Flight From New Orleans
Getting out of New Orleans has never been as easy as getting in. The city has too much magnetic charm. At least it used to. Expecting in this case, however, that getting back in might be harder than getting out, my Jesuit community and I had decided to ride out Hurricane Katrina at our downtown church, which is hemmed in by taller buildings on both sides and at the back. We had plenty of bottled water and canned food and had filled up the bathtubs with tap water that might be used in a lengthier emergency. The city officials were saying, oftentimes in the voice of Walter Maestri, an old novitiate classmate (now a married man who is the emergency coordinator of Jefferson Parish), that we ought to get out.
But we figured we were more secure than most, and that if we stayed we might be of some use when the storm was over. During Sunday night and early Monday morning we felt the worst of it, with winds howling and the sounds of glass breaking in the darkness. We lost power at 6:25 a.m. on Monday. Thereafter we had to make our way through the four-story house and its inky stairways with flashlights. Fortunately, we had batteries. Later that afternoon, a quick inspection of the church and rectory showed that we had been justified in our somewhat disobedient decision to stay. (The acting Jesuit provincial had indicated a preference that we leave, but he gave us no order, leaving it to the discretion of the communities.) We walked the streets outside for a few blocks and saw that our Good Shepherd Nativity School had also come through with little if any damage. Alleluia for the building, we thought, but what of the children? Where were they, and when would school resume?
On waking Tuesday morning early and feeling my way down the stairs in anticipation of working in my office by the dawn light, my foot hit the ground floor--plunk, splash--under a foot of water. Uh-oh.
Walter Maestri and others were saying on WWL, the one radio station still functioning: “We told you to get out, and if you still can, do it now. A levee is breached, the water is rising, and we don’t know when it will stop. This could mean nine feet of water throughout the city.”
A quick look around outside the rectory onto Baronne Street showed the street already at least knee-deep in water. At this point, I asked the community to stay put while I explored. After wading to Canal Street, where I could see vehicles moving on the streetcar median, I walked toward the river until I found a dry cross street on the higher ground. A policeman told me it was hopeless to try to escape; the streets were all blocked or flooded. “Don’t even try. Stay where you are.” But it seemed clear that he did not know any more than I did, so I thanked him, and after we prayed the Our Father for our city, I left. Wending my way over downed trees and through dangerous-looking hazards, I found a route to the Crescent City Connection, a bridge to the west bank, where there was an elevated highway that could take us out of the city.
Walking and then wading back to the rectory, I gathered the community, told them I had found an escape route and said I thought this time we should leave; but we would have to do it quickly, because the water was rising. Brother Walter Eckler wanted to stay and some of the others were content to stay, but they all said, Jesuit troupers that they were, that if that was what I wanted, they would go. Brother Walter and I decided to go to the garage where the car was parked a block away, up on a second level, and try to get it out through the high water. It would be a risk, but one I said we needed to take. “Wait here with a minimum of your stuff, and Brother will come to get you if we get the car out.” As Brother and I waded over to the garage and noted that the water had indeed risen since earlier that morning, he alternately helped me and fussed at me for leaving.
Once inside the garage, with my heart in my throat for fear the car would stall out, Brother and I saw the water was especially deep at the curb line where we would emerge from the garage. I would gun it hard, I said. Brother shook his head quietly. But up we went for the car on the second level, where I had carefully parked it near a wall for extra security. Surprise. The wall had blown in on our car and concrete blocks littered the hood. One of the headlights was smashed. But after Brother and I removed the blocks and kicked the concrete rubble from under the front tires, we backed out and made our way down to the critical patch of deep water just outside the garage entrance.
“Give it the gas,” he said, so I did. After a moment of hesitation the Impala jerked its way into the center of the street where the water was shallower. “Stay in the middle, stay in the middle, Father,” Brother shouted reprovingly as we chugged up toward Canal Street. We emerged with speed and force onto the median--later that night we saw ourselves at this moment on NBC-TV--and someone shouted from the sideline of folks gathered on the dryness of the median: “Father, you’ll do much better if you don’t go so fast.” “Thanks for the tip,” I said, wondering if we would have made it out if I hadn’t gunned it.
We parked on the streetcar tracks at the corner of Baronne and Canal, and, as Brother went to get the others from the rectory, I got into a conversation with the Reverend Smith, an African-American pastor who was walking along Canal Street. We exchanged pastoral observations about our city, and he promised to come visit me when this was all over. A group of black teenagers ran past us and darted into the French Quarter along Dauphine Street. “See those kids, Father? They’re going to loot some stores.” Grasping the Reverend Smith’s hand, I said the Our Father slowly for the city, with the Reverend Smith saying “Amen” to each of the phrases: “Our Father,” “Amen.” “Hallowed be thy name,” “Amen”....
After a few minutes the rectory community appeared, wading through the high water. Leading the way was Regina Fulton, who works at the parish and who had stayed with us through the storm. She was carrying several bags. Then came Father John Edwards, 81 years old, with a bad knee. Then Father Paul Osterle, 76 years old but limber. Then Father Donald Hawkins, younger but with a bad back and two hip replacements. Brother Walter was shepherding, encouraging and cajoling as necessary.
We loaded up and made our way out along the predetermined route and out of harm’s way, finally ending up at Grand Coteau, La., a small town 150 miles to the west where the Jesuit novitiate is located. When we arrived, there was Dickensian rejoicing. Everyone had been worrying about us. They were all the more worried because Katrina had completely disrupted both landline and cellphone communication--a lesson for students of disasters to note for the future.
As we took hot showers and relaxed into the detachment of having left everything behind--including, in the dumb excitement of getting out quickly, my appointment book--we began to learn of the agonies we had also left behind among those who had neither car nor brother companions nor escape route.
For the 100th time that day, I prayed, “Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary.”
During our enforced rustication at Grand Coteau and without the usual props of breviary or other books, I have prayed the Rosary for the “city that care forgot.” The Luminous Mysteries are the ones that mean much as I pray for the transformation of New Orleans and of myself. These mysteries might just as well be called “Transformation” mysteries. Each mystery held a special poignancy after our escape.
The Lord’s Baptism. The pertinent Gospel text says that Jesus “came up out of the water,” ready for a new life and mission. So should my city, I pray.
The Marriage Feast at Cana. The Lord blesses water into wine, and I pray he will change the horrid waters of the city’s suffering into the wine of new life, and even the joy of which my city was so capable. In the Scriptures, after all, water often bears the double meaning of destruction and new birth.
The Preaching of the Kingdom. As the Lord preached, he also worked water miracles of healing and order. During a storm at sea, the disciples cried, “Do you not care that we are perishing?” He then showed himself the God who had originally brought order from the chaos of roiling waters. Do it again, Lord.
The Transfiguration and The Institution of the Eucharist. These are mysteries of a new form par excellence. May my city, Lord, somehow be changed into your dazzling body, that resurrection body you give us as bread and wine for life, joy and mission.
In subsequent days, watching on television the torture of New Orleans, it occurred to me that this is not the first time the Jesuits--from Loyola University, Jesuit High School and two of the city’s parishes--have had to leave New Orleans. In 1763, when His Most Christian Majesty suppressed the Society of Jesus in French territories, the Jesuit plantation that occupied a huge swath of the present-day central business district was sold at auction. So were its slaves. Were any of their descendants, I wondered, among those faces I saw at the Superdome?
“Lord, do you not care that we are perishing?” But then, “Who is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
Change us, Lord. Save us all.