Weathering the Storms

Hurricane survivors share stories of pain and hope at conference
January 31, 2006

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

Galbraith and her husband, Episcopal priest James Galbraith, shared their stories of tiny gains and major losses, of helping and suffering, of despair and hope, with more than 200 clergy, diocesan staff and family members who met in Orlando Jan. 4-7 for “Weathering the Storms,” a conference for those affected by last season’s hurricanes.

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,” said Deedee Galbraith. “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, Hurricane Katrina swept through dioceses in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The destruction came as states on the Gulf of Mexico from Texas to Florida still were cleaning up from 2004’s hurricanes Charley, Frances and Ivan. Following Katrina, Hurricane Wilma caused multi-million dollar damage in south Florida and elsewhere.

Ministering despite personal loss

While the physical and psychological results from such devastation can overwhelm anyone, organizers said, this is especially so for religious leaders who must minister while recovering from their own losses. The conference was designed to support, refresh and renew those affected by the storms as they rebuild their lives and ministries.

The Church Pension Group, CREDO Institute, Episcopal Relief and Development and the Office of the Presiding Bishop, which includes the suffragan bishop for chaplaincies, organized the conference. They paid all expenses and provided parallel programs for the children and teens, including pool playtime, a scavenger hunt and a trip to Disney World.

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), plus 67 priests and deacons, 21 diocesan lay professionals, 60 spouses and 56 children.

Workshops, called “conversation groups,” gave the adults concrete assistance in finance, insurance, vocation, emotional and physical health, legal issues and spiritual life. The 57 staff also gave individual consultations. Most of all, there was worship and prayer.

Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold spoke of 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 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. ... And yet it is the law of all progress that is made by passing through some stages of instability ... and that it may take a very long time.” He counseled participants to take occasional respite from their role as caregivers and problem solvers, to let Christ be a companion on their journey as they are companions and comforters to one another.

Thankful but still needing help

Conference members expressed high praise for fellow Episcopalians nationwide, who 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 Jenkins. More help arrives daily -- and much more will be needed for years to come.

In Mississippi, six churches and nine clergy homes were lost. In the parishes affected, 30 percent to 100 percent of members lost everything. In Louisiana, 27 of 51 churches were severely damaged. Seven were flooded and have been or will be razed. More than the storm itself, new demographics -- characterized by missing, moved and evacuated members – changed every church.

In the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast, 2004’s devastation was exacerbated in 2005. The bishop is not yet back into his home, and the diocesan office has yet to reopen.

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 led a plenary session on “Finding a New Normal” and directed conversation groups and private consultations.

At Knowlton’s session, participants shared the frustration and loss of psychological grounding that hot meals and warm beds can’t fix. A school headmaster described behavioral problems among students, a deacon described his congregation’s identity crisis with members scattered, and a 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,” the priest said. Vince Curry, CREDO Institute chairman and Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast administrator, asked the group to consider this a theme of the conference: “It is bad, it will get worse, it will get better, and eventually it will be fine. God is good.”