This is the final installment in my series on my experiences last year when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. I said there were 10 installments, but I’m combining #9 and #10 into this post. So, this is it!
This day would be my last in Mississippi. It was Tuesday morning and I had some work left to do securing the house before my Dad and I went back home. It was time to get him out of there. He was tired and would not have been able to make it through the ice and the gas lines that were necessary to survive on the post-Katrina Gulf Coast. This area would be a very hard place to live for the forseeable future and I was really glad that he had a place to go. My mother and her husband would be staying in Picayune, waiting for the lights to come back on. But, before I left, there was a good bit more to do, lest all our work of the day before be wasted.
My mother and her husband came over to my Dad’s house to help out. I appreciated this a great deal, since my friends were no longer able to help me. We had to rip the damaged, waterlogged ceiling out of the back master bedroom where the trees had come through. It was just hanging ini places and the insulation had gotten wet. Mold was already starting to climb the walls, so we also had to rip out all of the water logged carpet and pad. We cut carpet and rolled it out onto the street in a wheel barrow. We removed the base boards and sprayed everything with bleach. If the mold was not taken care of and it started to spread, it could ruin the whole house.
This took a couple of hours, but we finally got it finished. After this, we had to pack my Dad’s things and prepare to leave. He would be staying with us in Alabama for a couple of weeks, and then he would go on to my sister’s in Orlando, FL until we could get his house fixed. We had no idea how long that would take, since there were so many who had damage. Fortunately, insurance was going to cover it because it was obvious to them that the damage was wind related. Others on the Gulf Coast would not be as fortunate and they are still fighting the insurance companies for settlements.
Before we left town, I went to my church from my teen years, First Baptist. It was the flagship church in the town and sat on the Boulevard, downtown. It is one of those traditional Southern Baptist Churches of the Old South with columns in front and a big white steeple. The people are good folks and they always treated me with a great deal of love and respect. I was licensed to preach in that church when I was 20 years old, and it always held a special place in my heart. I went by, not expecting to see anyone I knew, but I ran into the church administrator who actually remembered me from so many years before. The Virginia Baptists had come in and had set up a feeding unit and were doing a great job feeding people hot meals out of the First Baptist parking lot. So many had lost so much, and without electricity (Picayune would be without for two weeks), it was impossible for people to cook. God was working through His people everywhere.
After this, I went and got my Dad and we began to make our way east. We travelled back roads until we got to I-10, just north of devastated Waveland, MS. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I’d be seeing a lot of this area over the next year as we ended up establishing a mission here called Pathfinder Mission. We travelled to Ocean Springs, and I stopped in at Christus Victor to check on Charlie Elgin, the elder in our church who came down with me (it seemed like a lifetime ago). He was staying on because he couldn’t turn his back on the people. Within a couple of weeks, his wife, Martie, would join him and they would end up selling their house and moving down to the Coast to help people, first with Shoreline Baptist Church, then by starting Pathfinder. It truly is a remarkable story. Our church has supported them the whole way, and others such as First Baptist Montgomery, First Baptist Orlando, Saddleback, Willow Creek, and many more have come their way and worked with them. It has truly been an amazing experience.
We got back on the road as the sun was going down. There was so much destruction and so much work to be done. This area would never be the same. But, then again, neither would I. As we drove into Mobile, we stopped at Carrabba’s to eat, and my Dad loved it. He hadn’t had much over the past week that didn’t come out of can. But, it was so interesting that life was going on as normal here, whereas, 60 miles away, people were in total despair. It was like coming home from a foreign country. The trip back up to Montgomery would be like that all the way. We kept seeing civilization reappear and it was really nice. But, I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty over all the folks we left behind who continued to suffer. We had to keep helping them.
After arriving home, the next week was a whirlwind. We had FEMA paperwork to fill out for my Dad and we registered him with the Red Cross. I was voted in as senior pastor that next Sunday, September 11. It was my first pastorate after serving in the same church as associate pastor for almost 6 years. I should have been overjoyed. I was, but my heart was heavy over all who had suffered and all that was lost. We had to keep helping. We would continue to send teams down over the next year, and I’ve made many trips down myself. God has continued to work and move and transform lives and it has been an incredible joy in the midst of so much sorrow. It has been incredible to partner with the Lord and see Him on the move.
