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After Katrina: New Beginnings 

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Last August Hurricane Katrina roared ashore on the Gulf Coast, leaving massive damage and destruction in its wake. But if that wasn’t enough, in the days following, the levees protecting the city of New Orleans gave way, flooding 80 percent of the city and spurring a disaster that will take years from which to recover.

Those events touched the lives of all the city’s residents. Some have decided to stay and rebuild, others have moved on. Each of them has a story. Here are just three.

Sisters of the Holy Family: ‘Our Lives Would Never Be the Same’

The night before Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans, Sister Sylvia Thibodeaux, head of the Sisters of the Holy Family Congregation in New Orleans, says she had a strange sense that this hurricane was going to be different.

“I realized the night before I left that we would not find our facilities in the same way. I had a deep sense of that. It was obvious to me that this was the big one. This was going to be the one that we would not survive,” she says.

Sister Sylvia spoke with me in late April on an upper floor of the congregation’s motherhouse on Chef Menteur Highway in the Gentilly section of New Orleans. The bottom two floors were still being renovated. As we entered the building, she assured me that the toxic mold had been cleared from the building, but added that it was still not back to live-in condition. She and some of the other sisters are currently living in trailers provided by FEMA, and are trying to chart a new course for the 138-member congregation, which was founded in 1842 by Sister Henriette Delille, a free woman of color.

The Evacuation

On the morning of August 27, Sister Sylvia and the other sisters began leaving the motherhouse in five-minute intervals in a caravan of cars, vans and ambulances. They had contracted with a local ambulance company to assist them with the evacuation process.

That process was nearly derailed, however, when one of the ambulance drivers diverted to the Superdome. He said the governor had given directives that no essential vehicle was to leave the city after 9 a.m.

Sister Sylvia says, “I just sat there and prayed for inspiration that God would lead me to what to say because I had the most vulnerable sisters. I didn’t know what was going to happen in the Superdome, but I just had a feeling that was not the best place for them.”

She told the ambulance driver they would not stay at the Superdome and that if necessary she would contact her lawyers because this was a breach of contract. “In five minutes,” she says, “we were on our way. I know that God directed us at that point.”

The sisters then made their way to three different previously arranged destinations: Regency House, Naomi Heights and Maryhill Renewal Center.

After about two weeks, those sisters staying at the Maryhill Renewal Center in Pineville felt they were imposing and sought out new accommodations. They found them courtesy of Bishop William P. Friend in Shreveport, Louisiana.

Sister Sylvia says the bishop could not have been more gracious to them. “We were treated like queens,” she says, adding that the sisters will be forever grateful to him and all those who helped them in their time of need.

The active sisters immediately found work in the public schools, due to the increase in the student population caused by the evacuation. Throughout the course of the relocation process, seven of the sisters died. Sister Sylvia believes the stress of the evacuation played a role in those deaths.

Coming Home

Eventually, though, the sisters knew they would have to come home. New Orleans Archbishop Alfred Hughes told Sister Sylvia how important the sisters’ charism was to the city.

When Sister Sylvia first returned to New Orleans in October, she says, “The minute I stepped on the property, I knew that change was inevitable and from that moment on we would not be able to live in the same way.”

In fact, the grounds surrounding the motherhouse still bear the scars of last August. The trees and grass are just beginning to show signs of life, and a few flowers are poking up here and there. But the neighborhood next to the property is deserted. A shed sits atop a house. The back end of another house is gone. A child’s plastic chair is stuck high up in a tree, a sign of the floodwaters’ reach.

What she saw, she says, “was painful. But it was all over the city. It was obvious that nature is the great equalizer. Everybody was going through the same thing—every street, every block, every area of the city.”

In the flooding that followed the hurricane, the motherhouse sustained heavy damage under four to five feet of toxic floodwater. The chapel on the first floor suffered the most damage.

But the motherhouse was not the only ministry of the sisters that was affected. The primary ministry of the Sisters of the Holy Family has historically been education and care of the elderly poor.

“We minister from birth to death. And we have done that for 164 years,” says Sister Sylvia.

The oldest of the sisters’ ministries sat behind the motherhouse. St. Mary’s Academy is an all-girls school that the sisters have run since 1867. It was originally located on Orleans Avenue in the French Quarter.

