Friday, August 31, 2007

Katrina Two Years Later: Gulf Shores

Gulf Shores was supposed to be where our hotel rooms were located. That was a three hour drive from our shelter where we worked, on a good day. Most days, due to gas shortages, road blocks, construction and just pain damage from Katrina were bad days. On bad days the drive was five hours one way. So, I stayed the first night, three nights later and on my last night in Alabama. The rest of the time I slept on a cot, in the kitchen of the church that hosted our shelter.

The hotel at Gulf Shores was beautiful. There were tropical birds in large bamboo cages in the entryway. The hotel faced the beach and the beach was beautiful. It went on forever, the water was aquamarine and warm as bath water. Gulls and palm trees were everywhere. Unfortunately, the palm trees had no branches.

The hotel however was barely functioning. It had just reopened. This was the third time the roof had been repaired in two years. Hurricanes, Charlie, Ivan and now Katrina had ripped off the roof and damaged the electrical system. After I returned home the hotel was again hit by Hurricane Rita.

Our rooms were packed, more people than beds. However, it would have been so wrong to complain, we had rooms and running water and we knew where our families were.

The entire area had been hit hard. Hotels and shops were destroyed. Boats were on the road. Amusement parks and museums were closed. The National Guard closed entire section of the area. And then there were the gators. The gator parks had been damaged and gators were lose. I hate that!

The area did have some nice restaurants that were beginning to open. My last night I was taken to dinner by some supervisors who liked our work. They took us to Lula’s Homeport owned by Lucy Buffett, sister of Jimmy Buffett. The restaurant was lit up with garden lights and it sat next to the Intercoastal Waterway. So as we ate giant barges slowly moved past us. It was a great setting to appreciate one another.

It was clear that during normal times the area was a tourist haven. Hotels and restaurants on the gulf, swamp forest on the other side of the road. Water parks and art colonies. And then there was the souvenir shop whose entrance way was a giant shark head. I did make sure I walked through that a number of times.

We were told by locals that all of the development over the past couple of decades was a mistake. One guy told me, “You don’t build anything on the beach you can afford to lose”. Good advice. There was a lot lost. If we drove north to Mobile the roads and bridges were damaged. If we drove east to Florida homes and towns were damaged. if we drove west to Mississippi the devastation was catastrophic.

All in all the area was a tease. It hinted at a beautiful time while only complicating our lives. I avoided it.

Katrina Relief: Loaves and Fishes

Katrina Two Years Later: Mobile

So, it is the two year anniversary since Hurricane Katrina revealed how unprepared we were, at all levels of government, to care for our citizens after a catastrophic disaster. I have responded to many national disasters. Each one is different and each has a different effect on me.

I have been to floods in Kentucky in which the folks were so angry there was fear of riots. That was the first time I noticed FEMA workers were being viewed as a problem instead of any answer. That was a change.

I responded to Sept. 11th and served six blocks from Ground Zero during the Christmas break of 2001-02. That left me tired and sad, even anxious. I did not come home angry at “us”.

Katrina was different, way different. Cathi could tell it was getting to me when she talked to me on the phone. I had never been surrounded with non-stop sadness, loss, incompetence and an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. On the other hand, I also had never seen so many different people come together regularly in informal worship and support. Still, the over-riding feeling was one of being poisoned.

My boss and I had talked about developing criteria for when I could leave my classroom to respond to a disaster. We never made the criteria because neither one of us wanted to convert numbers of dead into days off of work. However when Katrina hit my boss simply said that whatever criteria we would have made would have acknowledged that the worst disaster in American history required a response. So, with the blessing of Dr. Daniel our department chair and with the University of Saint Francis I was off to provide disaster mental health services to folks dealing with Hurricane Katrina.

I flew into Montgomery Alabama only to be transferred to Mobile Alabama. The hotel we stayed at was in Gulf Shores, however, the shelter I would work at was in Citronelle Alabama. The hotel was an hour and a half south of Mobile, the shelter an hour north of Mobile. Because of all the problems with roads, traffic and gas shortages it was up to a three hour drive from the shelter to the hotel. I stayed at the hotel twice, it was not worth the drive.

I was aware of the massive destruction that occurred in New Orleans, in Louisiana, Gulf Port, Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, and the gulf coast of Alabama. I was not prepared for the wallop Mobile took.

I arrived in the middle of the night and then continued on to Gulf Shores. When I returned in the morning I saw a city that had most of its electrical power restored. Traffic lights mostly worked. However, the city was still under martial law, National Guard was everywhere. There were major gas shortages. I waited at three gas stations to get gas, the first two ran out before it was my turn to fill up.

