Memories, evidence of hurricanes' destruction still linger

Episcopalians join others to mark anniversaries of storms' passages
August 27, 2009

Four years after hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the U.S. Gulf Coast and one year after Gustav and Ike wreaked havoc throughout the Caribbean before slamming into Texas, the storms' impact is still being felt.

"That 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. That washed away with your refrigerator," Diocese of Louisiana Bishop Charles Jenkins said during a homily just weeks after Katrina decimated New Orleans and elsewhere. "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."

That new normal continues four years later. New church buildings are being built and consecrated, ministries are growing and advocacy for the storms' victims continues. At the same time, people are still suffering and some communities have been changed forever.

Katrina came ashore along the Mississippi and southeast Louisiana coast on August 29, 2005. The category three storm laid waste to 90,000 square miles of Gulf Coast land, an area the size of the United Kingdom. In Mississippi, the storm surge obliterated coastal communities and left thousands destitute. New Orleans was overwhelmed by flooding after its levee system failed. All told, close to 1,800 people died during the storm and her aftermath.

While marking the third anniversary of the storms last year, residents along the Gulf Coast kept a wary eye on Gustav which had already rampaged over Cuba and Haiti. The storm made its U.S. landfall on September 1, 2008 damaging parts of the Diocese of Louisiana, especially Houma, Bayou du Large and Terrebonne Parish.

A week later, Ike with its more than 111 mile-per-hour winds, raked Cuba on September 8 and 9, killing at least eight people and forcing a million to flee their homes. Already reeling from the death and destruction caused by Gustav and tropical storms Fay and Hanna, Haiti suffered for four days as Ike stalled over the eastern part of Hispaniola.

In all, nearly 800 Haitians died and more than 151,000 were displaced, according to a report to the U.S. Congress.

When an Episcopal Church delegation headed by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori visited Haiti in November 2008, U.S. Ambassador Janet A. Sanderson called the storms "body blows." She suggested that the destruction amounted to "Katrina 10 times over."

Ike then headed north, slamming into Galveston, Texas on September 13 as a 600-mile-wide category two storm with winds as high as 110 miles per hour. Most Episcopal congregations inland from Galveston in the Diocese of Texas sustained some sort of wind and water damage. In the neighboring Diocese of Western Louisiana, the storm surge in the Lake Charles/Sulphur area was reported to be more devastating than that of Hurricane Rita, which hit that part of the state four weeks after Katrina in 2005. In the Diocese of Louisiana, Ike's storm surge inundated areas that were still trying to recover from Gustav's damage.

Now, in the middle of the 2009 hurricane season, which has thus far seen just one hurricane, the storms of 2005 and 2008 are being remembered.

In New Orleans on August 29, Episcopal Community Services of Louisiana (formerly the diocese's Office of Disaster Response) will sponsor a day of service that involves home rebuilding throughout the city. The city still has more than 62,000 vacant and blight houses and apartment buildings, and rents are 40 percent higher than before Katrina, the New York Times reported August 28.

Jenkins will begin the day with Eucharist at Christ Church Episcopal Cathedral (http://www.cccnola.org) and volunteers will mark the end of work with a party at Church of All Souls, according to a news release from the organization. Churches from across south Louisiana are sending volunteers to work at several sites, the release said. The workers will be fed lunch by Trinity Episcopal Church's Mobile Loaves and Fishes ministry, which began after Katrina as a way to help New Orleanians who are trying to rebuild their homes and their lives.

The diocese's effort in the Lower Ninth Ward that day will be an official part of the Louisiana Disaster Relief Foundation's "re-build-a-thon."

"I observe that, intentional or not, the city is a different place today than it was four years ago," Louisiana Bishop Charles Jenkins wrote of New Orleans in an ENS reflection August 28. "For some, life is better, for others life is at best unchanged or worse. I observe a shift in where political power is vested and a dramatic change in the role that New Orleans plays in state government. I see some of our schools improved but a gross neglect of others. I see children going without special education and the tools that will help those challenged to succeed."

The rebuilding efforts and the need for resources are both large and small. St. Paul's Episcopal Church Homecoming Center in the Gentilly section of New Orleans estimates that only 30 percent of that neighborhood has come back. It has put out a call for ladders to help returnees and volunteers make homes livable again. Many of the volunteers have helped paint homes but the center's original ladders are wearing out from three years of use.

St. Paul's itself is in the city's Lakeview neighborhood and knows about surviving in New Orleans. Its first building was used to stable Union troops' horses after the city surrendered during the Civil War. That building was devastated by fire in 1891, but later rebuilt. Forced to move locations in the 1950s to make way for a bridge, the church rebuilt on its current land and relocated many parts of that restored building. Hurricane Betsy blew out its large Ascension stained glass window in 1965. Parishioners collected pieces of glass from all over the neighborhood; the window was recreated in Germany and reinstalled. Then 40 years later the church buildings sat in eight feet of water for three weeks after New Orleans' levees failed.

