Out of Deep Waters: 'Weathering the Storms' conference brings stories of pain and hope

January 8, 2006

Deedee Galbraith jokes that she didn't lose everything during Hurricane Katrina -- her house in Long Beach, Mississippi, was a beautiful beach cottage, "and now we're the proud owners of a concrete slab with a hardwood floor."

Galbraith and her husband, the Rev. Jim Galbraith, were among more than 200 clergy, diocesan staff and families who shared stories of tiny gains and major losses, of helping and hurting, of despair and hope, at "Weathering the Storms: A Conference for Those Affected by the 2005 Hurricanes," held January 4-7 in Orlando, Florida.

Gallows humor sometimes helps, participants said, as does sharing a geography of displacement and vocabulary of disaster: terms like FEMA trailer, blue tarps, CERT (Community Emergency Response Team), CISM (Critical Incident Stress Management), DMORT (Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team), black mold, unrecovered losses and compassion fatigue.

"People are still trying to figure out where to work and live, and how to start all over," Galbraith said. "And all of the clergy in our dioceses are trying to find ways of helping our people who are so seriously hurt."

Leaving more than 90,000 square miles of horrific damage in late August, 2005, Hurricane Katrina was one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. Hardest hit were Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. But the destruction came as states on the Gulf of Mexico from Texas to Florida were still cleaning up from 2004's hurricanes Charley, Frances and Ivan. The last straw in 2005 was when Hurricane Wilma swept through the region, causing millions of dollars in damage to South Florida and elsewhere.

The meeting at Orlando's Marriott World Center hotel was an effort to give those most directly affected by the storms support, refreshment and renewal as they rebuild their lives and ministries, said organizers the Church Pension Group, CREDO Institute, Episcopal Relief and Development, the Office of the Presiding Bishop, and the Bishop Suffragan for Chaplaincies.

Participants registered from the dioceses of Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Western Louisiana, Southwest Florida and the Central Gulf Coast (Florida's Panhandle and southern Alabama). They included bishops Bruce MacPherson (Western Louisiana), Charles Jenkins (Louisiana) and Duncan M. Gray III (Mississippi), as well as 67 priests and deacons, 21 diocesan lay professionals, 60 spouses and 56 children.

Their dioceses have lost churches, ministries and members, and tend to pass along every donation they receive to those in need while scrimping to meet payrolls and utility bills. Many of the participants are still living in trailers and tents.

Aware that spending money on a trip to Orlando would be of lowest priority for the participants, Weathering the Storms' organizers paid all expenses. They also provided parallel programs for the children and teens, including playtime in the hotel pool, a scavenger hunt and a trip to Disney World.

Workshops, called "conversation groups," helped give the adults concrete assistance in the areas of finance, insurance, vocation, emotional and physical health, legal issues and spiritual life. The 57 faculty and staff also gave individual consultations.

Most of all, there was worship and prayer.

Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold spoke to the group about the sometimes-painful slowness and uncertainty borne by people on a journey, whether out of Egypt to the promised land, on the road to Emmaus, or to a rebuilt home in New Orleans.

Griswold quoted from the French Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: "Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are, quite naturally, impatient in everything to reach the end without delay ... We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress that is, is made by passing through some stages of instability ... and that it may take a very long time."

Acknowledging that the Church workers assembled are "so used to being useful, helpful people," Griswold counseled them to take occasional respite from their role as caregivers and problem solvers, to allow Christ to be a companion on their journey as they are companions and comforters to one another.

"I pray for you," Griswold said. "I am so amazed at how much you have done under the most terrible circumstances. It is amazing how, stripped of so much, how so much grace and love and beauty can shine through."

Help still needed

Weathering the Storms participants had high praise for their fellow Episcopal dioceses nationwide. From Maine through San Diego, Alaska through Southeast Florida, all parts of the country have sent work crews, counselors, material goods and millions of dollars in aid.

"We are all so grateful for everything people have done for us," said Louisiana Bishop Charles Jenkins. "We had some very happy kids this Christmas," he added, referring to the truckloads of toys and children's clothes collected by church and diocesan toy drives.

More help arrives every day, and much more will be needed for years to come.

In Mississippi, six churches and nine clergy homes were lost, and in the parishes affected, 30 to 100 percent of the members have lost everything.

In Louisiana, 27 of 51 churches have been severely damaged. Seven were flooded and have been or will be razed. Every church has been changed more by the new demographics -- characterized by missing, moved and evacuated members -- than by the storm itself.

In the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast, 2004's devastation was exacerbated in 2005. Bishop Philip Duncan is not yet back into his home, and the diocesan office has yet to be reopened.

In addition to the homes, neighborhoods and businesses wrecked, psychological damage is still a major concern.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is affecting many, as well as "survivor's guilt," dissociation and numbing, and other maladaptive responses, said David Knowlton, a psychologist and executive director of the Healthcare Payers Coalition of New Jersey. He was recruited by the Rt. Rev. George Packard, Bishop Suffragan for Chaplaincies, to lead a plenary session on "Finding a New Normal" and to direct conversation groups and private consultations.

At Knowlton's session, participants shared stories of the frustration and loss of psychological grounding that can't be fixed with hot meals and warm beds.

A school headmaster told of students who started school in September with cheerful attitudes turning into behavioral problems. "There's a lot of acting out that wasn't there initially," he said.

"Our congregation is going through an identity crisis," said a deacon from Long Beach, Mississippi. "We used to be that pretty little church with the playground in the back, but who are we now, with our members scattered?"

Another priest compared Katrina's impact on his community to that of a family when one member is chronically ill. "When someone in a family gets cancer, a person you counted on isn't there anymore, resources are sapped away and it affects everyone."

Knowlton responded that the difference here is that this situation -- a natural disaster devastating a community -- will get better.

Vince Curry, chairman of the CREDO Institute and administrator for the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast, asked the group to consider this a theme of the Weathering the Storms convention: "It is bad, it will get worse, it will get better, and eventually it will be fine. God is good."

To make a contribution to help people affected by the hurricanes, please donate to the Hurricane Fund by credit card at http://www.er-d.org or by calling 1-800-334-7626, ext. 5129. Gifts can be mailed to: Episcopal Relief and Development, c/o 2005 Hurricane Fund, PO Box 12043, Newark, NJ 07101.