Mobile is an impressive city. The Mobile Bay Visitor/Convention Center is this massive, modern glass building facing the gulf harbor. The Mobile Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is beautiful and is surrounded by an antebellum section of town. I meet with staff members of the Mobile Archdiocese to see if I could conect them with our Education department. The goal was to guide our students in their desire to contribute to folks effected by Katrina. The highway from the city to the gulf shore spans the harbor. Then there is the USS Alabama. This is a massive battleship that served in the Atlantic and Pacific during World War II. It is now a museum and it was closed because that steel fortress was damaged by Katrina. It had an 8 degree list to port, weapons and planes were destroyed. It would require at least $4 million to repair it.

The city was full of folks from all over the Gulf coast looking for assistance, for a place to stay, for medical care and for lost friends and family.

The harbor was the site of cruise ships that were being converted into floating housing for the displaced. People looked tired, dazed. We were hundreds of miles from the center of the disaster and yet the impact permeated all aspects of life in Mobile.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007


Alleluia: Fr. Richard Ho Lung and Friends

Sister Julie Marie Oxley, O.S.F.

On August 04 friends, family, colleagues and fellow Religious came together at the USF chapel to celebrate Sister Julie Marie Oxley’s Silver Jubilee.

Twenty five years as a Sister of Saint Francis of Perpetual Adoration is no small accomplishment. Sister Julie Marie has worked at serving the aged Sisters at the motherhouse. She has served our students at the University of Saint Francis. She is currently a student in the Pastoral Counseling graduate program. When she is done she will be a servant to an even larger group of people.

Sister Julie Marie is a good servant. People leave her knowing they had been heard and that they had been cared about. She is funny, creative and clever and she is mischievous! So there was no surprise that many, many people came to mark this important milestone in her life.

The ceremony was beautiful. Father John presided. The Renewal of Vows was touching and the music was in harmony with the occasion.

Sister Julie Marie has the artist eye and this was reflected in the chapel. There were roses next to the statue of St. Francis, each with meaning.

The Red Rose stood for all the Sisters in her Community serving around the world.

The White Rose stood for all of the deceased Sisters

The Orange Rose stood for Sister Julie Marie’s family and friends.

There was also a bouquet at the alter and again there was nothing haphazard about its arrangement. The Lily was in memory of her father. The Daisy was in memory of her brother Dan and the Yellow Rose was in memory of her brother Jeff.

The attention to detail only reflected how she cared about so many people that have crossed her path.

After the ceremony there was a reception in the USF dinning room. People spoke of their experiences with Julie Marie. I sat with her high school employer who spoke of her as if she had only left the job to go to college last year!

Sister Julie Marie is humble, she embraces Lady Poverty. She embraces life, she jokes, laughs, cries and does not take the world for granted. In short she is a wonderful ambassador for Brother Francis and Sister Clare.

Congratulations on reaching this important milestone.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Profession Ceremony

On August 26 the Secular Franciscans of Holy Family Fraternity of Fort Wayne Indiana met at the chapel of Trinity Hall at the University of St. Francis. The day was special. The purpose was to celebrate Mass and witness the final vows of profession of Kathy Harpel and Shirley Bertels in the Secular Franciscan Order. Father Daryl Rybicki presided. The chapel was full of family and friends.

The music fit the auspicious occasion. The responsorial psalm was Go Out to All The World. The Communion Hymn was Let Us Be Bread. The Recessional Hymn was All Creatures of Our God and King.

The Rite of Profession or Permanent Commitment in the Gospel Life Within a Mass began with a clear introduction for the Ritual of the Secular Franciscan Order.

“We are assembled as a community to take part in the Eucharistic Sacrifice. In the celebration of the Eucharist Kathy Harpel and Shirley Bertels are going to make their profession of the gospel life in the Secular Franciscan Order."

The entire assemblage took part in the day. Most of us served as witnesses, some sang, others, including Father Rybicki, the Minster of Formation and Fraternity Minster took active parts in the Rite.

There was the Questioning:

“Before this fraternity and the other members of the People of God gathered here, I ask you to express your will. Do you wish to embrace the gospel way of life by following the example and words of St. Francis of Assisi, which are at the heart of the Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order?”

The minister of the fraternity later stated, “The local fraternity is a visible sign of the Church, a community of faith and love. Together with all the members, you have pledged yourselves to spend your efforts to make the fraternity a genuine ecclesial assembly and a living Franciscan community.”

