Priest sees best, worst of humanity in evacuation from New Orleans

By Beth Donze
Catholic News Service

BATON ROUGE, La. (CNS) -- Like many of his fellow New Orleans priests, Father Dennis Hayes decided to stay put as Hurricane Katrina teased the Louisiana coast, praying that the storm would spare the neighborhood around St. Louise de Marillac Church in Arabi.

Ensconced on the second floor of the concrete and steel parish school building with the Blessed Sacrament, his parish's sacramental registers and his 13-year-old dog, Badooki, Father Hayes thought the worst was over by Aug. 29 -- until Arabi began to fill up like a huge bathtub.

"Within one hour -- between about 8 and 9 a.m. -- I saw the water cover all of the homes and the entire parish plant. In just that little bit of time the water rose from the ground to the wires of the light poles. That night I could hear cries and wailing of people for help," Father Hayes said.

By the next morning, helicopters were flying up and down each street, pulling people to safety from rooftops and trees. It quickly became evident that the floodwaters wouldn't be receding anytime soon.

"I climbed out of the window and hailed down a helicopter," he told the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the New Orleans Archdiocese. "They spotted me and sent down a rescuer on a cable to get me."

Father Hayes had no choice but to leave behind the Blessed Sacrament and his beloved pet. The short flight from St. Louise de Marillac to Jackson Barracks, the Louisiana National Guard headquarters in New Orleans, revealed the extent of the inundation.

"You could see all of (the civil parish of) St. Bernard, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico -- solid water," he said.

At Jackson Barracks, each evacuee was given bottled water and a prepackaged meal called an MRE, for meals ready to eat. Able-bodied refugees were urged to make their way to the Superdome, using the Mississippi River levee as a sort of "elevated roadway" into town.

Father Hayes soon realized he was walking into a war zone.

"It was like a riot," he said. "People, firemen, (Department of) Wildlife and Fisheries boats and trucks, looting, one man who was exposing himself to everyone, wandering dogs."

Advised by armed soldiers to find a safe harbor before the dusk curfew, he waded as quickly as he could toward the seminary, encountering a group of chanting prisoners being evacuated from Central Lockup.

"The water was up to my neck at this point and full of diesel oil. I jumped up on the porch of one of the tenants of the B.W. Cooper housing project," Father Hayes said. "The lady there, Kelly, got me a chair, a towel and some dry clothes. Kelly was a saint."

The woman and her husband gave the priest food and water, as well as their third-floor bedroom for the night. By morning, the water level had risen even higher, creeping up the complex's indoor stairwells.

"Everyone was saying, 'Go to the Superdome,'" Father Hayes said. "Six hundred buses would be there to evacuate people."

Walking in neck-high water and using a borrowed ice chest as a flotation device, Father Hayes left his apartment refuge with streams of evacuees. While he knew the Superdome would not be the most comfortable of shelters, nothing prepared him for the living nightmare that would take place inside the New Orleans landmark.

"I got a real taste of what the poor of New Orleans were going through," he said. "Urination and defecation in the bathrooms had poured out into the passageways of the dome; the vending stands had all been decimated; there was smoke all over; people cursing; stifling heat; babies screaming; a fire during the middle of the night; two babies born; shooting at helicopters."

At dawn, he left the dome, concluding that "those 600 buses were not coming."

"So I got back into that miserable water and walked to the cathedral," said Father Hayes. "I knelt down in front of the cathedral and asked for New Orleans to be saved."

Eventually the priest met up with St. Bernard Sheriff Jack Stevens, who remembered the priest from his days at Chalmette's Our Lady of Prompt Succor Parish nearly two decades earlier. Stevens invited Father Hayes to help him minister to people the authorities were still rescuing from rooftops and trees.

"I rode with (Stevens) to the staging area on the river and walked up and down the warehouse with the two things I had with me: my rosary and my St. Benedict crucifix," Father Hayes said. "People were very appreciative. One man ... had just been rescued after spending three days in the water. His wife and two sons lay dead in his house."

For the next 10 days, Father Hayes and an energetic group of volunteers ministered to Katrina's victims, including the rescuers themselves.

He eventually made it back to St. Louise de Marillac to rescue the Blessed Sacrament, his pet and the parish's sacramental registers. On the two Sundays following Katrina he distributed the Eucharist to firemen and emergency personnel scattered across the St. Bernard Parish area, from the Creole Queen riverboat to the Exxon Oil Refinery.

"I met so many people who showed me what real humanity and holiness are all about," he said.

Copyright (c) 2005 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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