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Matt Malone, S.J.September 25, 2006

The first thing one notices upon entering the Church of the Immaculate Conception in downtown New Orleans is the smell of gasoline. Instead of being overwhelmed by the church’s impressive Moorish architecture, one is overwhelmed by this olfactory reminder that a year ago this church stood near the eye of the third deadliest hurricane in American history. Twelve months after the storm, New Orleans is still littered with mementos of Katrina. The leaking gas tank deep beneath Immaculate Conception is largely the extent of that parish’s storm damage. But elsewhere in the city, especially in the lower-lying neighborhoods where the floodwaters reached their apex, whole neighborhoods are still uninhabited and seemingly uninhabitable. In the Lower Ninth Ward the destruction is nearly total. In neighborhoods like Gentilly and New Orleans East, abandoned cars still sit where the storm surge left them, schools and churches stand lifeless, and nearly every house is marked with the spray-painted signature of the National Guard unit that searched it for the living and the dead.

The Church Steps Up

While progress has been made, the city still struggles. The Catholic Church has emerged as a major leader of the region’s recovery. According to many, the biggest challenge now is the perception that the crisis is over. Many Americans have forgotten about Hurricane Katrina, the storm having made the transition from news to history in the nation’s consciousness.

The Rev. Edward R. Brienz challenges the prevailing perception: “When I travel around the country, I hear people saying ‘what’s the big deal?’ We get 10 major storms a year in this country. Why aren’t they over it? My answer is that all…storm damage is not equal. There’s a big difference between a storm blowing through and a storm where the water sits for a month.”

During Katrina, a storm that claimed over 1,000 lives in New Orleans alone, 80 percent of the city was flooded at varying depths, from 2 to 12 feet; 120,000 homes were completely destroyed and thousands more were severely damaged. In reality, New Orleans suffered two major disasters in 24 hours: the winds of a Category 3 hurricane and the waters of a massive flood.

Father Brienz, a priest of the Diocese of Youngstown who came to New Orleans last December for what was supposed to be a month of relief work, has not left. His unofficial job is to conduct tours for visitors, hoping to impress upon the outside world the troublesome situation in which New Orleans still finds itself. His official job is chaplain to the volunteers of Operation Helping Hands, one of the dozens of Catholic Charities relief agencies assisting in the recovery. Its mission is to help homeowners to salvage what they can and gut their houses as the first stage of rebuilding. It is a race against time. Every day the homes still standing deteriorate; many are open to the elements. The government set an unrealistic deadline—the first anniversary of the storm (Aug. 29, 2006)—for homeowners to gut their homes or face demolition.

By the first anniversary, Operation Helping Hands hopes to have gutted 1,000 homes. The program is staffed almost entirely by the 5,000 volunteers who came to New Orleans since last fall. “Without the volunteers, we can do nothing,” says Father Brienz. “As badly as we needed them this past year, we need them even more now.” Operation Helping Hands has a waiting list of 350 homes and still receives 60 calls a day asking for help. How many other houses still need to be gutted? According to Father Brienz, “I think it’d be safe to say 100,000. It’s easy to say, ‘why bother?’ But every house is a family.”

Impact on Poor Parishioners

One family in need is the Estell sisters in the Holy Cross area of the Upper Ninth Ward. Joyce and Odie Estell grew up in this predominantly African-American neighborhood, just a few blocks from the home of Fats Domino. They were communicants at St. David’s Church, a parish started in 1937 by the Josephites as part of their outreach to African Americans. The church is now closed, destroyed by the deluge. The shell remains. Attached to its outside is a statue of the risen Christ, a symbol of what this community hopes to become.

It will not be easy. In pre-Katrina New Orleans, the poverty rate was twice the national average. While the storm affected all classes and races of people (middle-class Lakeview was the first to flood), it disproportionately affected the poor. The contrast between rich and poor is starkest as the city begins its recovery. Families with the resources to return and rebuild have done so. But for families of modest means, like the Estells, the recovery has been much slower.

Joyce Estell has been a teacher in the New Orleans school system for 23 years. She had just been assigned to the new Louis Armstrong Elementary School when Katrina struck. Ms. Odell knew at least four neighbors who died in the storm, including three children whom she had taught. She estimates that a third of her neighbors have returned, 10 percent less than the official city estimate, and she does not know if they are going to rebuild the houses they grew up in. “You would think about getting the house up and running if they showed the levees would hold. Do you really want to get the house up and running only to see it go down again?”