But for now the school’s nine buildings sit empty, the victim of $4 million in flood damage. The sisters had the maximum amount of flood insurance they could carry—one million dollars. Last year, the school operated as part of a joint operation with Xavier Prep and St. Augustine, called MAX Prep. This year it will reopen in a building donated by the archdiocese, offering co-ed classes from pre-kindergarten to grade eight and all-girl classes in grades nine through 12.

Across the street from the motherhouse sits Lafon Nursing Home, which the sisters run. Twenty-two of its residents died in the flooding. The administrators of the nursing home had decided not to evacuate because they judged the residents to be too weak. The sisters are currently under investigation for not evacuating the residents.

And some of the sisters’ ministries will not continue. The House of Holy Family, which had provided free education to children in first through third grades, sustained major damage in the flooding and was torn down.

In addition, the sisters also operate Delille Inn and St. John Berchman Manor, as well as Lafon Daycare Center, all of which sustained damage from the hurricane and flooding. In all, repairs to the sisters’ properties exceed $11 million.

A Re-founding Moment

Hurricane Katrina, says Sister Sylvia, was a “re-founding moment for us. It’s painful, but it is affording us an opportunity to look at everything—to look at how we minister and what we will be able to continue to do because we’re an aging congregation.”

The median age of the congregation’s members is 74, and many of them will not be able to return to full-time active ministry.

She says, “We will have to reduce the ministries and live in a very different way. Many of our ministries will be a ministry of presence. We will continue to be a support, but we realize more and more the ministries we do continue we will have to transfer to lay leadership. We think that can happen very well.”

Inspiration From the Sisters

Throughout this whole experience, Sister Sylvia says she has been most impressed with “the resiliency of our sisters—to be able to survive through all of this—not giving up, to continue to want to live out our charisms. I think the living out of that impressed me, and their strong faith.”

She says what they need most now are prayers. “We need prayers to continue to live as we are, to not lose hope, to continue to do God’s work.” They could also, of course, use any financial donations, gift cards, supplies, books or magazine subscriptions (their library was on the first floor of the motherhouse) and even a retired treasurer to help them sort out their finances. In short, their needs are many.

She adds that they also appreciate other gestures of kindness they have received. “We have a whole album of letters that people have sent—encouraging letters, people who know us, our former students, friends of the community, alumni members. We want to hear from them.”

Looking Toward the Future

For now, the congregation is slowly moving forward in uncharted territory. Some of the sisters are still teaching in the areas to which they evacuated, such as Shreveport. Others have returned to New Orleans. For the sisters who are no longer in active ministry, the congregation has purchased two houses in nearby Alexandria to serve as assisted-living facilities. And while the sisters did return to New Orleans for their annual retreat early this summer, they will spend the hurricane season away from the city.

“In the fall we’ll bring back those who are able to make the journey. The sisters in the nursing home will remain there. We will not bring them home,” says Sister Sylvia.

In June, Sister Sylvia ended her service as head of the congregation. When we spoke, she said she was “looking forward to that because this was quite a way to end it.” But then she quickly pointed out, “I will do whatever I can to continue to help the community.”

She says what the sisters are concerned about “is that we continue our mission to the poor children and elderly. But we realize that Katrina and the times have forced us to change. We will continue to work and serve the poor, but we also have to work at ways in which those who have, help us serve those who do not have.”

Oswald Family: ‘God Led Us To This Point’

While many people have decided to return to New Orleans and rebuild, the reality is that many have decided not to return. Scott and Lisa Oswald and their children, Christine and Robby, are one of those families who made the decision to start over somewhere else. It was not, however, an easy decision.

Scott is a native of New Orleans. He and Lisa met when she was on a traveling nursing assignment to the city. And it’s where they were raising their family in a two-story house in the Lakeview section of New Orleans. St. Dominic was their parish and their kids’ school.

They had ridden out hurricanes before. They knew how to prepare for them and understood the risks.

But, as Scott says, “I’m stubborn. Years ago, everybody stayed. Nobody used to evacuate. That seems to be more of a new thing, but I guess the risks have been getting greater because the marshlands are not there like they used to be.”

They thought they were successfully riding out this hurricane, too, until the 17th Street Levee broke. “Then the water started coming and we weren’t so fine anymore,” says Scott. Still, both he and Lisa kept telling themselves that the water would go down the next day. But it didn’t. Eventually, the water reached the ceiling of the first floor.

