After Katrina: Searching the Ruins for Resurrection

Ray Waddle

Many are the statistics that try to comprehend the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe of 2005, which killed 1,200 people and caused $100 billion in damage.

In New Orleans, 110,000 homes were flooded – 40,000 or more must eventually be demolished and hauled away somewhere. An estimated 145,000 cars in the city were ruined. They too must be dumped somewhere.

Along the coast, the storm produced twenty-two million tons of debris. That compares to nearly two million at Ground Zero in New York after 9/11. About four million tons of Katrina’s debris ended up in coastal waterways.

In Louisiana and Mississippi, tons of hazardous waste were coughed up by the storm. It must be cleaned up and safely stored. The status of toxic soil that has been removed along the coast – Is it safe now for kids to play in the dirt? – is still debated.

Cory Sparks of New Orleans puts it this way.

“The city was screaming,” he says.

“We got a decade’s worth of trash overnight. My whole idea of ministry had to change overnight too.”

Some 900 houses of worship were destroyed in Louisiana and Mississippi by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Yet church leadership has emerged as pivotal in the recovery. Churches are rallying neighborhoods, serving as command centers for information, re- building houses, reaching out to new populations they ignored before. At the national level, notably through the National Council of Churches and the United Church of Christ, they’re lending an assertive voice in the cause of environmental justice.

“Looking out at the vast waste land of Katrina, we all knew something’s out of balance,” says Sparks, minister at Carrollton United Methodist Church.

“Today we want to build a stronger New Orleans, with fewer blighted  homes, a city more in keeping with God’s will, a more just city, so nature and our people are more in harmony.”

Ever since the storm hit in on August 29, 2005, the Katrina aftermath has defied government  solutions, aggrieved  environmentalists and tested  the ingenuity  of churches  helping people recover on a ravaged coastline. The Katrina rebuild and cleanup have been called “the case study of all case studies,” a forced experiment about whether public power and private hopes can overcome despair and defeat.

The anguish of New Orleans and the coast has had its redemptive moments. Every week, hundreds of out-of-state church missioners and volunteers working cleanup detail are exposed to new ways of doing church, born of crisis and necessity.

“We worked at a church that has become the neighborhood heartbeat,”  says Kat Banakis, a first- year master of divinity candidate at YDS who got firsthand experience in New Orleans last spring.

“They took the opportunity to become a different church. The word is relevance – listening to the immediate community, asking what their needs are, then responding, then asking again, then again, in order to find out how the Holy Spirit can meet people’s needs here. It’s a model of church that could transfer elsewhere. It doesn’t come without a lot of sweat equity, but it’s incredibly transferable.”

During   spring   break 2007, ten  Yale  Divinity students traveled to New Orleans and immersed themselves in hands-on neighborhood  work, based at a small Episcopal parish, Free Church of the Annunciation, in the heavily damaged Broadmoor section of town.

Regularly canvassing the neighborhood with needs-assessment questions, the church has be- come a community center and municipal voice. The church is nurturing a new charter school in the neighborhood, initiated plans to erect a coffeehouse, and built dorm space for future volunteers and skilled laborers in order to continue the rebuilding for the next decade.

It’s all under way despite a time of festering city frustration.  Nearly two years after the storm, many businesses still have not returned. Many public schools have not reopened. Billions of dollars in governmental funds, tangled in bureaucracy, have not been distributed. Thousands of people face rebuilding their homes with no money or no prospect of affordable insurance.

“It’s immensely frustrating to see,” Banakis says.

The predicament is only worsened by New Orlean’s pre-Katrina reputation as a political gumbo of factionalism, inefficiency, fatalism, and poverty. Many have simply refused to return. New Orleans’ pre-Katrina population was 485,000. It’s now about 200,000.

Yale students, though, report unusual resilience among people they met.

“One person told me: New Orleans was dead for years before Katrina, then Katrina was the city’s hell, and now the recovery effort is the resurrection,” says Marc Eames, ’07 M.Div.

“What struck me was the hope that people have and yet the hopelessness of the situation they’re stuck in. They say it took Katrina to force people to realize they now have to do something different. …  When they see volunteers and others coming to help, they feel they are not abandoned, and people are praying for them. But even the hopeful ones go through tough weeks.”

Another Yale Divinity student, Gary Loyd, ’07 M.Div., remembers the weariness of residents after so many months of rebuilding, and the fragility of the city itself in the face of any potential new big storm, but hopefulness  too.

“This is a group of people which sacrificed for each other and formed tight bonds through a shared tragic experience,” he recalls.

“Rather than becoming insular, however, they welcomed many others into the fellowship who were drawn by their giving spirit and sense of purpose. Their shared Christian community has been a rich, life-changing experience for many parishioners.  Several members, who had lost everything in the flood, mentioned to us that, except for the loss of life, they would not change a thing that has happened.  We left wondering how that same sense of community could be kindled in our own churches back home.”

YDS student Malik Muhammed, a first-year master of arts in religion candidate who is from New Orleans and survived the storm, said the ordeal was life-changing.

“For the first time in my life I saw who humanity is and how we suffer,” he recalls. “I didn’t see myself until I lost myself. I didn’t see my culture until I saw it broken down.  I pray to God that America after Katrina saw itself in New Orleans, saw its face staring back.”

Muhammed, a senior at New Orleans’ Xavier University at the time, joined the immense evacuation of New Orleans in the days before the hurricane hit. He embarked  on weeks  of uncertain  housing in South  Louisiana and  Texas,  anxious  about  his family’s  home  and the neighborhood. He did not return until months later. His family was intact, and the damaged house was fixable.

