Although it was five years ago, I remember the scene vividly. It was early Tuesday morning after a stormy Monday night along the Louisiana/Mississippi coast. A feisty lady named Katrina had roared through the area leaving a hurricane’s typical downed power lines, torn up roofs, and uprooted trees in her wake. Downgraded from a category five hurricane, Katrina was still powerful when she hit the city of New Orleans. Yet the damage had been tolerable. Residents at local saloons in the French Quarter were jubilant. “We survived Katrina!” they shouted arrogantly before news cameras.
Their celebration was premature.
Later that day the area was flooding due to a major levee failure. Before it was over, 80 -percent of the city would be inundated, including all major roads and most neighborhoods. Nearly 2,000 people would lose their lives, with many more stranded for days without food or shelter. Damage would be in the billions. Looting and violence would be rampant. The government response would be slow, with federal, state, and local officials each trying to out-blame the others. Anybody remember the pop family singers from the sixties, the Cowsills? Barry Cowsill would die in the aftermath of the storm.
A full 18 months after Katrina devastated New Orleans, the Baptist association where I served as pastor pulled together a team to go help for a week with the rebuilding efforts. I and three other men in our church made the trip. It was eye-opening and heart-breaking. Whole communities were still abandoned. Shopping centers sat empty, gutted. Hospitals and churches were boarded up. Every house for miles around had a large chalk X on the doorway with numbers in the corners to indicate survivors and fatalities.
The mission board housed our team and many others in dormitory space in the World Trade Center building in New Orleans. Downtown and the historic district had recovered remarkably well from the hurricane. Every morning we would go to an outlying area, however, where the damage was still a daily reality. One flood-damaged church was being used temporarily as a warehouse for tools and building supplies. The mission board promised to rebuild the church inside when its members moved back into the area. Here we received our orders for the day and picked up the necessary equipment.
Traveling into one of the poorest districts of New Orleans, we found ourselves putting a new roof on an elderly lady’s small white frame house. Inside it was stripped down to the studs. “Mama” was fretting. If she’d known we were coming to work on her house that day, she’d have put some turnip greens and black-eyed peas on the stove for us. Her son soon showed up to thank us for our work. His story was sobering.
“When I arrived here in a small boat a couple of days after the flood hit, the neighborhood was abandoned, deathly quiet. I found Mama’s house and called out, but no answer. I was wading through waist-deep water and probing with a long pole, trying to find Mama’s body when I heard a voice call out from across the street. A neighbor had seen me. He told me Mama had made it down the street to a high-rise mausoleum where she and some others stayed till they were rescued. I was so relieved!” We took his picture in front of Mama’s house as he proudly pointed to the X on her door with the big zero in the fatality corner.
One man on our mission team later dared to ask the question that many of us had been quietly thinking. Since New Orleans is full of wickedness, such as drinking, drugs, prostitution and exploitation of women, political corruption, etc., why should we be rebuilding it? I reminded Jim of the many decent people like Mama and her son, many of them our brothers and sisters in Christ, who were grieving and just wanted to be back in their homes again. “Pure and undefiled religion before God is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27).
Jim was satisfied.