Then the vows were made and accepted. After Mass the fraternity gathered at Casa Restaurant for food, camaraderie and of course cake.

Today was the end of two years of formation and training. The end of an even longer time of questioning, exploring and saying “yes”. More importantly, it was a new beginning, for Kathy and Shirley, for the Holy Family Fraternity, and for the entire Franciscan Family.

All Creatures of Our God and King

Saturday, August 25, 2007

New Orleans Today

So, why the focus on New Orleans a year after I was there? There have been a number of significant triggers:

I recently spoke with Sandra Gordon. She tells me St. Augustine Catholic Church has been given another 18 month extension to prove they are a viable church. She is ever the optimist, “fear not”.

The very popular transferred priest, Father LeDoux who contributed so much to the church's character returned St. Augustine to celebrate his jubilee. The celebration made national news.

Archbishop Hughes was in Fort Wayne two weeks ago. He is a friend of Bishop D’Arcy.

We are coming to the two year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. I have yet to put all of my journal writings, my photos and artifacts into a journal. I normally do that within six months of returning from a mission. However, Katrina still has the power to haunt me. I am still angry at the President, at FEMA, at the government for its failure to act as if they were facing the worst disaster in American history. I still feel poisoned by the shame. How can we expect America to stabilize Afghanistan or Iraq when we cannot rebuild our Gulf coast in the absence of a war?

Finally, a Swiss film company has completed their film on St. Augustine Catholic Church. The film is “Shake the Devil Off”.

New Orleans, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama all deserve our continued prayers, our time, talent and our treasures.

New Orleans: The Ninth Ward

We continued to meet for our training. This was useful stuff. The BSSV program is a collaborative effort between the American Psychological Association and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The goal is to train folks who can translate research and provide training in empirically based interventions to community based organizations that serve people at risk for HIV. The training was great and so was the interaction among so many very different people.

After the training three of us rented a cab and went to the Ninth Ward. It would have been impossible to be in New Orleans and not acknowledge the devastation of Katrina. It was impossible to ignore it. There were 25 fires in one night. There simply are not enough Fire Fighters and Police Officers to serve the city.

The Ninth Ward looked as if the hurricane occurred yesterday. There were still houses on top of cars, barges on land. The devastation went on for miles. There were no noises, no animals. The smell of rot and fish were everywhere.

Homes in which folks died had wreaths painted on the front door. One house had nine wreaths, we sat in silence.

I worked a shelter for victims of Katrina, I knew people from this area. I have worked many disasters and Katrina is the only one to effect me so negatively and for such a long time.

85% of this city is still an active disaster. The schools were still closed. Money and assistance was not predictable.

T-shirts expressed the frustration of the city:

Make Levees Not War

NOPD: Not Our Problem Darling

FEMA: Fix Everything My Ass

Return, Rebuild, Re-New Orleans

Finally, there were signs of hope. Trump was getting ready to build a tower. Shipping was beginning to return and the Super Dome, while still in disrepair was frantically being worked on. The Saints planned on returning to New Orleans!

The Drive: The Lower 9th Ward


Hurricane Katrina

St. Theresa of Avila Church

New Orleans: Back at St. Augustine's

Treme Brass Band
After a day of training I walked back to St. Augustine Catholic Church. Sandra had invited me to the membership picnic. It was great. The people were so welcoming and the congregation was a poster for diversity and the Universal Church.

The food was great and there was so much of it. However, this was New Orleans and there was nothing bland to eat, time for a TUMS!

The music was fantastic. Dixieland Jazz without any of the strip joints or anyone showing their bobs for some beads. Clearly that could be seen as a plus or a minus depending on the person.

Finally it was time for me to go back to my room. It had been a long day and a good day.

New Orleans: Day Two

I got up early and asked how to get o the Norwegian Seamen’s Church. I was told it was too far to walk, so of course I walked. I walked in the opposite direction. I walked under Highway Ten an overpass familiar to most Americans who watched Katrina unfold. I walked past poor neighborhoods, wealthy neighborhoods, Latino neighborhoods past African-American homes and yuppie loft revitalization areas. I walked!

I walked past a Buddhist Temple and I visited Zion Lutheran Church which was built in 1871.

Finally I got to the Norwegian Seamen’s Church. It was wonderful. It was modern with lots of wood. It looked like my relatives home in Norway. The church served all Scandinavian sailors, not just Norwegians. It also had a hostel, swimming pool, basketball court, a store and of course the sanctuary.

