Katrina memories mix with spill worries

Louisiana, Mississippi report recovery and remaining scars
August 26, 2010

If you live on the Gulf Coast, says the Very Rev. James "Bo" Roberts, it's not a question of whether a natural disaster will strike, but rather when the next one will come.

Roberts knows what he's taking about. He is the rector of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Gulfport, Mississippi, one of six churches along the Gulf Coast portion of the Diocese of Mississippi that Hurricane Katrina destroyed on Aug. 29, 2005. He began his ministry at St. Mark's in April 1969, "right before [Hurricane] Camille came and tore it all up in August of that year, so I have rebuilt completely twice," along with making lots of repairs after other storms in between.

Nell Bolton, executive director of Episcopal Community Services of Louisiana, which grew out of the Diocese of Louisiana's early post-storm disaster-relief efforts, recites the events of the last five years almost like a litany: "Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike, and the economic downturn and now the oil spill."

Five years after hurricanes Katrina and Rita raked the gulf, followed two years ago by Gustav and Ike, the states that share its coast are poised and anxious as the worst oil spill in U.S. history threatens their natural resources and their people's livelihoods. That worry will mute commemorations of the fifth anniversary of Katrina's wrath.

"It's kind of hard to start commemorating [recovery from the hurricanes] when, not only are large numbers of places not recovered, but with people sitting here waiting for no telling what may happen if we should get a storm that is going to take all the oil that fortunately for right now is still sitting out in the gulf [and] all of a sudden washed it up on the gulf beaches," said Roberts in a telephone interview with Episcopal News Service.

Diocese of Louisiana Bishop Morris Thompson agrees. "There's been very little conversation in [New Orleans] or among other people about remembering [Katrina]," he told ENS. And, as Thompson said, "there's still anxiety when a storm approaches … A lot of scars of Katrina are emotional."

"You can see how it's made them a little jittery and of course the oil spill hasn't helped out either," he said.

President Barack Obama is scheduled to deliver a speech on Aug. 29 at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans to mark the anniversary, and there is a smattering of anniversary events planned. Episcopal Community Services of Louisiana is sponsoring work on wetlands restoration in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward that day to be followed by a community health fair at Episcopal Church of All Souls and Community Center, which was planted in the Lower Ninth Ward after it was decimated by post-Katrina flooding.

The nearly five million gallons of oil that gushed into the Gulf of Mexico after the April 20 explosion aboard BP's Deepwater Horizon drilling platform have polluted the waters of the gulf and decimated the area's seafood and tourism industries. After BP failed in a number of attempts, the company said on July 15 that it had capped the well a mile beneath the surface of the gulf. The well has been plugged with cement, but work proceeded on two relief wells to ensure a permanent fix, which has been delayed until at least sometime in September.

Katrina was one of the most devastating hurricanes in U.S. history, according to the National Hurricane Center, and the deadliest hurricane to strike the country since the Palm Beach-Lake Okeechobee hurricane of September 1928. Katrina was responsible for approximately 1,000 deaths in Louisiana and 200 in Mississippi, a center report said. Producing an estimated $75 billion in damages, Katrina also was the costliest U.S. hurricane on record.

Katrina hit land along the Gulf Coast twice on Aug. 29, once near Buras, Louisiana, just after 8 a.m. local time with maximum winds estimated at 125 mph, and then near the Louisiana/Mississippi border about three hours later with slightly reduced winds. The storm caused storm-surge flooding of 25 to 28 feet along the Mississippi coast and 10 to 20 feet along the southeastern Louisiana coast. In Mississippi, the surge damage extended several miles inland. The surge overtopped and breached levees in the New Orleans metropolitan area, inundating much of the city and its eastern suburbs.

Five years after Katrina, 66 of New Orleans' 73 neighborhoods have recovered well over half of the population they had before the levees failed, according to information compiled by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. Eight neighborhoods now have a larger number of active households than they did prior to the levee breaches, but seven of those neighborhoods largely did not flood. However, 21 neighborhoods lost active households from June 2008 to June 2010, the center said. Extrapolating the data into a population estimate, the center suggests New Orleans now has about 363,000 residents.

There is still work to be done. In its "New Orleans Index at Five" report, the center said that the city needs to continue to make progress in public education, criminal justice and health-care systems, and most aim for "a diverse economy, an educated and skilled workforce, strong community engagement and capacity to minimize future shocks and better shape the city's course."

Mississippi Bishop Duncan Gray III said that in his state, redevelopment has followed patterns that were set before Katrina hit. "The communities are in various stages of recovery," he told ENS in a telephone interview, with those on the eastern part of the coast recovering more quickly than the western side.

"It's just the nature of the land. The eastern part, particularly Biloxi, is full of casinos and has that strong, strong tourist, casino, restaurant [base]," Gray said. "As you go west, you're into more residential and more small businesses. Then you go further on down the beach down to Waveland [near the Louisiana border where] it was not much more than a line of houses along the beach."