“It was scary,” remembers 10-year-old Christine.

But her parents say she and her brother did great throughout the whole experience. “We just kept telling the kids, ‘Pretend you’re on Survivor and this is the next challenge,’” says Scott.

When they realized the water wasn’t receding, Scott and Lisa decided it was time to leave—and when they believe God took over.

“Throughout the process,” Scott says, “everything just fell into place—even when you tried to screw up. It was almost like God said, ‘No, I’ve got a better choice for you.’” In fact, Scott says he could go on for days with examples.

‘What More Do You Want?’

One of those examples was the canoe that floated past their house and lodged against a tree. Lisa jokingly told Scott that he should go and get it. Scott says he had had enough of the water by then and decided just to keep an eye on the canoe. Each time he saw it, though, he “started to think about a joke about a guy that gets caught in a flood.”

In the joke, two boats and a helicopter come to rescue the man. Each time he tells them, “Don’t worry, the Lord will take care of me.” He eventually drowns, and when he goes to heaven, he asks why the Lord didn’t take care of him. God’s response is, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter. What more did you want?”

Scott says the punch line struck a chord. “I said, ‘You know what? How much longer is he going to keep this canoe here saying, “What more do you want?”’” So Scott swam out and got the canoe. He and Lisa spent the next morning going around helping neighbors. But, he says, “It finally came to a point when we realized things were not going to get better and we decided it was time to move on.”

They evacuated with Scott’s parents, his sister, brother-in-law and their daughter, and Lisa’s dad, who had been in New Orleans visiting. They were going to try to canoe out, but luckily a motorboat passed by right at that time.

After being evacuated, they traveled to Cincinnati, Ohio, where Lisa is from originally and most of her large extended family live.

In Search of Normalcy

After a few months, they say they made the difficult decision to stay in Cincinnati. They enrolled the kids in school at St. Dominic Parish in Delhi and bought a house.

The deciding factor, they say, was the kids. “I think it was mostly because we felt like we could get the kids back to normal life as quickly as possible. And, once we got them into St. Dominic here, they were just so wonderful to us,” says Lisa. “We just felt like somehow God led us to this point.”

They both say their faith has been an incredible help throughout this experience. But Scott adds, “When people ask you, ‘Has this changed your faith?’, it’s almost kind of under the assumption that your faith wasn’t that strong prior to the hurricane. So, to say my faith is stronger now, I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s any stronger. I think it’s just reinforced.”

Paying It Forward

The family is now focusing on returning the help they received.

Lisa says, “People brought us so many clothes, people sent us money, and after we finally got our insurance money and all that worked out, we tried to offer to give it back. Anybody we’d talk to just said to pay it forward. And so we’ve been trying to do that as much as we can.”

As for the kids, Lisa and Scott say they are both adjusting well. The former St. Dominic Dragons are now St. Dominic Blackhawks. Lisa says her son, who is eight, has easily acclimated. “As soon as he sees boys with a ball or something, he’s happy.” It was a little harder for her daughter, but it was not for lack of kids making her feel welcome.

In fact, they were “almost too nice to her,” says Scott, “to the point where she felt like, ‘I just want to be normal. I don’t want everybody staring at me, treating me nice.’ I think everybody just wants to be back to a normal routine.”

So that is what they are focusing on. Both Christine and Robby say they are enjoying their new friends and their new big backyard, complete with a basketball court, swimming pool and trampoline.

There are things they still miss about New Orleans, though, mostly their friends and the food. Mom and Dad echo that sentiment. But they are finding ways to cope.

For Robby’s First Communion in May, Lisa and Scott had crawfish shipped up from New Orleans. Surprisingly, says Lisa, her family enjoyed them. “Next time we’ll have to order more,” she says with a smile.

Archbishop Hughes: ‘Facing a Daunting Challenge’

You’ll have to excuse New Orleans Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes if he feels more tired than usual. It’s pretty understandable given the fact that, in addition to being affected by Hurricane Katrina personally, he’s also trying to care for the city’s Catholics—both those who stayed and those who didn’t.

I talked with Archbishop Hughes at his office this past April, the same week the archdiocese moved back into its offices. Throughout the interview he mirrored the wide range of emotions you see in many New Orleans residents. One minute he spoke with great hope and pride at the Church’s efforts toward rebuilding and then would wipe away tears when he talked of the suffering this tragedy has caused.

