This is the first installment in a series of articles that I am writing commemorating the one year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina hitting the Gulf Coast in August-September 2005. The story is told from my perspective and is meant to create a record for my family of all that took place. It is a good deal longer than my usual writing, but if you have the time, I would love for you to journey with me. If you do, you will understand why I care so much about that area. It is home.
In late June, 2005, I travelled back home to visit my Dad who was having a minor surgery. I wanted to be with him in case anything happened. He came through it alright and we had a good visit. The next day, I travelled down to New Orleans to see a friend of mine. He lived down on the River up from Audubon Park just across the Jefferson Parish line. I loved the drive across Lake Ponchatrain on a warm summer evening. I remembered driving across the lake as a kid and thinking that it was so huge. Before I got to the lake, I drove through Slidell where my grandparents and uncles used to live. I drove past the nursing home where my Mamaw now lived, my only living grandparent. I wouldn’t have time to see her this trip. Oh well, there’d be other chances.
As I drove deeper into the city, I experienced the feel of New Orleans as the warm afternoon turns into evening. It is humid and thick and wraps around you like a blanket. You lose yourself in the warm gulf breeze and it’s as though the day is literally melting into the evening. There’s a feel and smell that never leaves you. It is a mix of the tropics, swamp, decay, salt air, and windy warmth. There’s no place like it in all the world.
As I passed over the Franklin Ave. exit, I remembered my childhood on Venus St., a block off Franklin, living in that duplex with my parents and my sister. My Mamaw and Papaw lived in the back and I saw them every day. I remember crab boils and boat rides on the Lake as we set out from the Seabrook Bridge in our little aluminum fishing boat. I remember my Papaw’s rose bushes and his ’68 Plymouth that he used to drive around. He’d let me stand up in the front seat as we hummed through traffic. He’d take me to the barber shop and let me hang out with him while he talked with the old timers. I remember my Mom taking me to Ponchatrain Beach and how I threw up that day after I rode some crazy ride that spun me round and round. She was really kind and didn’t get frustrated at all. I remember City Park and the lagoons and how we used to play on the playground. I remember Ferrara’s Grocery and how they had the best pickle meat in town and how I used to climb the fig tree in the back yard next door to the lady with all the cats to pick and eat figs. It was an awesome place to be a kid.
My Dad’s family came down from Mississippi in 1939. My Papaw worked in the shipyards and my Mamaw worked all over, most notably in a coffee packing plant on the Industrial Canal and as a housekeeper. They lived in rental houses all over the area, ending up in the Ninth Ward in the 50’s. My Mother’s family was of German and Irish descent and came to the city in the 1800’s. Her father worked for New Orleans Public Service and made a good life for them. We were tied to the city, it’s rhythms, and it’s culture.
Ah, the food. My Mamaw could cook. She combined the essence of creole cooking with country cooking from when she grew up on the farm in Mississippi. She cooked by sight, taste, and feel, and just added a bit of this and a bit of that. I used to watch her in the kitchen as she would have every burner going and the smells were intoxicating. She always laughed and was so full of joy. "Be content in whatever state of mind you’re there in," she would always say. "You can’t go wrong following the Lord. Always stay in with the Lord, honey." She lived a difficult life, but, as God is my witness, I’ve never heard her complain one time. She’s only ever given God praise.
Meals were events. There was little eating out, except on special occasions. But, everday, the smells from the kitchen would draw us together around that little table. My mother was a great cook, too, and to this day, my sister and I both try and emulate my mother and Mamaw. Food brought out the color in life and it was meant to make you smile. It was more than just something to get by, but it marked a celebration of life and all it’s joys. It was a way to express love and creativity as a blessing to others. It was important.
When I was five, we moved 45 miles away to the "country," Picayune, Mississippi. My Mamaw and Papaw moved up a year later. My Mamaw’s people all lived in Picayune and had at one time or another lived in New Orleans. We brought our food, love for the New Orleans Saints and LSU Tigers, and city ways up to this strange land of small town locals. I remember feeling out of place. There were so many pine trees and I wasn’t surrounded by the water anymore. But, I got used to it, and we went back to the city often. We lived and died with the Saints (mostly died) and bled purple and gold for our Tigers. We ate our crawfish, shrimp, and crabs, and though we moved away, New Orleans was never far from our conversation.
By the time I reached my senior year in high school, I had heard many stories about the City that we visited so often just down the road. I begged my Dad to tell me about his days as a singer in the night clubs in the French Quarter. It was mysterious and inviting and I wanted to know more. My friends and I started going down and taking part in the dark side of the city in and around Bourbon Street. We’d listen to jazz and blues and move from club to club, looking for adventure and excitement. It was fun, but there was something sad about it. The people, while trying to escape, didn’t seem happy. They seemed lost. It affected me, and though I maintained my love for New Orleans, I lost interest in participating in it’s seedier aspects.
As I went on in college at Mississippi State, my visits to the city returned to a more wholesome nature. We’d go to shop and eat during the holidays. When Erika and I were dating we went to Christmas in the Oaks in City Park and walked amongst the oak trees with their hanging spanish moss, bedecked in Christmas lights. It was there that we first professed our love for one another. That was a magical night full of beauty and romance. I’ll never forget it.
I also went to the City to do ministry. Jesus had gotten a hold of my heart in college, and I wanted to return to the city I loved and share Christ with them. I remembered their lostness and the pain of sin and I wanted to bring Christ into their quest for life, hope, and joy. I went on a mission trip down there with my BSU and we used to go to church some there. I’ll tell you, there is nothing like a New Orleanian that comes to Christ! He brings all of his life, joy, and excitement with him and turns it Godward. When God redeems him, he is so full of joy that it is infectious. He celebrates. She prays. They fall in love with Jesus in powerful ways. It is beautiful. I wanted to go to seminary there, but God had different plans and sent me to Golden Gate in San Francisco. All the while, my heart was burdened for my home city and I hoped to return one day.
