Rafael Delgadillo narrowly escaped to safety on the roof of his Braithwaite home with his wife and daughter in the wee hours of the morning Aug. 29 as Hurricane Isaac’s waters rose around him.
“So, you lost everything?” Archbishop Gregory Aymond asked him Aug. 30 while stopping at the temporary shelter established at the Belle Chasse Lions Club.
“I have my life, and I have my God,” Delgadillo said, adding that he didn’t have time to leave once the waters topped the levee. “The man upstairs takes real care of me.”
Delgadillo said community members – whom he called God’s angels – rescued his family.
“I know my possessions are gone right now, but God’s going to give me what I need,” he said. “It might not be what I want, but it will be what I need.”
“Thanks for your faith,” the archbishop told him. “Keep that missionary spirit. It’s obviously alive and strong.”
Delgadillo, who came to south Louisiana as a missionary after Katrina, decided to remain here after experiencing the genuineness and generosity of the people to whom he was ministering.
Now, he is counted among the many from all across the Archdiocese of New Orleans who suffered tremendous loss in the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac.
While it only became a Category 1 hurricane, Isaac’s slow speed as it crossed Louisiana topped levees and rivers, flooded homes and required heroic rescues from LaPlace to Madisonville and Slidell, and throughout the Lafitte area and Plaquemines Parish. Its winds also felled trees and scattered roof tiles and debris, causing additional damage.
Catholic Church presence
When the storm winds diminished Aug. 30, Archbishop Gregory Aymond, along with a team from Catholic Charities, traveled to Plaquemines Parish to comfort more than 500 people housed in four parish shelters. He also spoke to parish employees who had remained at work at the emergency operations center even though they lost everything.
“Thank you for your leadership,” Archbishop Aymond told Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser. “You have been very much in my prayers.”
“You’ve always been here,” Nungesser told Archbishop Aymond. “It means a lot. The Lord only gives you what you can handle. But, it’s been hard seeing so many people (suffering).”
The archbishop assured Nungesser that beyond Catholic Charities’ quick response, services would continue long after the storm.
Nungesser said the work of Catholic Charities has kept him motivated over the past seven years as disasters such as Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Gustav and the oil spill have hit the parish and wreaked havoc throughout the state.
“Catholic Charities has been an essential part of this disaster (response) before and after the storm and throughout the year, and it’s still helping us rebuild,” Nungesser said.
The archbishop thanked Plaquemines Parish’s employees for bearing the cross for themselves and others and offered a blessing in the emergency operations room, asking God to ease their burdens and the burdens of those they serve. He prayed that they may be a sign of hope for others.
“Catholic Charities is here for the long haul and will work to serve you and the needs of others,” Archbishop Aymond said.
A chilling memory
Nungesser said this storm was eerily reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina – the same seven people who were rescued and took shelter in his home for Katrina were there again for Isaac.
He lauded several locals as heroes during Isaac, including Jesse Shaffer, who motored a boat at night to rescue people, including the Delgadillo family, from their homes.
The archbishop also stopped at the nearby YMCA shelter in Belle Chasse to find exhausted evacuees on cots.
Tieeka Matthews and her cousin Tremica Howard of Braithwaite first evacuated to a nearby relative’s home, only to end up at the YMCA shelter.
“I lost everything,” Matthews said. “When they told us to evacuate, we did.”
“God always helps us,” Archbishop Aymond told Matthews. “He gives us strength. You are in our prayers.”
The archbishop heard story after story of the water rising so quickly in Plaquemines that people narrowly escaped being drowned.
Telephone pole escape
Kathleen Gerdes Griffin, 55, who moved to Braithwaite six months ago for peace and quiet, told the archbishop how she was awakened in her bed on Aug. 29 at 4 a.m. by the wet paws of her two cats. When she realized her bed was in a sea of water, she opened a bedroom window. The cats jumped out first, and she followed, landing in waist-deep water.
She quickly realized the water continued to rise along Scarsdale Road and climbed a telephone pole and then caught a ride on a log and dog-paddled to the top of a nearby levee. She was rescued by ambulance, boat and a sheriff’s van before ending up at the Lions Club shelter.
