Hurricane Katrina’s lessons were ‘elementary’

Even as Hurricane Katrina stripped New Orleans bare – down to the four elements of air, fire, earth and water – God never left our side.

And now, thanks to the passage of 10 years, I also can see how the Holy Spirit acted through people to transform those elements – once perceived as enemies – into signs of hope.

I had an interesting perspective from which to gauge “elemental conditions” after Katrina. My husband, our two daughters and I had decided to hole up in my parents’ second-floor apartment in the French Quarter, knowing it was strong-walled and built on some of the highest ground in the city.

As we surveyed the neighborhood after the storm blew through, we congratulated ourselves for having “dodged the bullet”: The streets were dry; wind damage was minor to moderate; and the city would return to normal in a couple of days – and we wouldn’t be among those stuck in the contraflow back into town.

But by now you’re well acquainted with the scenario faced by many residents who had made a similar decision to stay put: They weathered the actual storm but got stuck in the aftermath.

In our case, we were high and dry in the Quarter, but had no power, dwindling food supplies and had heard radio reports – courtesy of St. Louis Cathedral rector Msgr. Crosby Kern – that the levees were crumbling.

We were among the lucky escapees, yet in the day-and-a-half before we made our way to Baton Rouge, we were able to take in at least some of the scene.

The air, the first element that hit you after the storm’s passage, was stifling. Yet I remember how God made things seem not so bad. The citywide power outage meant there was no light pollution to compete with the stars and planets populating the night sky.
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The element of fire came into play when the residence of Auxiliary Bishop Roger Morin was reduced to a smoldering frame. Like many evacuees, I saw the fire play out on live television in Baton Rouge. Of all the images, this is one that almost made me lose all hope of the city’s survival; yet this image of fire, surrounded by water, would mobilize an entire region and redouble locals’ determination to rebuild.

I don’t need to remind anyone of how the elements of earth and water wrestled with one another after Katrina. We will never forget the neck-high floods that took thousands of lives and wrecked homes. We are forever thankful to the courageous strangers who ferried the stranded out of harm’s way by truck, boat and helicopter, and who treated the ill and the frail in the worst of circumstances. Within days, locals became intimately acquainted with the “Sliver by the River” and other points of higher ground God had prepared as staging areas for the rescue-and-recovery operation.
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After Katrina, these four elements continued to be transformed into signs of rebirth.

The unrelenting heat of that most difficult of Septembers – that oppressive air – gave way to cooler Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons that many local families now remember as their “best ever” due to their heightened meaningfulness. The most famous symbols of post-Katrina stench – discarded refrigerators – were defiantly decorated with Christmas bows. Another emblem of foul air – the mountain of debris on the Pontchartrain Boulevard neutral ground – was turned into a greenway, becoming one of the many new and improved places of refreshment in post-K New Orleans.

After Katrina, a good kind of “fire” engulfed the city in the form of civic zeal. The Holy Spirit – God working through us – helped us to rebuild homes, churches and schools, and sent an unprecedented number of volunteers from across the nation and globe to our area. The fire of love was contagious! It is fitting that a garden now sprouts from the ashes of Bishop Morin’s house, along with an outdoor Way of the Cross.

Katrina also put the necessity of preserving the literal “earth beneath our feet” on the front burner, with the storm raising awareness of coastal erosion and its remedies, both natural and artificial. It is a point of pride in my parish of St. Pius X that the parish plant, which ironically sits on land reclaimed from the lake, was used as a headquarters for Katrina’s first responders.

Finally, we were reminded that water – responsible for so much destruction – also renews. When Notre Dame Seminary reopened in early 2006 following its “Katrina semester” at St. Joseph Seminary College, Archbishop Alfred Hughes rededicated “Christ and the Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s Well,” the fountain-sculpture on the seminary’s front lawn. The depicted Gospel scene reminds us that human thirst can only truly be quenched with the “living waters” offered by Christ, the font of eternal life.

May God, the creator of air, fire, earth and water, continue to renew us as we walk forward together.

Beth Donze is a staff writer at the Clarion Herald. She can be reached at bdonze@clarionherald.org.

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