Joyce’s sister, Odie, has even more pressing problems on her mind. She worked in the New Orleans traffic department for 15 years and, like many municipal employees, she has not worked since the storm. “You can’t think about rebuilding; you can’t do much of anything with no money,” Odie says. “Now everything’s coming to a halt because there’s no more unemployment assistance.”

Many people like the Estells, especially those who worked for the city, signed up for unemployment benefits and turned down federal emergency assistance after Katrina, because they thought they would be back to work in relatively short order. A year later, unemployment assistance is due to expire and jobs are hard to come by, especially for professionals. “We don’t know what we’re going to do next month,” says Odie. “And there are a lot of people in that boat. This is a real heartbreaker.”

The Archbishop’s Assessment

The man responsible for overseeing the Catholic response to the heartbreak is the city’s stout-hearted and amiable archbishop, Alfred C. Hughes. Other bishops in the United States have had to contend with parish closings and re-alignment of scarce resources, but Archbishop Hughes has had to do this as part of an emergency response to a disaster. “I never imagined,” he said shortly after the storm, “that at my age I’d be responsible for rebuilding an entire diocese.”

The archdiocese assessed its damage from Hurricane Katrina at $225 million. Of the 1,276 buildings owned by the archdiocese, 397 suffered severe flooding and 864 sustained damage from wind. The archdiocese had enough insurance to cover the wind damage, but, like many property owners in New Orleans, had not nearly enough to cover the flooding. Insurance will cover only about $25 million of the estimated $145 million in flood damage, and the shortfall has precipitated a financial crisis.

“We’re struggling,” says Archbishop Hughes, “because of the significant loss of revenue from the parishes that have been closed or have depleted numbers of parishioners contributing. Our operating budget deficit for the fiscal year that just closed was $8 million. I am hoping that at the end of two years we can return to a balanced budget. A great deal is going to depend on the return of evacuees.” The archdiocese’s best guess is that in two years the number of Catholics in New Orleans will be about 60 percent of what it was pre-Katrina. “It’s all projections,” Archbishop Hughes says. “No one knows what is really going to be possible.”

In developing a recovery plan, the archbishop has walked a fine line. The plan he released in February had to be “ahead of the return of the people in order to signal our commitment to them but not…so far ahead that we couldn’t sustain what we were attempting to do.” The pastoral plan called for closing six parishes and the “temporary closure” of 24 others, the reopening of which will depend on how many parishioners return. Hughes also redistributed his priests, noting that while pre-Katrina New Orleans had more parishes than priests, after Katrina it had in some places more priests than parishes.

“People [outside New Orleans] think the crisis is over, so they are surprised to learn it is not,” says Archbishop Hughes. “But they are also encouraged by what the church has done. It gives them a sense of appreciation for the mission of the church and gives them a desire to help the church with its response.”

Pastoral Response

The Catholic Church’s efforts have been considerable. Within the first four months of the recovery, Catholic Charities distributed nearly 40 million pounds of food. The archdiocese set up 12 strategically located community centers that continue to distribute almost $200,000 a week in recovery aid. This is made possible through the generosity of other American Catholics, which is why Archbishop Hughes is so eager to keep New Orleans in the news.

The work of the city’s Catholic schools, however, is perhaps most impressive. Right after the storm, the City of New Orleans school system announced that it would not reopen any public schools for the balance of the school year. In response, “we started opening our schools,” Archbishop Hughes says, “regardless of whether children could pay or were previously part of the Catholic school system. This created tremendous good will in the wider community. And it also encouraged a number of people to come back.” It also prompted the public school system to rethink its decision and reopen some of its schools.

As the city’s pastor, Archbishop Hughes has responded to the spiritual trauma caused by Katrina. It is estimated that at least 200,000 residents of the Gulf coast have been affected by post-traumatic stress. Many ask where God was in the crisis and where God is now. But “they aren’t calling into question their faith,” according to Archbishop Hughes. “They are seeking understanding. The most important thing right now is presence to them and helping them to appreciate that working together God is going to help us do something better.”

Still, the archbishop is haunted by memories. “We had three priests at the airport where the sick were being triaged. I’ll never be able to walk by those gate areas where the morgues were set up without thinking of the people who died there.”