Several years later I came back to the South and worked on staff in a great church. My heart still beat for New Orleans and we were able to do a mission trip there in 2001. As our church was in transition in 2004-05, I prayed about whether it was time for my family to move to the city and minister there. I thought about becoming a school teacher and/or working in a church. I really didn’t care. I just loved the city and the people and wanted them to know my God.
That thought finally brought me to see my friend on that warm summer day last June. He had some thoughts about some ministry opportunities and invited me for dinner. As I drove through the city, all the memories came flooding back, and in a wave of emotion, I began to cry out to God for her. I literally shed tears as my heart was so broken for the people. My friend and I had a great dinner and I promised to commit some things to prayer. I left his house and drove around the city that evening, thinking and praying. The warmth of the summer evening; the smell of the flowers and the bayous; the need of the people. I wanted to come back.
I went back home and a month and a half later, my church in Alabama extended a call to me to become pastor. Our previous pastor of 15 years had left and I was kind of holding down the fort. Erika and I prayed about it, and I kept coming back to the question, "But what about New Orleans? What about the people there?" I knew that to accept the position at our church meant that I would plant my roots in Montgomery. God had to speak and I had to surrender. We went back and forth. We also prayed about missions, California, and everything else. In the end, God spoke to our hearts and said, "Surrender to me. Stay here." We obeyed and told the search team we’d accept if the church voted yes.
On August 26, we had to go up to Huntsville, AL for Erika’s grandmother’s funeral. We stayed there and didn’t really watch any news. We came back the night of the 27th – Saturday. My Dad called and asked if I had seen the news about the storm coming. I hadn’t, but when I went to the computer and pulled up the forecast, I saw the projected path of Katrina: Right for the City. It was the Big One. My heart jumped and tears came to my eyes. I had heard about this all my life. The levees would break. The bowl would fill. Hundreds and thousands would die. The City would be underwater for months. Panic set in. I told my Dad to leave Picayune (also in the path) and come here. He refused. I called my Mom and told her to come. They all said they’d be fine. They made it through Camille and Betsy, they’d make it through this. I got scared.
Sunday, the 28th, I preached. On what, I can’t remember. That night, we had a congregational meeting where I shared my vision for the church if I became pastor and answered questions. It was a good meeting, but my mind was elsewhere. It was on New Orleans, and my parents and friends in Picayune. It was on my Mamaw in the nursing home in Slidell. My mind was on my beloved Mississippi Gulf Coast where I had spent so much time as a kid. My mind and my heart were home. My homeland was about to be destroyed by a monster storm and it was more than I could bear.
I went to sleep that night heavily burdened. I woke up early and started following the news. It was everywhere. I kept calling my Mom and my Dad (they’re divorced, but both live in Picayune). They lost power mid-morning, so I kept giving them updates. I called Miss Ginger, my second Mom and mother of my best friends, Amos and Jody. I grew up at their house and loved them like family. I prayed and walked the floor, phone in one hand and remote control in the other. I didn’t go to work that day. I watched, waited, and hoped.
As the eye unexpectedly turned east, missing the city by about 20 miles, there was a sigh of relief. Maybe they had escaped the worst of it! I hoped so. The Mississippi Gulf Coast would not be as fortunate. Picayune rests about 30 miles from the coast and is just Northeast of Waveland-Bay St. Louis. The eye came through Pearlington, due south of Picayune and then passed through my hometown. I knew what was happening.
I remember in 1985 Hurricane Elena with her 100 mph winds passing through Picayune. I remember the violence of the winds and how scary it was. I remember going outside when the eye passed over and the eerie calm that pervaded everything. No birds. No wind. Nothing. Then, the freight train started up again with destruction in her wake. I knew that Katrina was much worse. My Dad confirmed it when I called as the north section of the eye was battering him:
"Hey Dad, what’s going on now?"
"Oh man! I’m in trouble! A tree just came in through the house!"
I froze. I could hear the fear in his voice. He’d been through Camile and Betsy. He was prepared. Or so he thought.
"I’ve never seen anything like this," he said. "This is horrible! I’m really frightened!"
I felt so helpless. I wanted to be with him. I wanted to help the people I loved. I couldn’t do anything but pray.
Within the next 30 minutes, three more trees came into my Dad’s house, tearing gaping holes in his roof. He was disabled already, with a bad back and other serious health problems. Electricity would be out for weeks. No food. Water was questionable. Gaping holes in his house and he had no way to do anything about it. A short time later, all the phones went dead. I lost contact knowing the he was alright, but not knowing how he was going to make it. I hadn’t heard from my Mom. I knew nothing.
I kept watching the news and it appeared that New Orleans had escaped the worst of it. I was relieved. The Gulf Coast was a shambles, they said. No one, at the time, had any idea how bad. Video and reports started coming in of complete devastation. None of us were prepared for what we were to learn over the next few days.
Around 8pm, a reporter with CNN came back from a boat trip into St. Bernard Parish. She was crying. She said that 40,000 homes were under water. She heard people yelling from their attics for help. She was overwhelmed. Everyone thought New Orleans had made it, but the City was starting to fill with water. By the next morning, we would know that the levees had been breached. The water was reclaiming the land.
I had to get to my family. Somehow. That afternoon/evening I started calling folks, trying to figure out what to do. I got nowhere. Tomorrow I would figure it out. I was tired. I had prayed, called, and paced the floor all day. I went to bed knowing that tomorrow would be a day of action and decision. I had to get home.
Next: Devastation Revealed, We Respond