Meanwhile, in the Diocese of Mississippi, celebrations of post-Katrina resurrection began a few weeks ago for another Episcopal congregation that knows about being hit by hurricanes. On August 15, Mississippi Bishop Duncan Gray III consecrated a new building for St. Patrick's Episcopal Church in Long Beach. The parish had gathered for its Eucharist together in its new building on May 31 for Pentecost.

St. Patrick's was one of six Episcopal congregations that lost their church buildings to Katrina. Founded in 1961 on the Mississippi Sound, its first building was destroyed in 1969 by Hurricane Camille. The parish rebuilt on that location but moved to new land in 1989. A third to a half of the parish's families also lost their homes to Katrina.

A year after the storm, parishioners decided to rebuild on high, safer ground further inland. Those efforts have been aided by at least 33 congregations elsewhere in the Episcopal Church, along with the dioceses of Easton and Florida.

A video of St. Patrick's journey is viewable here.

New church buildings and other recovery work also continues one year after Ike collided with Galveston. Nearly 10 months after Ike had flooded the nave, Sunday school rooms and the rector's office of Grace Episcopal Church, more than 200 people gathered on July 27 to rededicate the building. New red hangings graced the lectern and pulpit. The original wooden floors and pews gleamed, reclaimed and refinished, and sunlight streamed through century-old stained glass.

"The work of grief demands attention over time," Texas Bishop Suffragan Dena Harrison said in her sermon. "We know what it has taken to bring you to this day, laboring at Grace while working at your own homes and helping your neighbors…You inspire and humble us … and because of you grace endures."

The day after Ike's storm surge raged across Galveston, work immediately began to remove soggy walls. Rotting carpet and furniture were piled on the curb, soaked through with salt water and slimy with black mold. The congregation moved to the mildly damaged parish hall for worship in the months since the hurricane.

"Members of our parish family were dispersed, displaced, traumatized," said parishioner Vickie Robertson.

Worship moved from the church to the parish house, back to the unheated church in winter, and back to the parish house after the pews were sent to be refinished. The church office took up most of the parish administrator's living room and Rector Paul Wehner's car.

There were many unforeseen setbacks during the renovations including the asbestos tiles under the carpet in the church, which became a blessing once the tile was painstakingly removed and the original oak floors were revealed and refinished.

During the rededication service parishioners gathered around 13-year-old Jared Jackson for the laying on of hands as he was confirmed. The congregation later celebrated with a barbecue.

Also in the diocese, partnerships developed between inland parishes and those in Galveston. For instance, St. Thomas' Episcopal Church in Rockdale, northeast of Austin, donated its child-size chairs, benches, altar, crib, and small table to St. Augustine of Hippo Episcopal Church. The Rockdale congregation also sent along an extra set of purple and white altar hangings and vestments to the Galveston church.

The congregation at St. Augustine, the oldest Episcopal church in Texas, had to rebuild their parish hall and auxiliary buildings after they were flooded in the storm surge.

The Rev. Anne Matthews, rector of St. Thomas who also works as congregational administrator for Congregation Kol Halev (http://www.kolhalev.org), a Jewish congregation in Austin, received office furniture when the congregation downsized after the resignation of its rabbi. The Rev. Chester Makowski, St. Augustine's transitional deacon, thanked "the good people of St. Thomas for their generosity in our rebuilding efforts.

"Not only did you give us a beautiful set of purple and white altar hangings, furniture for the little ones, and an altar, but your bringing together our congregation with Congregation Kol Halev was a blessing," he said.

St. Augustine's also found a recovery partner in Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Houston. Former Emmanuel parishioner Bill Taylor became the bishop's warden at St. Augustine's after he and his wife retired to Galveston. Three days after Ike hit, Taylor came to Emmanuel to ask what his former parish would do to help the Galveston congregation.

After cleaning up their own property from Ike's impact, Emmanuel parishioners began regularly heading to Galveston to gut houses that belonged to St. Augustine members. They and other parishioners donated the supplies need to completely restore one member's home. In addition, Emmanuel's rector Janie Kirt Morris wrote to more than 80 churches in Oklahoma and West Texas explaining the project and inviting them to join the ministry by sending money. Many responded to the call.

At Christmas, Emmanuel parishioners focused their holiday outreach efforts on youth served by the Galveston Boys and Girls Club and their families, most of whom lost everything and were still living in hotels. The parishioners also started a homemade cookie ministry, sending bags of cookies to the youngsters at Christmas and again at Easter.

More information about the Diocese of Texas' recovery efforts is available here.