father is in a temporary apartment in McKinney, Texas. An aunt who returned to New Orleans East reported trees had fallen on Harris’ house.
“She told me it looked like somebody dropped a bomb,” Harris said, adding through tears, “I miss my kitchen. I miss sitting on my porch and the children saying, ‘Hi, Miss Betty.’”
It might be a year before she returns permanently to her home. She has a medical assistant’s position at a hospital and may start nursing classes while in Seattle. “I have lost an awful lot, but I have gained a lot, too,” Harris said. “I have gained new friends and regained old friends.”
Her faith in God remains steadfast. She remembers the lesson her mother taught her: “I don’t know about tomorrow, but I know who holds my hand.”