Outside his office hangs the motto: “Rooted in Faith—Open to God’s Grace.” And he is choosing to see the events of last August as just that—a moment of grace.

“Did you know that Katrina means ‘cleansing’?” he asks. “In the Bible, in the sacraments, water is a sign of cleansing, of rebirth.”

For him, then, this is a moment of opportunity in the midst of rebuilding—an opportunity, he says, to work on issues such as poverty, racial issues, health care and many others, all of which the city has long struggled with, even before the hurricane.

That does not mean, however, he isn’t fully aware of what that entails. “We are facing a daunting challenge,” he says.

The Disaster’s Reality

Of the 1,244 buildings in the archdiocese, 387 were flooded and 864 suffered wind damage. Many suffered both.

Facing a $40 million budget deficit as a result of ministries that were not up and running and a drop in collections due to the large number of people who had evacuated, Archbishop Hughes had to make some hard decisions, including letting employees go and closing parishes.

“I had to let them go so that they could get assistance because I couldn’t pay them. But it was still hard to communicate that to them,” he says. Since then, the archdiocese has been able to rehire some of those who were laid off, but not all.

Another step in the archdiocese’s recovery plan went into effect on March 15, 2006, when it implemented a pastoral plan for the next two years. That plan addresses the closing and merging of parishes in light of reduced numbers of parishioners and resources.

It was not an easy thing to do, the archbishop says, because “it was the priests and parishioners who were already suffering.” He emphasizes, however, that the plan is flexible, in case a larger number of parishioners return than anticipated.

He cites his reconsideration of the closing of St. Augustine, a move that generated quite a bit of controversy, as proof of that flexibility. In April, the archbishop said he would reexamine the parish’s status in 18 months as to whether or not it would be consolidated with another parish.

The Church’s Response

Despite the challenges faced by the archdiocese itself, Archbishop Hughes says he is proud of the way the Catholic Church has responded. In the days and weeks following the disaster, the archdiocese distributed more than 20 million pounds of food and nearly $1 million in direct food aid through its organizations such as Second Harvest Food Bank. Priests ministered in the areas to which they had evacuated.

Last Thanksgiving weekend, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New Orleans established Operation Helping Hands, a community outreach program. It was formed to mobilize volunteers from across the country to help seniors, the disabled and those with little or no flood insurance clear their homes that were devastated by the hurricane and flooding.

The archbishop set up temporary administrative headquarters for the archdiocese in the Diocese of Baton Rouge. He met first daily, then weekly, monthly and now on a less frequent basis with the priests of the archdiocese to address both their needs and the needs of their parishioners. He also served on Mayor Ray Nagin’s Bring Back New Orleans Commission.

Lessons Learned

Archbishop Hughes says that, if this experience has taught him anything, “it is the importance of priestly ministry and the power of the ministry of presence.” The archbishop himself often traveled to shelters to listen to the stories of evacuees. He says he was touched by the fact that many of them were requesting Bibles, rosaries, prayer books or other faith-related items.

The recovery efforts have also reaffirmed for him the importance of having the right people in the right positions. In particular, he mentions the superintendent of schools and the director of religious education. The archdiocese has been able to reopen 107 of its 142 parishes and 81 of the 107 schools.

He is encouraging priests of the archdiocese to think outside the box—or parish buildings—in terms of ways to minister to their congregations, which are often now scattered. He sent a letter to evacuees, asking them things such as where they are and what they need. The surveys were then distributed to the pastors.

“Pastors who found creative ways to reconnect have a higher number of returning parishioners,” he says.

Unique Opportunity

The city of New Orleans and the archdiocese face years of rebuilding on many levels. The archbishop, however, is hopeful.

Last November, he sent a letter to members of the archdiocese. In it he said, “As we continue together the work of recovery and move toward the decisions for rebuilding, I beg patience, collaboration and understanding with one another. God has given us a unique opportunity to focus on people rather than on buildings, on faith rather than on personal need, on our care for one another rather than on preoccupation with ourselves.”

Susan Hines-Brigger is an assistant editor of this publication. She traveled to New Orleans in April. This article first appeared in the August 2006 issue of St. Anthony Messenger.