“When you have everything taken away so quickly, all you have is anger,” he says.

“But there are lessons: we  are  all vulnerable, vulnerable to nature,  and to our own illusions  of power. I cannot forget how people struggled. And if I don’t forget that, then I can talk about a God who suffers too.”

At Carrollton United Methodist Church, the storm dramatically forced Rev. Sparks and his tiny congregation to reposition their role in the Carrollton neighborhood.

The church has become a meeting place for action groups and grassroots organizers – a place to go to for information about flood-protection planning, government assistance, and coalition-building. The church has hosted some 2,200 volunteers who arrive to rebuild homes, clean mold from household walls, and perform other laborious clean-up tasks.

“In the immediate aftermath, in the absence of government, the people needed  a place  to organize and ask questions and find solutions,”  Sparks says.

“There are secular nonprofits that certainly do advocacy, but what the church has is people in the neighborhoods with the power to push forward.”

Much of the church’s new mission has focused on the theme of environmental justice and climate change. There is now a surge of neighborhood awareness about green rebuilding with less hazardous materials and more energy efficiency.

The church works with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, a watchdog group along South Louisiana’s petrochemical corridor. Recently a coalition of churches helped spearhead protests against contaminated sites that the city had neglected in their neighborhoods for years before Katrina — old abandoned industrial pits or “brownfields” filled with lead or other toxins. The effort, so far, has netted new chained-link fences and warning signs to keep children at bay. That’s a start.

“Government is not going to prioritize these sites unless they are pushed to do so,” Sparks says.

“These efforts are part of what we do as a church now. One motto we use is ‘preserving the beauty, confronting the tragedy and transforming the city.’ We don’t want to go back to the New Orleans of August 28, 2005. We know God wants us to be more pleasing in God’s sight.”

Katrina was one of the worst natural disasters in American history – one of the worst environmental disasters, too. The storm tore the lid off long-festering questions of environmental justice along the coast, the persistent claims by lower-income residents that they have been exposed for decades to unreasonably high levels of poison in the ground, the air and the water.

The environmental dimension of the catastrophe has caught the attention and passion of several notable national denominational entities.

“The billion-dollar  question facing New Orleans is which neighborhoods will get cleaned up, which ones will be left contaminated,  and which ones will be targeted as new sites to dump storm debris and waste from flooded homes,” declared a new study by the United Church of Christ called “Toxic Waste and Race at Twenty: 1987–2007,” released in spring 2007.

The storm damage and aftermath have also received the scrutiny of the National Council of Churches, which created a Special Commission on the Just Rebuilding of the Gulf Coast to monitor government responses to the hurricane victims, focusing on transportation, health care, housing, schools, insurance, and environmental justice.

In spring 2007, the NCC commission released a “report card” highlighting post-Katrina triumphs and defeats.

After several trips to the region, commissioners praised churches for reaching out “across the nation to supply food, clothing, and shelter for those displaced by the hurricanes” but criticized federal, state, and local government for adding to the suffering.

“The Commissioners have discovered an atmosphere of neglect and injustice that is unacceptable,” said the Reverend Michael Livingston, NCC president.

An example of criticism:   The enormous debris and levels of post-flood mold within New Orleans have stirred worries that low-income and African American residents may be especially exposed to adverse environmental side effects.

A private professional study, conducted in various New Orleans neighborhoods, found arsenic, a carcinogenic agent, at levels that exceeded both state and federal standards, the NCC reports.

One of the few triumphs featured a Catholic church in the Vietnamese-American neighborhood of Versailles, which last year led a fight to close a potentially disastrous open-pit landfill site.

The pit had been opened to speed the storm- recovery  clean-up,  but it was not designed  to be a landfill, and neighbors worried that hazardous waste (including household waste such as bleach, batteries and motor oil) could leak into the soil and water table, the NCC reports.

“After protests were made by the Vietnamese Versailles community, Mayor Nagin signed an order to halt the dumping of debris in the landfill. In August 2006, the federal government upheld the Mayor’s decision (and blocked further dumping). The landfill site will be closed indefinitely,” the NCC reports.

The Versailles drama symbolized a larger national issue – the amount of trash Americans produce, including hazardous waste, and the fate of lower- income neighborhoods who bear the brunt of it because of not-in-my-neighborhood political attitude.

After organizing an environmental justice conference in New Orleans last year, United Methodist activists citied their denomination’s Book of Resolutions: “Our society’s attitude towards the production and disposal of hazardous products remains one of ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ But ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is most often where the poor and powerless live and work. These communities have thus become toxic ‘sacrifice zones.’ We must be persistent and consistent in exposing these atrocities with a commitment that all communities have a right to safe and healthy environments.”

Back at Carrollton United Methodist Church, Rev. Sparks pushes for a greener faith and a sense of humility too, values applicable everywhere, not just a Southern coast traumatized  by hurricane.

“Trust me, the worst-case scenario can happen,” he says.

His advice: “I’d urge everyone to have a plan in case disaster strikes, including the need to shelter folks. So consider that when you plan to build new facilities – how many people can you hold? And consider the effect of that facility on the environment. What is my carbon footprint and how can I reduce it? Think about the life cycle of the building. Be aware of potential toxic brownfields in your neighborhood. Get information.  I believe in being proactive. I’m in the hope business.”