“I told God, ‘I’m not ready,’” she said to Archbishop Aymond. “I don’t know how my legs got up that pole.”
“God’s blessing,” he told her.
Griffin now is worried about where she is going to live, and how she will get her medications and assistance without any identification.
“I know I can stay here a little while, but this is not a permanent solution,” she said about the shelter.
“A significant number (of people) have lost everything,” said Plaquemines Parish official Benny Puckett, adding that many also lost everything in Katrina. “It’s been tough since we know these people.”
As of Aug. 30, the water still had not subsided from areas south of Belle Chasse such as Braithwaite, and the state was scheduled to breach some levees to allow the water to escape. The governor’s office provided buses to evacuate those in parish shelters.
While in Belle Chasse, the archbishop visited Padua Pediatrics, a facility run by Catholic Charities for children and adults with disabilities. Padua had sheltered in place and fared well in the storm. While losing power for a day, Plaquemines Parish government and the city of New Orleans had generators brought to the site.
Padua Pediatrics not only served 27 of its regular clients during the storm but also had 11 waiver clients living elsewhere and some group-home clients. Staff members said the clients slept quietly and were being well cared for.
“This is a very special place – a very special and unique place,” Archbishop Aymond said. “You become the presence of Christ to the people here. If Jesus were walking the face of the earth, this is where he would be.”
The archbishop also trekked to Lafitte with representatives of Catholic Charities and Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana on Aug. 31 to find out what Mayor Tim Kerner needed in the coming days and to see the damage to St. Anthony Church. The entire city, including the church, rectory and its parish center, was surrounded by water and still without power.
Many lifelong Lafitte residents thought the water levels were the highest they had ever experienced, although Kerner said each recent storm had flooded the area differently depending on the strength, duration and direction of the wind.
Ring levee needed
Mayor Kerner again stressed the need for a ring levee around his city – something he said he has petitioned for for 21 years. He hoped to get support from politicians, including the governor, who visited later that day.
“The flooding this time might get us a levee,” Kerner told the archbishop.
He was glad the majority of residents had heeded the mandatory evacuation orders but told the archbishop and Natalie Jayroe, president/CEO of Second Harvest, that he would gladly accept nonperishable food, water and cleaning supplies for those who stayed and returning residents.
Kerner offered to put a tarp over the damaged roof at St. Anthony Catholic Church across from City Hall.
The archbishop gave Kerner his cell phone number in case he could think of other things he needed.
“Our prayers and support are with you,” the archbishop told him as he left.
Gordon Wadge, president and CEO of Catholic Charities, said many lessons have been learned since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Gustav in 2008 and the oil spill in 2010.
A scout team from his office was sent out in storm-affected areas throughout the archdiocese on Thursday to talk to parish officials, assess the damage and “design responses to fit their needs.” Case management and counseling are the main ministries provided after a disaster, along with emergency aid.
“We are early-responders following the first-responders (firefighters, police, EMS), and we are forever responders,” Wadge said. “People look to the church well after a disaster.”
Getting kids to talk
In Plaquemines, Catholic Charities’ medical director Dr. Elmore Rigamer and licensed social worker Lyn Shraberg were already in place at the Belle Chasse Lions Club Home doing some storytelling with kids. Wadge said a majority of resources will be devoted to Plaquemines due to the dire need there.
Even though parts of Plaquemines were under a mandatory evacuation order from the parish, some stayed because of the storm’s status as a Category 1 storm. Wadge said many, especially the elderly on Social Security and those receiving federal aid, don’t evacuate because three things are necessary that they lack: money, a working car that can withstand bumper-to-bumper traffic situations and a destination.
This storm came like Katrina – at the end of the month when people on Social Security run out of money, he said.
The archbishop said he had received texts from archbishops across the United States asking if there was anything they could do. Possible fund-raising ideas to help Catholic Charities continue its mission in the storm-damaged areas were being tossed around. Anyone can donate directly to Catholic Charities at www.ccano.org or through the archdiocese site at www.arch-no.org.
Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarion herald.org.