What it Means to Miss New Orleans
I started this writing project with an ode to New Orleans and I will end similarily. New Orleans still grips my heart. I know what it means to miss her. Though I came within twenty miles, I was not able to make it to her that first week. Sadly, she is broken and hemorraging still. I’ve been down to the City several times since the storm, and while we are seeing progress, my heart aches at what has been lost. Last December, we went down and I found that old house on Venus St., off Franklin Ave. No one lived there anymore. The house sat under 6 feet of water for a month. We went in the back where my Mamaw and Papaw used to live and I saw where he used to have his rose bushes and where we’d boil crabs and cook chicken. I pushed open the door and went in the kitchen and the living room. Mold covered the walls, but the memories came back, flooding my mind and soul. I could see my Mamaw at the stove, cooking and laughing, my Papaw tending to his rose bushes, and all of life echoing with song. I went around to the front and pushed the door open to my old house, climbed over furniture, and saw my old bedroom where I used to play, the kitchen where we ate, my parents room where I remember spying on my Dad as he spent so much time on his knees before the Lord, praying. But now, everything was ruined. There was a couch turned upside down and things had been picked up and tossed around by the flood waters, mold everywhere. I had to get out of the house. It was like walking into a tomb.
New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast will never be out of my blood, no matter where this life takes me. Sometimes, when the wind turns just right, even though I live 180 miles from the coast, I can smell the salt air. I can feel the warm breeze and it reminds me of summer days and afternoon showers that came up from the swamps and the Gulf. The feel of the air reminds me of family, food, music, and joy. It reminds me of when I felt safe and loved and the world seemed so large, but so secure. It reminds me of home. Part of me longs for those days as though there is some type of salvation found in the memories, but I know that it is not the past I long for, but a future home where all that I know is good. God gives us memories and reminds us of the good things to tap our hearts with the call of eternity. It is not New Orleans I truly miss, but my real home, where all that I ever longed for will be fulfilled. One day, I’ll experience joy, life, and beauty unspeakable. I’ll feel the warmth of the Son as He shines upon me and I radiate His glory . . . face to face. I will know as I am known and there will be no doubt or longing, but all will be satisfied. The memories that burn so hot of another place will find their rest in a Savior’s embrace. I’ll see my Papaw, my Grandpa and Grandma, my uncles, and all my family. We’ll have a great reunion and I have to think that somehow we’ll be laying out the Times-Picayune newspaper on the table and dumping pounds of crawfish. We’ll sit around and eat and talk and rejoice because we are of the redeemed. At least that’s how I like to see it.
But, until then I will pray for my home and do my part to help rebuild it. There are people who have not made it home yet, who are broken, lost, and ready to give up. There are the depressed, the afflicted, and the lonely; the broke and the swindled. There are those who will invite you in, offer you some fried shrimp, and talk to you for an hour about their life, even though you just met. Those are my people. May God help them and contine to use me to call attention to their plight. May we not forget the victims of Katrina.
Lessons Learned in the Midst of Chaos
I learned SO MUCH in these nine days, it is hard to put it into words. This writing exercise has been a great experience to help me reflect back on what happened and to see God’s hand in so many miraculous ways. God be praised. Here are some things I’ve learned:
- Use foresight and get moving. 95% of people wait around for someone to tell them what to do when a crisis hits. If you’ll just get moving, you’ll be able to help a lot of people who are paralyzed by indecision. You’ll make the greatest difference if you can see what is coming and act first.
- Don’t take no for an answer. Bureaucracy exists to manage the calm. Once disaster hits, ALL bureaucracies break down. If you understand that, you’ll know to just kick doors down, because there is not really anyone there to stop you anyway. When lives are on the line, "No" is not going to cut it. Follow the advice of the lady in the Red Cross Headquarters and "Make it happen." People are suffering and waiting for you.
- God is always at work – listen to His voice. God is going ahead of you and will guide you. If you have a gut feeling about something, it might be His guiding hand. Listen. He actually wants to use you to rescue others. If I had not listened to that voice, I would have missed my Mamaw and who knows what would have happened to her. He wanted to use me to rescue her. Praise God.
- When you are exhausted and you think you can’t keep going, you CAN. Yes, you have to rest and take care of yourself, or you’re no good to anyone, but weariness is not an excuse to quit or go home. When people are suffering all around you, you’ve got to forget about yourself and keep moving. It’s not about you anymore. Ask God for strength and go until you pass out. They’re worth it.