Prior to Katrina the minister would go out to boats in the harbor to provide spiritual assistance to Scandinavian sailors. He served over 18,000 sailors a year! Since Katrina he now serves 3000 sailors a year.

On my way back to the hotel I walked past St. Theresa of Avila church. I go inside. It is beautiful but it has been damaged. I talk with a lady placing flowers at the alter. I pray and then I am off to the hotel. It is time to get some training.

The training is great. The participants are BSSVs from all over the country, including Alaska. One member served on the Grenadian Olympic Team, another is from Brazil. This is a diverse group.

St. Louis Cathedral

After eating at Cafe La Monde and listening to street musicians we went inside the Cathedral. It was magnificent. There was a wedding practice taking place. It was hard to believe a disaster had occurred. However, the beauty of the Cathedral did not reflect the rest of the city.

behind the Cathedral is a large statue of Jesus with his arms reaching upward. A tree fell toward it during Katrina but split in half and never damaged the statue.

The statue is impressive because if you are walking down Bourbon Street at night going past all of the strippers and flasher all of a sudden you see this statue. It is light up with flood lights and the shadow behind of a giant Jesus catches your attention.

I loved the Cathedral but it was rarely open. This is a city that needed its churches but many of them were open for only limited hours.

St. Augustine Catholic Church

The church stood out. In a city of churches and history this church demanded attention. The outside was modest but large. The land was useful and used. The inside took your breath away. This was clearly a sacred place.

The congregation was composed of many different ethnic groups and classes. It was clear this was a welcoming place. If I lived in New Orleans this would be home!

St. Augustine Catholic Church New Orleans

Jackson Square

Jackson Square

New Orleans Day One

Last June, one week after returning from my pilgrimage to Assisi I was in New Orleans. I was there for training. I am a Behavioral and Social Science Volunteer (BSSV). This is a program ran by the American Psychological Association in cooperation with the Center for Disease Control. The program is designed to develop and apply interventions that reduce behaviors that place one at risk for acquiring or spreading HIV/AIDS.

Cathi and I had been in New Orleans about 25 years ago. I had responded to Hurricane Katrina but served in Alabama. Still, I was anxious to see how the Big Easy was doing. As usual I did my homework before going to New Orleans. I discovered St. Augustine Catholic Church. It is the oldest Catholic Church founded by African Americans. I contacted the church and began communicating with Sandra Gordon. We arranged for me to get a tour of this historic church.

Imagine my surprise my last night in Rome when all of us pilgrims were in a restaurant and in walks Archbishop Hughes of New Orleans! I introduced myself and let him know I would be visiting St. Augustine in one week. When I told Sandra she laughed. She was convinced the Holy Spirit brought the Archbishop and me together in Rome. This occurred soon after he met with the Pope. The archbishop had decided to close the church. Sandra believed his heart would be moved.

Now to be fair, the church had poor attendance prior to Hurricane Katrina and could not support itself. However, Katrina destroyed other churches and barely affected St. Augustine. Across the street from the church a home was destroyed, outside of the church was a statue of Mary that was untouched by the hurricane!

I arrived at our hotel early and met Stella, a BSSV from Texas. I asked her if she wanted to join me touring the church and she did. So the Latina from Texas and the blonde from Fort Wayne went to visit the oldest African American Catholic church in the nation. We walked through the French Quarter. Even in the early afternoon Bourbon Street was loud. The music was great. The French Quarter appeared to be recovering quickly from Katrina. That was the only part of the city that could say that.

We walked out of the French Quarter into the Treme District. This was a poorer but quieter neighborhood. The effects of the hurricane were everywhere to be seen. Finally we arrived at the church. Sandra Gordon was a gracious host, a welcoming sister in Christ. The church was beautiful. It was designed in the Greek Revival style with Italian marble. There is a wonderful traditional alter. The Eye of God is on the ceiling above the alter. However, there is another alter in the center of the room made of African wood and this is the one used. There are traditional Stations of the Cross made in Paris intermingled with modern African-American art. The place is vibrant and full of life.

I sat in one of the original Cyprus slave pews. Outside is the Tomb of the Unknown Slave. This place is a national treasure and I love it. We are invited to return the following evening for the membership picnic. I am sure I will.

I spend the remainder of the day doing the usual tourist things. I have coffee with chicory and beignets at Café La Monde. I visit Jackson Square and go into the St. Louis Cathedral. I walk the Moon Walk next to the Mississippi River and watch the riverboats. And I eat and eat. Seafood, rich cafes, wonderful coffees. At night I walk around the French quarter listening to the music. It is a good day and now I have to get ready for the training.