Because so many of New Orleans’s Catholics now live in the diaspora, Archbishop Hughes asked the pastors of the most devastated parishes to see themselves as pastors of “virtual parishes.” One of New Orleans’s new “virtual pastors” is the Rev. Doug Doussan, pastor of the predominantly African-American St. Gabriel’s parish in the Gentilly neighborhood. Floodwaters from the industrial canal left Gentilly under 10 feet of water. Three members of Father Doussan’s parish died in the storm. His next-door neighbor had to swim to the second floor of the parish school and break the windows to save himself and his family. Another parishioner, Shirley Judge, had to guide her wheelchair-bound mother across the parish parking lot.

It took five weeks before Father Doussan was able to return and inspect the damage. “I was struck by two things,” he said. “There was thick green mud everywhere. No green grass, just mud. The second thing I noticed was the silence. There were no birds, no children, no squirrels, no dogs, nothing. The mud and the silence seemed to say ‘there is only death here.’ I said to myself, ‘It is impossible to think that St. Gabriel’s parish could ever come back to life.’” Later a dejected Father Doussan returned to Baton Rouge. The pastor of St. John Vianney parish, where he was staying, found him in the living room and said, “Doug, why don’t you let the people of St. John Vianney handle the clean-up of St. Gabriel?”

“This was a huge moment of grace for me, because I was absolutely paralyzed,” Father Doussan says. Over the next three months, teams of parishioners from St. John Vianney drove to St. Gabriel for weekend workdays. They removed the broken and water-logged pews. They tore out the sanctuary and pulled up the floor, sweeping and mopping the concrete slab underneath 16 times.

But Father Doussan’s biggest obstacle remained: locating and then bringing together his scattered flock. Three weeks after the storm, the virtual parish was relaunched on the Internet, an essential means of communicating with a congregation that had no church. But it was word of mouth that proved most effective. Father Doussan and his team searched all over Baton Rouge for their parishioners. “We kept getting leads, and we’d follow them up,” he said. “I’d bump into people at Wal-Mart. I’d say ‘Wait a minute, what is your e-mail address?’ or ‘Have your mother call me,’ or ‘Do you know of anyone else from our parish? Do you know where they are?’”

After three months, they had located 350 families in 22 different states, almost half of the registered families. The first Mass was on Nov. 27, and 300 people attended. Since January, St. Gabriel has held weekly Mases with about 300 congregants, even though most people were still without electricity or air conditioning—essentials in the oppressive New Orleans heat.

And the Future?

Most worshiping parishioners have not yet moved back into the neighborhood. How many will return? “Our guess is that 50 percent will move back to the community,” Father Doussan says. “But every family that moves back encourages another to move back.” He has promised to use parish resources to help any family that wants to rebuild. The parishioners have organized themselves into 22 different ministries ranging from hospitality to homebuilding.

Before Katrina, St. Gabriel had about 600 people at its weekend Masses and a collection averaging $10,000 a week. In the past few months, the weekly attendance has been 300, the collection $5,600—that’s $600 a week more than might be expected. And parishioners who cannot attend are mailing in their contributions from Memphis, Georgia, Texas and as far away as Chicago. Father Doussan estimates that St. Gabriel parish’s recovery will take three years and $3 million. Archbishop Hughes estimates that it will take 10 years for the archdiocese to recover. “That assumes,” says Doussan, “we don’t have any more hurricanes.”

Will there be another hurricane? The Gulf of Mexico is the warmest it has ever been. If there is another storm, will the levees hold? Can Catholic Charities sustain its work in a period of declining national interest? Will there be homes and jobs in the new New Orleans for people like Joyce and Odie Estell? How long can parishes like St. Gabriel’s thrive if parishioners choose not to come home?

A year after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans still poses more questions than answers. The future of the city is uncertain, but there are sure signs of hope. For the Catholic people of New Orleans, it is a distinctively Christian hope. “I love the people and the church here,” said Archbishop Hughes. “I hope that with God’s grace we can realize what St. Paul promised: for those who love the Lord, everything will turn to good.”

For good or ill, New Orleans has been changed forever. “I think of it now as sacred ground,” Father Brienz says. “When life comes forth or life is taken at some point, it’s more than earth, it’s more than buildings, it’s more than weather. It involves transformation. I see it as something to be memorialized. I see it as a call to look for security in more than our levees and our building designs. Our security cannot depend on our own engineering.”

The smell of gasoline at Immaculate Conception Church is a reminder of that.

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15 years 11 months ago
This was written in 2006. Can you direct readers to an update of this situation? John Gyorki May 2008

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