- Trust God and be a bold witness. Most people want prayer and want to hear about your faith, especially when they are in crisis. Don’t think that "now is not the time." If I had been thinking that way, I never would have initiated that Bible study in the Red Cross shelter that first night. But, people responded and God used it.
- Be prepared, sacrifice, and suffer. We were self contained. We brought our own gas, tents, sleeping bags, chain saws, gloves, boots, food, water . . . everything. We went down to help, not to live off anyone’s resources. We went to give, not to take. We were prepared for almost any occurence and we were not a burden. We sacrificed comfort and suffered in our souls and body, but we were committed to bringing hope and glorifying God.
- Remind people of the Cause. It is easy to lose track of why you are doing what you are doing and focus on the negative. My Cause of getting to my family was always before me. But, sometimes you have to remind others on your team when they get tired and overwhelmed, why you are doing what you are doing. It’s about helping the helpless and giving hope to the hopeless. Keep the Cause in front of everyone at all times.
- When people are suffering, suffer with them. Don’t say you know what they are going through. You don’t. But, God does and He will minister comfort to them. Lift their head and help them minister to others. The greatest cure for them is to help someone else. It takes their mind off their own loss and God is able to use them as well.
- Don’t get angry or frustrated – rejoice in the Lord. When everything around you is falling apart, look to Christ – "For He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together" Colossians 1:17. You attitude of confidence and rejoicing, even in the midst of great trials, will lift others.
- Work with others. Much more can be accomplished as a team. I wanted to go to Picayune by myself that Saturday, but Chuck and Rob insisted on going with me. I didn’t want them to go because I thought I could handle it. I don’t know what I would have done if they were not there. I ended up needing them more than I could anticipate. We were created to work with others, and there are no lone rangers in God’s Kingdom plan.
- Be confident enough to pass off authority to others. I praise God that I had the wisdom to start passing off leadership of the team even before we left. If I had tried to lead the team totally, and then leave to go to my parents, it could have been a disaster. Instead, I played my role as initiator, and then kept passing responsibility to others like Drew and Charley, who did an incredible job and freed me up to do what only I could do.
- Ask for help. Sometimes we are too proud to ask anyone to help us. I am so glad I called Mark on Thursday to get the radio station involved. We’ve worked together ever since. I am so glad I asked my friends to help with my Dad’s house. It would have been ruined otherwise. Never be too proud to admit that you need others.
- Don’t look at the obstacle, but look to the Lord and eat the elephant one bite at a time. Amos, Russell, and I were totally overwhelmed by the shape of my Dad’s house. Mr. Don, Russell’s Dad, said we could do it. We tackled it a little at a time, worked together, and 12 hours later we were done. Praise God!
- Believe big and act in faith. We have not because we ask not. Often, we try and do the easiest thing becuase we don’t want to sacrifice or fail. But truly, what do you have to lose? It’s better to step out and faith and trust God for something great, than to sit at home and watch other people do it on TV. At the end of your life, will you regret trying something great and failing, or will you regret not trying at all?
- Instead of only seeing the negative, give glory to God and see things through eternal eyes. My Mamaw praised God for His power when I was only complaining about the destruction. She spent her life sowing to the spirit, and when she was pressed, praise bubbled forth. May I always remember that God is on His throne. How can we help but praise Him?
I learned so many other lessons, chief of which is the power of the church when we come together and obey the Lord. Jesus wants us to be His hands and feet. When we obey Him in that, He glorifies Himself through us and amazing miracles happen. I am forever changed from my experiences those nine days in August and September of 2005. The devastation was unbelievable, but so was the mercy. God worked in so many incredible ways, and in a strange sense, I was more alive than I had ever been, because I was doing what I was supposed to be doing: following God and rescuing others. Something tells me that all of life is supposed to be lived that way. Maybe that’s what it means to be missional, being sent by the Lord into the broken, desperate, needy places where people are ruined. Maybe we are to give cups of cold water in Jesus’ name. Maybe, we’ve had it wrong all along, and it takes a monster like Katrina to reveal God’s work in the lives of people like my Mamaw to really see what He’s up to. I don’t understand all of this, but I know I journeyed with my God during those days. I’m still in awe. May we live every day this way, and always remember the sorrows, victories, and lessons of Katrina.