The swath of destruction wreaked first by Katrina and then Hurricane Rita on Sept. 23, 2005, galvanized Episcopalians to join the thousands of volunteers who traveled to the Gulf Coast to help residents recover and rebuild. Thousands of others donated money to the efforts.

"That experience of solidarity and really understanding and living into our interconnectedness with one another is something that we share not just locally or even regionally, but by virtue of all of the hundreds of thousands of volunteers that have come down here, nationally," said Bolton. "That's been an incredible source of support and encouragement to us in Louisiana as we've recovered from all these disasters."

One focus of those efforts was Camp Coast Care, which later merged with two similar groups to become Mission on the Bay. The Rev. Elizabeth Wheatley-Jones, MOB's director and chaplain, recently cited the statistics for the Diocese of Mississippi's newspaper, calling them a "gracious glimpse" at the work done through the agency: 60,000 volunteers who donated 2,400,000 service hours valued at $45 million, 3,500 homes mucked out and/or gutted, 550 homes rehabbed or built anew, 2,200 individuals or families whose needs were managed, 1,250,000 meals served and $15 million cash injected into Gulf Coast economies.

"That is creative response and a job well done: participation in the ways of God, the transformation of lives, one family and one home at a time, day in and day out for five years," she told the Mississippi Episcopalian.

By the time the Aug. 29 anniversary arrives, Mission on the Bay, a stalwart of the post-Katrina recovery effort that began in part at Lutheran Episcopal Services of Mississippi's Camp Coast Care, will have shut down, succumbing to the reality that the economic downturn and other disasters, including the oil spill, have diverted money elsewhere.

Roberts said he wanted "everyone to know of the gratitude we have for the outreach that was made after that storm."

"You know, it's not just the dollars," he added. "You get a check in a mail -- it might be 10 bucks, it might be $10,000, but it's also the support you have from that and the encouragement."

There are other examples of post-Katrina progress, among many. Five of the six Mississippi Episcopal Church buildings Katrina destroyed have been rebuilt (including St. Mark's). Three congregations have completely rebuilt their churches and associated buildings and three have rebuilt their worship space and future plans for expansion. The sixth, Church of the Redeemer in Biloxi, will probably be dedicated before the end of the year, according to Gray.

In doing so, the diocese took a risk with the three churches whose members decided to re-locate inland off the gulf: St. Mark's, Church of the Redeemer and St. Patrick's in Long Beach. "We made very intentional, philosophical decisions [that] it was not appropriate to lay on to these three churches the interest payment on these loans until the property sold," Gray said in a telephone interview with ENS.

The intent was to sell the gulf-front land to help cover the cost of the inland purchases, the bishop explained, "assuming within five years we would have had some movement on that property and [then] the recession hits us and … development has basically come to a standstill."

The diocesan budget has been "paying a sizeable chunk of interest on those properties," Gray said. "Eventually, they're going to be very good investments, but just in the short term -- and that short term maybe up to 10 years – we've got a cash flow problem."

Still, Gray said, there has been little protest from the rest of the diocese.

"The broader diocese has increasingly understood what it means to be connected one to another," Gray said. "That was theoretical for several years until we dealt with it in Katrina."

Roberts echoed that sentiment when he noted that, in the midst of the diversity of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion and its ensuing tensions, unity has come during such times as the aftermath of Katrina or the January earthquake in Haiti. St. Mark's, for instance, donated to earthquake-relief efforts in Haiti, Roberts said. "When we are trying to do some of our outreach projects, we are always reminding people of how other people jumped in to assist not just us at St. Mark's but the whole of the people of the coast area. That's once again a reminder and an encouragement for us."

In the Louisiana diocese, Thompson said, the handful of New Orleans churches that incurred major damage have "all recovered physically but there are scars of missing members."

Behind Christ Church Cathedral in New Orleans, Jericho Road Episcopal Housing Initiative has transformed itself from a gutting and repairing operation that aimed to bring affordable housing to the Uptown area of the city into an organization that wants creating community partnerships to rehabilitate neighborhoods, empower families and facilitate home ownership.

Recently, Episcopal Community Services of Louisiana raised more than $90,000 in a matter of weeks to complete work on homes it is building, is beginning a service and leadership- and spiritual-development program for young adults and is partnering with Bayou Grace Community Services.

(ENS will soon post an in-depth story about the work of ECSLA and Jericho Road.)

Less than two months after Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, then-Diocese of Louisiana Bishop Charles Jenkins predicted such efforts. Jenkins, who since has retired, led a Morning Prayer service to mark the bicentennial anniversary of the day when the Rev. Philander Chase -- later the rector of Christ Church Cathedral in New Orleans and the first bishop of both Ohio and Illinois -- conducted the first non-Roman Catholic Church service in the Louisiana Purchase on Nov. 17, 1805.

The "old normal of being the Episcopal Church with our doors locked, being a church that existed for we who were in it, will be no more," Jenkins suggested during a short homily. "That washed away with your refrigerator. Our new normal is a church engaged, a church that is a servant church and a church that lives not for itself alone but for all for whom Christ died."